Frequently Asked Questions

We knew you'd ask.

About SPS

Why should I join SPS?

Unlocking the secrets of the universe is fun, but it’s even more fun with friends. Also, we have snacks.

(back to top)

How can I join SPS?

If you want to be a part of SPS, then you already are. Aside from our mailing list (which you can contact us to join) and officer rolls, we do not keep a formal roster of people who are a part of this club. Some students opt to join SPS National, which requires membership dues of $24 per year but provides various benefits such as membership in the American Physical Society and another physics organization of one’s choosing, though most members are not a part of SPS National and it is certainly not prerequisite to being a part of the club in any way.

(back to top)

How can I become an officer of SPS?

¯\_(ツ)_/¯

(back to top)

How can I get involved in SPS?

Outside of weekly meetings, our chapter of SPS facilitates a variety of activities including regular barbecues, faculty-student lunches, outreach events, occasional professional development sessions and panels, and laboratory tours. We are always looking for proactive members to volunteer for these kinds of events. Doing so is a great way to get involved with us and meet a bunch of awesome people who love the same stuff that you do.

(back to top)

What happens at SPS meetings?

At SPS meetings, we make important announcements often followed by some other kind of professional/fun activity. In the past, we have

  • Paired underclassmen with upperclassmen in a mentorship arrangement
  • Provided course advice on a variety of classes
  • Given research presentations
  • Given presentations about giving research presentations
In addition, among other things, we have
  • Played board games
  • Had a spooky scavenger hunt
  • Made Valentine’s Day cards for our amazing physics advisors
  • Exchanged gifts in the annual “Secret Schrödinger” tradition
  • Climbed to the sixth floor of Campbell Hall (unimpressive)
  • Climbed up to the Big C (more impressive)
  • Gathered in a lecture hall to watch Spongebob (most impressive)
  • If that isn’t enough incentive to attend, we even provide snacks! This alone should be incentive!

(back to top)

Do I have to be a physics major to be a part of SPS?

No. We will love you anyway <3

(back to top)

Classes

What’s the difference between the 5 series and the 7 series? If I already classes in one of these, can I switch to the other mid-sequence?

There are several notable differences between the 5 series and the 7 series, listed below:

  • Whereas the 7 series problem sets are infamously conducted using Mastering Physics, 5 series problem sets are more tailored to hone skills useful in upper division physics.
  • In general, 7 series classes tend to be populated by students of many different disciplines including engineering fields whereas the 5 series classes are almost completely populated by physics majors.
  • Despite covering similar topics, the curricula of the two sequences differ in important ways. Special relativity is taught in 5A and 7C. Thermodynamics is covered in 7B and 5C, and, in the latter of the two classes, emphasis is placed on statistical mechanics rather than classical thermodynamics. Optics is a subject handled by 5B and 7C.
  • While the 7 series includes a built-in laboratory section where each course is 4 units, 5 series classes are 3 units but are paired with the (separate) 2 unit laboratory classes Physics 5BL and Physics 5CL (Introduction to Experimental Physics I/II). 7 series labs usually involve filling out worksheets but include more self-contained lab reports towards the end of the sequence. 5 series labs start off being somewhat worksheet-based in the beginning of 5BL and evolve to complete lab reports by the end of 5BL and 5CL.
It is entirely possible (and precedented) to switch between the two sequences if desired. However, because of curriculum mismatches, students are sometimes required to take 1 supplementary unit covering the material that they would miss in the new sequence (under the coursename Physics 49). For example, students switching from 7A to 5B were required to take Physics 49 to satisfy the lower division relativity requirement.

(back to top)

What are Physics H7A/B/C and how can I take them?

The Physics H7 series was the honors introductory physics series primarily geared towards physics majors. It has since been phased out and replaced by the Physics 5 series, which serves a similar purpose but features a rearranged curriculum and more extensive parallel laboratory courses.

(back to top)

What is the 8 series?

The 8 series (Physics 8A/B) is the lower division introductory physics sequence for certain non-physics fields such as MCB (molecular and cellular biology) and architecture, among others.

(back to top)

Do I have to take Math 54? Can I take Math 54 in place of Physics 89?

