Master of Science in Physics

The Master of Science in Physics involves advanced coursework in classical mechanics, electromagnetism, quantum mechanics, statistical mechanics, and theoretical physics.  Specialized electives are frequently offered in lasers and quantum optics, photonics and nanomaterials, advanced laboratory techniques, special & general relativity, plasma physics, and computational physics.  Students may select from 3 culminating experience options: a Master’s Thesis, a Culminating Project, or a Comprehensive Oral Examination.

Admission to the Program

Most students admitted to the program will have undergraduate degrees in Physics or very closely related fields.  Ideal preparation includes coursework in calculus through multivariable and vector calculus, differential equations, linear algebra, classical mechanics, electromagnetism, thermodynamics and statistical physics, quantum mechanics, and computer programming.

On the other hand, we welcome students whose undergraduate degrees are outside Physics. Some of our most successful students have had backgrounds in Music, Fine Arts, Psychology, or Economics!  However, it is crucial that students from such non-STEM backgrounds still have completed calculus through multivariable and vector calculus and had a thorough calculus-based introductory survey of all of physics. This coursework can be completed at community or junior colleges or extension schools affiliated with universities.  Upper-division undergraduate coursework can then be taken at SFSU before taking graduate coursework.

Applications for admission to the graduate program must include:

  1. Transcripts from all previous institutions of higher education.  The overall GPA or the GPA in the last 60 units of study should be at least 3.0.  The GPA in mathematics and physics courses should also be at least 3.0.
  2. Two letters of recommendation from faculty who know your academic record and potential for independent research.
  3. A statement of purpose describing your interest in pursuing graduate study in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at SFSU.

We do not require the GRE General or Subject Tests.

Students whose GPA is slightly below 3.0 should contact the department in advance of applying; it may be possible to petition the Division of Graduate Studies to allow the application.

Students who attended foreign universities in which English was not the primary language of instruction will be required to submit results of the TOEFL, IELTS, or PTE.

Progress toward Degree

Students admitted to the program are initially given the status “conditionally classified.”  This means that you must satisfy certain conditions in your first year in order to be advanced to candidacy for the M.S. degree.  Some of these conditions include:

  1. Satisfy Writing Proficiency Level 1 – We will ask you to submit a writing sample.  If your writing in standard academic English needs further improvement, you will be required to enroll in a writing-intensive class in your first year.  Students may also meet this requirement by obtaining a score of at least 4.5 on the GRE Analytic Writing. 
  2. Physics & Astronomy Placement Tests – All incoming students must take an open-book physics placement test two weeks before the start of the first semester. Students in astronomy will also take a placement test on undergraduate astronomy.  These tests will be reviewed by the Graduate Coordinator who will also review your undergraduate transcripts.  You may be strongly advised to enroll in undergraduate courses to strengthen your understanding of the foundations of physics and astronomy before proceeding to graduate coursework.
  3. Major Field Test – All graduate students must take the Major Field Test (MFT) in Physics at the end of the first semester and reach the 50-percentile.  Students who do not achieve this level will not be allowed to take any further graduate courses until they review undergraduate physics and retake the MFT.  Such students may enroll in undergraduate courses to aid in their review.

Please be aware that if you are required to take additional coursework to strengthen your writing skills or improve on your undergraduate physics foundation, you may need more than four semesters to complete the program. Graduate students who do not successfully complete two courses per year toward their Advancement to Candidacy are subject to disqualification.

Graduate students are expected to attend department colloquia and must attend at least five per semester unless excused by the Graduate Coordinator.

Culminating Experience

There are three options for the graduate Culminating Experience requirement:

  1. PHYS 895: Culminating Project — Independent and original culminating project in astronomy and astrophysics under faculty supervision leading to written project report and oral defense of the project. Culminating projects could include: development of new teaching/curricular modules, portfolios of science writing/journalism, internships in science museums/planetaria or industrial or national research labs, development of technical reports/manuals for new scientific instruments, etc.
  2. PHYS 898: Master’s Thesis — Independent and original experimental, observational, theoretical, or computational research in astronomy and astrophysics under faculty supervision leading to written Master's Thesis and oral defense of the thesis.
  3. PHYS 896EXM: Comprehensive Oral Examination — Comprehensive oral examination on core topics in physics.

