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Physics and Astronomy

What Physics Is

Physics is a discipline of science concerned at a fundamental level with the workings of matter and energy and their interactions. The focus of attention ranges from systems with few variables to arenas of mind-boggling complexity. Branches of physics dedicated to the latter include astrophysics, atmospheric physics, and geophysics.

What Astronomy Is

Astronomy is a discipline of science concerned with the remote study of systems and phenomena beyond the Earth. Research spans space and time, from planets to stars to galaxies and aggregates thereof, from interplanetary to interstellar to intergalactic media, from the cosmic web to the Universe to the multi-verse. Despite the complexity of the systems and the immensity of scales, physics still underlies the workings of the cosmos and must be drawn upon often to interpret observations. Thus, most astronomers are also astrophysicists. Because astronomy is intertwined with physics, astronomical research often leads to new insights into physics, as was the case with the discoveries of dark matter and dark energy.

The Undergraduate Program in Physics and Astronomy at York University is a path of study with multiple streams that allows students to learn about physics or astronomy and their applications. Most important, students gain the ability to think critically and to analyze and solve complex problems, talents that are in high demand in both the private and public sectors. Highlights include:

  • easy access to dedicated professors and a teaching and learning environment of the highest quality
  • curricula that are strong experimentally, theoretically, and computationally
  • instruction by professors conducting experimental, theoretical, and/or computational research in a wide variety of fields
  • laboratory experiences that are among the most sophisticated in the nation
  • courses in laser physics that culminate with the construction of an atom trap, an opportunity that is unique in all of Canada for physics and astronomy undergraduates.
  • an astronomy curriculum that does not compromise training in physics or mathematics
  • starting in the first year of study, access to the modern observing facilities of the Allan I. Carswell Observatory at York University, which includes the largest telescope on any university campus in Canada.
  • an abundance of opportunities to participate in world-class research projects led by York professors

Here is a summary of degree options for students joining the Undergraduate Program in Physics and Astronomy. Curricular details are given in the Physics & Astronomy Undergraduate Handbook.

Specialized Honours (120 credits, 4 years)

This degree option provides the most comprehensive training in physics or astronomy, and is the most direct path to a career in physics (normally via graduate studies). Students can choose from among four possible paths of study, known as Streams, all with a common curricular core but distinguished through the specification of electives.

  • Physics Stream
    The most flexible path for students wishing to become grounded in physics, i.e., the path with the most electives.
  • Applied Physics Stream
    The same as the Physics Stream, but with electives replaced by courses particularly relevant to applications.
  • Astronomy and Astrophysics Stream
    Almost the same as the Physics Stream, but with electives replaced by courses devoted or relevant to astronomy and astrophysics.
  • Space Science Stream
    Similar to the Physics Stream, but with electives replaced by courses with an emphasis on fields relevant to the exploration of space beyond the immediate environment of the Earth. Normally, enrolment is restricted to students who have completed 2 years as a Space Science major in the Department of Earth and Space Science and Engineering.

Honours (120 credits, 4 years)

Normally, this degree option is intended for students who wish to major or minor in physics or astronomy while majoring or minoring in another discipline of study. Thus, the physics and astronomy requirements are reduced relative to Specialized Honours degrees. The most popular combination is physics with applied mathematics, which permits a student to concentrate on numerical analysis and computing. The Honours option is open also to students who want a good grounding in physics or astronomy but with more electives (which do not have to be in physics or astronomy). Students can choose between two study paths:

  • Physics Stream
    A pared-down version of the Specialized Honours Physics Stream.
  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
    Similar to the Physics Stream, but augmented by courses devoted to astronomy and astrophysics.

Bachelors (90 credits, 3 years)

This is a "lite" degree option intended for students who wish to gain a good grounding in physics or astronomy in the shortest possible amount of time. It is not an "Honours" option, though, so it does not qualify students for advancement to graduate schools in physics or astronomy or to professional schools, such as law or medicine. Also, it does not qualify students for high school teaching. Students can choose between two study paths:

  • Physics Stream
    The most flexible path for students wishing to become grounded in physics, i.e., the path with the most electives.
  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
    Similar to the Physics Stream, but with electives replaced by courses devoted or relevant to astronomy and astrophysics.

Frequently Asked Questions

B.Sc. graduates who want a career in research must go on to graduate studies. For those who do not wish to pursue graduate studies, opportunities for employment abound, but may not be obvious. Many jobs for which physicists or astronomers are suited aren't necessarily labeled as being for physicists or astronomers. Rather, they simply require individuals with the skills of physicists or astronomers. A B.Sc. graduate should focus on selling these skills. Where physicists and astronomers excel is in solving challenging problems, and they are aided in doing so by their strengths in:

  • reasoning
  • analysis
  • critical thinking
  • technical writing
  • mathematics
  • computing
  • experimentation
  • instrumentation and data acquisition
  • image processing (astronomy majors)

Because of the breadth of their training, graduates of the Undergraduate Physics and Astronomy Program at York University have a wide range of career options in both private and public sectors. Find out here where some have ended up. A fact sheet about careers for physics and astronomy graduates, including common job titles, is here. An interesting study of career paths of graduates in the United Kingdom (2006-10) is given here. More information about careers in which a background in physics or astronomy would be valued is provided here.The American Institute of Physics (AIP) has tracked where B.Sc. graduates are employed, and statistical summaries are presented here. Check out AIP Career Resources for more advice. Information about the employment of Canadian B.Sc. graduates is presented by the Canadian Association of Physicists here.Physics B.Sc. graduates are paid well. For more information, visit here. A comparison with graduates in other fields is given here.To help you to prepare to embark on a career that utilizes your skills, check out the Careers Toolbox of the AIP Career Pathway Project.