Math 54 is not a physics requirement in most circumstances. While it never hurts to ask, the physics department has historically been very unlikely to allow Math 54 in place of Physics 89 unless the petitioning student is a double major in mathematics—the math department does not allow Physics 89 in place of Math 54, and the physics department will allow Math 54 if the student is double-majoring in math. This confusion has caused many students to have to take Physics 89 after already having taken Math 54. However, some students report that Math 54 in its own right is a good introduction to/review of linear algebra, which is also covered in Physics 89.

(back to top)

What is Physics 89 and how is it different from Math 54?

Physics 89, like Math 54, handles the topics of introductory linear algebra and differential equations. However, unlike Math 54, Physics 89 focuses less on rigorous proofs and more on applications in physics—the eigenvalue problem is often almost immediately related to coupled spring systems, for example. Physics 89 also often covers such topics as basic tensor manipulations, Fourier and Laplace transforms, complex analysis, and Green’s functions, although the exact curriculum is semester- and professor-dependent.

(back to top)

Is there any specific order to take classes in?

There are a few guidelines for what order to take physics classes in:

  • Lower division classes should be taken before upper division classes. Some students take upper division physics classes concurrently with their later lower division classes, although this is not necessary.
  • Lagging letters in course numbers indicate an order in which classes should be taken (i.e., you should take “Physics 137A” before “Physics 137B”), although some exceptions exist.
  • You should generally take prerequisites/co-requisites for a class before/concurrently with that class (although the listed prerequisites are not always necessary; check with your peers who have taken the class before).
Aside from these, there is a lot of freedom to sculpt exactly how you go about completing the physics major requirements. In your upper division coursework, you will have the ability to take classes in almost whatever order you want.

(back to top)

Does the 5 series count in place of the 7 series for <insert major here>?

The 5 series is just essentially the honors version of the 7 series, and there is no reason why any department would not allow this substitute. Among others, the astrophysics and EECS majors have accepted the 5 series without question.

(back to top)

What are Physics 111A/B and when should I take them?

Physics 111A (BSC, basic semiconductor circuits) is a famous (infamous?) circuit laboratory class which is required for all physics majors. Students explore various mostly practical aspects of circuitry, generally with a lab partner. It is famously a very time-consuming course, requiring many hours during the normal semester and even more during the summer sessions, where the pace of the class is greatly accelerated. It is our most sincere recommendation not to take this class alongside too many other technical classes: though it is not “difficult” in the traditional sense, it is extremely demanding on time. Many students also swear by taking the class during the summer; even though the pace is very fast, students are often unburdened from other academic responsibilities and can focus on succeeding both in 111A and in the regular school year. Physics 111B is quite different from 111A in that, rather than exploring basic aspects of circuit design, students perform historical, often Nobel-winning experiments. Students who have taken the course report that Physics 111B is very demanding for a few select weeks out of the semester when a lab is due, but is otherwise different in nature from 111A. While there is no single good answer for when to take this class, many students opt to take it their senior year since it is not really prerequisite for anything else. This class does not need to be taken immediately after 111A.

(back to top)

Should I take a graduate class?

If you are an undergraduate, you should really only consider taking a graduate class if you have exhausted the undergraduate classes in a topic and are genuinely interested in moving forward. Bad reasons to take grad classes as an undergrad include:

  • My friends are doing it
  • I want to look smart
  • I want to impress grad schools (on the list of things they care about, this is at rock bottom)
  • I want to fulfill a corresponding upper division major requirement (the physics department doesn’t accept these)
If you’re a graduate student, um, yeah, you should take grad classes. They’re called grad classes—they’re exactly what it says on the tin.

(back to top)

The Physics Major

Why should I be a physics major?

Non-exhaustive list of good reasons to major in physics:

  • You want to know how the universe works
  • You like doing math to solve problems that actually exist in real life or at least in theory in real life
  • You like hanging out with people who go to social gatherings and continue to talk about what they study and think about during the day
  • The thought of going on in your life and no longer doing physics makes you a little sad
  • You love physics
Non-exhaustive list of bad reasons to major in physics:
  • You want people to think you’re smart
  • You want people to remember your name after you’re dead (they probably won’t)
  • You want to win a Nobel Prize (you probably won’t)
  • You already told people you’re going to but now you realized it isn’t really your thing but you’re afraid if you switch majors people will judge you
  • You want to make money (fake news)

(back to top)

Do I apply to Berkeley as a physics major? How can I declare a physics major? How can I declare a second major?

