Guide to Degree Tracks

Version 1. May 13, 2022

Contributors and Reviewers

Editorial Director

Sarah "Sam" McKagan, McKagan Enterprises

Courtney Lannert*, Smith College and University of Massachusetts Amherst


Jim Borgardt, Juniata College

Charlie Freeman, State University of New York College at Geneseo

Vince Kuo, Colorado School of Mines

Doug Petkie, Worcester Polytechnic Institute

Synthesis Committee

Michael Jackson*, New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology

Willie S. Rockward*, Morgan State University

Gay Stewart*, West Virginia University

Gubbi Sudhakaran*, University of Wisconsin-La Crosse


Grant Bunker, Illinois Institute of Technology

David C. Ingram, Ohio University

Andrew Kunz, Marquette University

Deonna Woolard, Randolph-Macon College

Review Committee

Theodore Hodapp*, Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation

Gay Stewart*, University of West Virginia

Gubbi Sudhakaran*, University of Wisconsin-La Crosse

Carl Wieman*, Stanford University

This section provides guidance on developing specialized degree tracks or majors within your physics program. Examples of such tracks include applied physics, engineering physics, biophysics, optics, astrophysics, and physics education, and can include BS and/or BA options. Such degree tracks may be developed within your department or collaboratively with other departments in your institution. This section explains how multiple degree tracks can be developed and sustained, and includes guidance on determining the degree tracks that would best fit your local context, establishing the resources and partnerships necessary to maintain each degree track, developing the curriculum for each track, and supporting and promoting your degree tracks. The section focuses on general guidance on degree tracks, rather than suggestions for specific degree tracks or their associated curricula. For guidance on how to establish a degree option for high school teacher education within a physics major or minor, see the section on High School Physics Teacher Preparation. For guidance on how to establish a dual-degree program within your institution or with a partner institution, see the section on Dual-Degree Programs.


Offering multiple degree tracks provides flexibility and options for specialization that can support a broad range of students in meeting their educational goals. Well-chosen degree tracks can substantially improve recruiting and retention of students and prepare students for careers in the private or public sector or graduate school in specialty areas. These tracks provide students with curricular options to seek out and explore connections among physics subdisciplines and between physics and other disciplines, and to engage in interdisciplinary projects and research. By providing degree tracks that appeal to a broader range of students than traditional physics degree tracks do, your department can better meet the needs of an increasingly diverse population of students and thus support equity, diversity, and inclusion. Because specialized degree tracks often highlight career options that are more widely known than traditional physics careers, they can be a powerful recruiting tool, particularly for students who might not otherwise be interested in physics. Finally, such tracks can benefit your department by supporting shared curricula and closer ties with associated departments and relationships with faculty in those departments.

The Cycle of Reflection and Action

Effective Practices

Effective Practices

  1. Assess the institutional landscape with respect to creating or modifying degree tracks

  2. Establish departmental and institutional resources needed for the success of your degree tracks

  3. Develop a curriculum that engages students at all levels for each degree track

  4. Engage external stakeholders to support and promote your degree tracks

Programmatic Assessments

Programmatic Assessments

Evidence to support these practices comes from numerous sources that are summarized in the SPIN-UP [1] and Phys21 [2 and 3] reports, as well as data collected by the AIP Statistical Research Center [4]. The case studies in references 1 and 2 demonstrate the positive impact of offering multiple flexible degree tracks.

  1. R. C. Hilborn, R. H. Howes, and K. S. Krane (editors), “Strategic Programs for Innovations in Undergraduate Physics: Project Report” (SPIN-UP report), American Association of Physics Teachers (2003): Case studies are in Appendix VIII, pages 94–140.
  2. P. Heron, L. McNeil, et al. (editors), “Phys21: Preparing Physics Students for 21st-Century Careers,” American Physical Society (2016): Case studies are in Appendix 1, pages 52–66.
  3. L. Woolf and D. Arion, “Phys21 Supplement: Summary of Background Reports on Careers and Professional Skills," American Physical Society (2016).
  4. P. Mulvey and J. Pold, “Physics Bachelor’s Initial Employment,” Focus On Report, American Institute of Physics Statistical Research Center (2017).
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This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant Nos. 1738311, 1747563, and 1821372. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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