Is a degree in physics the same everywhere in terms of what is being taught or are there differences from one institution to the other ?

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    Why would you expect every school to require the same curriculum? – aeismail May 9 '18 at 1:14

There are not only differences between institutions, but also within institutions. For example, at MIT "The Physics Department offers two different programs leading to a Bachelor of Science in Physics, giving students the opportunity to tailor their study of physics to their individual career goals. The focused option is an ideal preparation for those students who plan to go on to graduate school in physics or a related field, while the flexible option provides a strong background in physics for those whose career paths may not include graduate work in the discipline." while at UPenn there are 6 tracks.

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  • That, is not good ... gulp! (unless you are @MIT) – theenigma017 May 8 '18 at 19:16

In the UK, undergraduate physics degrees have to be accredited by the Institue of Physics to ensure they all teach the same material at the same standard. Of course, there will be deviations and differences between courses, particularly in specialist modules or research-based components of the degree.

This may vary depending on the strengths and weaknesses of the department in question-- for example, in my undergraduate degree I did a lot of solar and stellar physics (at least 3 different modules across my 2nd and 3rd years) because that was a strong research group in the department. However, I did the bare minimum of particle physics because no one in the department had expertise in that area and therefore there was only one module on it in the first year of my degree.

While this answer focuses on the UK, I expect the same is broadly true in other countries, except perhaps those which do not have a particularly high quality or standardised higher education system.

Physics as a subject is generally easily standardisable, as many concepts build upon previous knowledge (e.g. going from classical to quantum mechanics) and therefore all physics degrees will follow broadly the same structure. Contrast this with history, for example, where one could specialise in the Cold War period from almost the beginning of a degree, without needing to know and understand the intricate details of everything that has happened in human history from the Neolithic period onwards.

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  • "except perhaps those which do not have a particularly high quality or standardised higher education system." — Countries lacking a standardized higher education system of course includes the US. – aeismail May 9 '18 at 1:14

There're a lot of similarities, and also differences. My experience is that some topics are core and every program covers them, while others depend on whether the department has people familiar with the field and / or are electives. Examples of the former:

  • Newton's Laws, vectors, conservation of momentum, moments of inertia
  • Laws of thermodynamics, definition of temperature and entropy
  • Basic particle physics (the kind that can be memorized, e.g. "how many quarks are there?")
  • Schrodinger's equation, commutators, expectation values
  • Maxwell's equations, vector calculus
  • Angular momentum in quantum mechanics

Examples of the latter:

  • Relativity (bit of a shame, but it is a hard topic)
  • Astrophysics
  • Cosmology
  • Quantum optics and information
  • Advanced classical mechanics (Poisson brackets, Lagrangian mechanics)
  • Electrodynamics
  • Particle physics (the kind that requires calculations)
  • Biophysics
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