The physics major falls under the College of Letters and Science. This means that, while you may apply indicate an intended major on your application, you will come into the school undeclared. In order to declare the physics major, you must either have completed or be enrolled in your lower division physics requirements after the drop deadline for that semester. You can declare the physics major by going to the third floor of LeConte and talking to our wonderful physics advisors. However, be aware that the engineering physics major is under the College of Engineering, where students may apply and be admitted straight into a major. To declare a second major, you need to satisfy all the requisite lower division requirements for both majors (and whatever requisite GPA cap needed for the second major, if any), fill out a double major declaration form and have advisors from both departments sign it. You will then need to bring it to 206 Evans Hall, whereupon bureaucracy takes over, and you should expect to see your majors on CalCentral within days/weeks.

(back to top)

Is there a GPA requirement to declare the physics major?

Unlike for relatively impacted majors at Berkeley like computer science or statistics, the physics major does not have a particularly strict GPA cap. There is a lower division 2.0 minimum GPA requirement to declare, although this is not a particularly stringent restriction. There is also an overall 2.0 GPA requirement to graduate, although this requirement is schoolwide and not specific to the physics major in particular.

(back to top)

Do I need to be good at math to become a physics major?

Honestly, this is a tough question. Physics inevitably includes a large amount of math when describing physical phenomena. While algebra, (single and multivariable) calculus, and linear algebra are absolutely essential in succeeding as a physics major, other fields of math such as group theory and complex analysis, among others, also occasionally get involved. All of this is the truth. However, you aren’t really expected to be a master all the math needed to do physics right at the beginning, in the same way that you aren’t expected to know all of physics before becoming a physics major. You can, and usually will, learn the math as you go. The defeatist attitude of thinking you are “bad at math” is often over-pessimistic and self-defeating (yes, really!), though “liking” (or, at least, being okay with the idea of doing math) is pretty necessary.

(back to top)

Am I smart/hardworking/dedicated enough to do a physics major?

Yes. If we can believe in you, then you can believe in yourself.

(back to top)

Should I double major?

You should double major only if you really like the subject that you are double-majoring in. Students in physics commonly double major in subjects such as mathematics, astrophysics, computer science, and many others. However, do not feel obligated to get a double major just to get the credential—it is much better (and easier!) to focus on a single subject you love than to drag yourself through many second major course requirements because you feel like you have an obligation to. Certainly, physics graduate school does not expect you to have a double major.

(back to top)

Why is my degree a Bachelor of Arts?

The physics major at Berkeley falls under the College of Letters and Science, which exclusively provides Bachelor of Arts degrees. However, professional organizations do not care about this and will treat it just like any other physics degree. For the three of you who still care about this: don’t.

(back to top)

Research

How do I get research? Do I need to do research?

There is no single way that undergraduate students get research. There are many campus resources such as the Undergraduate Research Apprentice Program (URAP) and the Berkeley Physics Undergraduate Research Scholars Program (BPURS) and ULAB, among others. However, emailing professors/postdocs/graduate students or visiting them during office hours is a very common way to get into research. Programs such as research experiences for undergraduates (REUs) allow for short research opportunities over the summer, although they require relatively early applications. Generally speaking, if your aim is to get into grad school, research tends to be regarded as quite critical because it provides exposure to “real physics” (as opposed to “lecture-midterm-final physics”). In addition, graduate schools often require three letters of recommendation, and professors who are writing for students who have worked with them are usually better equipped to write strong letters of recommendation. However, this should not be seen as a rush to get started on research—it is very common to defer research until sophomore year. Research does not have to be done every semester and, for undergraduates, is almost always ultimately non-committal (there is no shame in leaving a group because you do not find the research area interesting).

(back to top)

What is research like?