The written project report for PHYS 895 or the written Master’s Thesis for PHYS 898 will satisfy the graduate Writing Proficiency Level 2 requirement. Students who select PHYS 896EXM will need to submit an additional substantial writing assignment to satisfy the Writing Proficiency Level 2 requirement.

Advancement to Candidacy (ATC) and Proposal for Culminating Experience (PCE) forms must be approved by the Division of Graduate Studies before registration for a culminating experience class.

Program Learning Outcomes

Graduates with M.S. Physics degrees will be able to:

1. ) Describe universal physical principles in classical mechanics, electricity & magnetism, special & general relativity, thermodynamics & statistical mechanics, quantum mechanics, astronomy & astrophysics, and relate fundamental conservation principles (conservation of energy, conservation of linear momentum, conservation of angular momentum) to underlying symmetries of nature.

2.) Analyze real-world physical systems on Earth and throughout the Universe, develop simplified models of such systems, translate physical principles into the language of mathematics, and then apply the appropriate mathematical tools (vector calculus, linear algebra, differential equations, variational techniques, probability & statistics, numerical & computational methods) to determine a system's spatiotemporal evolution with an awareness of the limitations of any solutions due to the approximations of the physical models and/or mathematical/computational techniques.

3.) Demonstrate proficiency with basic laboratory skills and experimental techniques with electronics, lasers & optical devices, sensors, detectors, microscopes, and telescopes, always with appropriate safety practices (especially with respect to lasers, chemicals, radioactive materials).

4.) Articulate and apply the “scientific method,” the empirical, iterative method of acquiring new knowledge through developing models to explain observations of the natural world, formulating testable hypotheses, designing and executing experimental, computational, and theoretical investigations to test predictions, analyzing data with appropriate statistics and attention to uncertainties, ascertaining consistency with existing theories, and sharing results with the broader scientific community for confirmation and validation.

5.) Demonstrate writing, speaking, and visual data presentation skills to effectively communicate science at the appropriate level of sophistication for the relevant target audience (e.g., instructors, students, scientists, public-at-large, policy-makers).

6.) Develop the social and communication skills to effectively participate in diverse scientific teams, including those that are multidisciplinary and/or interdisciplinary, and appreciate that the pursuit of science is a human endeavor and that progress is best made when the full spectrum of humanity is encouraged to participate and share their perspectives, passions, and skills.

7.) Engage local, state, national & global communities to address current and emerging scientific and technological challenges in equitable and environmentally sustainable ways.

Physics (M.S.) — 30 units

Core Requirements (15 units)

PHYS 704Electrodynamics3
PHYS 706Quantum Mechanics3
PHYS 775Statistical Mechanics3
PHYS 785Theoretical Physics3
PHYS 897Research (Students must take 3 units) 11-3

Culminating Experience (0-3 units)

Select one:

PHYS 895Culminating Project3
PHYS 896EXMCulminating Experience Examination0-3
PHYS 898Master's Thesis3

PHYS 895 and PHYS 898 both include an oral defense of the project or thesis.

Graduate Physics and Astronomy Electives (6 units)

  • Select from graduate PHYS and ASTR courses numbered 700 to 799.
  • Students interested in theoretical physics are strongly encouraged to take PHYS 701; students interested in experimental physics are strongly encouraged to take PHYS 710.

General Electives (6-9 units)

Advanced upper-division (numbered 400 and above) or graduate courses (numbered 700 and above) in physics, astronomy, or appropriately related subjects, selected after advisement and approved by the Graduate Coordinator.

No more than 6 units of upper-division coursework can be used for the degree.

Students who take PHYS 896EXM must complete 9 units of electives. Students who take PHYS 895 or PHYS 898 must complete 6 units of electives.

Note that up to a maximum of 3 units of supervision courses (research, directed reading, and independent study courses numbered 890-899) can count in this category. Maximum of 3 units in related fields outside physics & astronomy.

Students who plan to teach as Graduate Teaching Assistants (GTAs) are strongly encouraged to take PHYS 885 (Inclusive Pedagogy for the Physical Sciences).

Students who select a Master’s Thesis or Culminating Project for their culminating experience are strongly encouraged to take 3 units of PHYS 897: Research (or similar supervision courses numbered 890-899).

Credit/No Credit Policy

Major core classes must be taken for a letter grade (except in the event of extraordinary circumstances and with approval of the Graduate Coordinator and/or Department Chair). Up to 6 units of graduate or general electives may be taken for CR/NC.