Professional schools want people who can think. A student's educational path is of secondary importance. Physicists and astronomers can think. The proof is in the outstanding performances of physics majors on the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT), Law School Admissions Test (LSAT), and the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT), all of which are summarized here.

Students who graduate from the Undergraduate Program in Physics and Astronomy have acquired strong backgrounds in physics, mathematics, and computing. This is a relatively rare set of skills that is in high demand in the school system. In Ontario, physics or astronomy majors who wish to become teachers would normally apply for admission into a teacher education program following completion of their degree. It is very difficult to undertake studies in education concurrently, partly because of the possibility of course conflicts, but particularly because of the teaching practicum, which requires students to work off campus.

Students who wish to embark upon a research career must go on to graduate studies. Those who wish to lead research require a Ph.D. York’s Undergraduate Program in Physics and Astronomy is a logical starting point, as it offers excellent preparation for graduate studies in physics or astronomy. Overall, students with a B.Sc. in physics or astronomy who choose to go on to graduate school are among the top performers on the Graduate Record Exam (GRE). [see the interesting analysis of data from 2009-10, and also a summary of data from 2013-16].

To be eligible to major in physics or astronomy at York University starting in first year, it is necessary to have passed the following courses or their equivalents:

ENG4U: 12U English (a University requirement)
SPH4U: 12U Physics
MHF4U: 12U Advanced Functions
MCV4U: 12U Calculus and Vectors

12U Chemistry (SCH4U) is recommended but not required for entry into the Physics and Astronomy Program, but students lacking it must make it up prior to second year (York University offers an equivalent course).Applicants admitted to York University who lack any of the requirements cannot become Physics or Astronomy majors until such time as the deficiencies are corrected. Those who wish to become Physics or Astronomy majors can initially enroll as "undeclared majors". York University offers bridging courses (high school equivalents) to help such students meet the entry requirements of the Program.

For applicants from Ontario high schools, admission and scholarships are based upon the best six 12U/M courses, which must include all pre-requisite courses for the declared major. Presently, the minimum per cent average required for admission to the Physics and Astronomy Program is in the high seventies.

Students start by taking survey courses in chemistry and physics, along with supporting courses in mathematics and computer science. Specialized courses in physics follow. In the Astronomy and Astrophysics Stream, additional courses in astronomy and astrophysics are prescribed. Students are grounded in foundational physics disciplines such as mechanics, electromagnetism, thermodynamics, relativity, and quantum mechanics. Rich laboratory experiences accompany lecture-based courses in all four years. Required courses and the suggested rate of progress are given in the Physics & Astronomy Undergraduate Handbook (PDF).

Currently, there are about 100 students in the first-year class for majors (PHYS 1010 6.0), 80 in second year, 40 in third year, and 20 in fourth year. The larger numbers in first and second year are a consequence of enrolments by majors in other disciplines, such as atmospheric science and engineering. The reduction in fourth year is due in part to the absence of Bachelor's (three-year) students.

Many professors engage undergraduate students in their research. Engagement can take place through a paid “work/study” position or through a one-semester research course in the third or fourth year of study, any of which is possible throughout the year. Physics and Astronomy students in their third year of study also have the opportunity to participate in the York Internship Program, which enables them to gain a paid internship outside of the University for up to 16 months.

In four-year degree programs (Specialized Honours or Honours), students are required to achieve an average grade of C+ (York University Grade Point Average of 5.0) or higher over all courses in order to graduate. In the three-year Bachelor's Program, an average grade of C (York University Grade Point Average of 4.0) or higher is required to graduate.

At York University, degrees (namely, the fancy pieces of paper) do not specify departments, programs, or streams. All students graduating from the Physics and Astronomy Program would receive a degree that merely states the degree option taken, e.g., "B.Sc., Specialized Honours". On the transcript, however, the full details of a student’s educational path are given. So, for a student graduating from the Astronomy and Astrophysics Stream of the Honours Program, a transcript would show: Faculty of Science, B.Sc. Hnrs., Physics and Astronomy, Astronomy and Astrophysics Stream.

The Undergraduate Program in Physics and Astronomy at York University, including the entire complement of courses, is described in detail in the Physics & Astronomy Undergraduate Handbook (PDF).

More information about careers can be found here.

Research in physics and related areas is primarily undertaken by professors in the Department of Physics and Astronomy. However, there are individuals in a variety of other Departments at York University who also engage in overlapping research. All individuals that seek physics talent to carry out some fraction of their research are members of the Graduate Program in Physics and Astronomy. Summaries of researchers and their interests can be acquired here.

Because of the advantages of an in-person learning experience for students in our program, at this time no classes are offered as online or hybrid options. You can check the Undergraduate Handbooks to confirm that is still the case.

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