While all research opportunities are different, there is a common theme for most positions. Generally, you will be assigned to some graduate/postdoctoral mentor who will show you the ropes. Oftentimes, you will be assigned basic tasks at first, during which you start to understand the research group’s dynamics as well as its area of interest. While you won’t necessarily be expected to contribute too much at first, you may find that you will gradually take on greater responsibility the longer you stay in the group. Exactly when/how this happens depends on your particular circumstances.

(back to top)

Career

What do I have to do in order to get into grad school?

In addition to transcripts and research experience, almost all physics graduate program applications require the following:

Curriculum vitae (CV):

  • A CV is basically a resumé, but is more focused on education and research than on jobs (still include any jobs, though).
  • Be sure to add in any posters, presentations, or papers you have under your belt.
  • There are tons of resources online about how to write a CV! You can also talk to the Career Center, the physics advisors, or your trusty SPS officers.

Letters of recommendation:

  • Most applications require three letters of recommendation.
  • Make sure you request letters early (long before the deadline) from people with PhDs, and ideally from people who can speak to your strengths as a researcher and student.
  • Suggested suppliers are: researcher mentors (best choice), professors (ideally at least one), and employers (slightly less critical than the other two).

Physics GRE:

  • It’s offered three times a year, in April, September, and October.
  • Most people take it the fall they’re applying to grad school, because they have the most experience with the topics then.
  • Register a few months before the exam you wish to take, as the prices go up later.
  • Doing well on the PGRE mostly requires a lot of memorization and a lot of practice.
  • To study, just take as many practice exams as you possibly can. These can be found online or in the book Conquering the Physics GRE.

General GRE:

  • The general GRE is much less involved than the Physics GRE; STEM grad schools are not too concerned with your score, but most do require it.
  • It’s really flexible to schedule, but you do have to take it at a dedicated testing center.
  • There’s a writing section (2 short essays), a vocabulary/reading comprehension multiple choice section, and a very basic math section (up to but not including calculus).
  • Lots of resources exist online to help you study for the GRE! Don’t sweat it.

Application essays:

  • Most schools require a statement of purpose (around 500-1000 words). These vary slightly between schools, but usually consist of: why you’re interested in your chosen field of study, your research experience, your goals, and why you’re interested in the given program.
  • For fellowship applications (eg. NSF, Hertz), write a research proposal and try to get someone you trust to look it over.
  • Lots of schools also require a diversity statement. This should include: how you would contribute to diversity in your field, challenges you have overcome that are unique to you or someone of your background, etc.

The application itself:

  • Leave time to fill out online applications, because they include tons of fill-in-the-blanks and logistics.
  • Application fees range from about $65-$105 each.
  • If you are a part of Cal NERDS, UC LEADS, or another diversity or low-income based program, you often get free applications. Aside from that, it never hurts to email the schools and ask if you need fee waivers.

Postscript:

  • Do not just go to grad school because it seems like “the next step”. Many people take gap years and say it was one of the best decisions they ever made. On the contrary, many people don’t take gap years and regret it.
  • You are a unique person with valuable skills, talents, and passions. Don’t let the process of standardized testing and faceless applications make you forget that.

(back to top)

Do I have to go to grad school?

Absolutely not! Many physics students actually go into industry right out of college. There are many ways to be successful with a physics degree! One caveat, however, is that it is very difficult to find a job in the field of physics itself without some kind of graduate degree, although the analytical skills provided by the physics degree are applicable in places other than physics. It sometimes feels like there is a stigma against not going to grad school, but this is honestly pretty silly. As cheesy as it sounds, no across-the-slate one-size-fits-all path really exists because there are many ways to succeed (the irony of this claim is recognized). Even if you go into decide to go into industry and change your mind down the line, you can still go to grad school.

(back to top)

I just thought of this theory that gravity is magnetism and the work-energy theorem is wrong and that I have refuted/overturned/revolutionized/unified GR/quantum mechanics/thermomechanicalmagnetohydromechanicoplasmaparticle-ology. Who can I email to collect my Nobel Prize?

Sorry, we’d really like to help you out, but we aren’t really the people to contact about that. Please forward those emails to Stanford.

(back to top)