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Other 3-year B.S. Physics vs. 4-year B.S.+M.S. vs. ...

Hello everyone,

I'm new to the Physics Forums, so please feel free to visit the linked thread if you'd like to know a bit about me:

https://www.physicsforums.com/threads/hello-everyone.960116/

And please ask any questions if you need to know more about my situation, since I have a bit of an interesting case.

I'm currently a 2nd-year undergraduate physics major, but I entered my current university with many general education credits and prior physics coursework from a university where I studied during my fourth year of high school.

I took 2 introductory courses for majors, one in thermodynamics, electricity & magnetism, and optics in the fall, followed by one on special relativity and quantum mechanics. They let me jump into the 2nd-semester course in the fall since I had (self-studied) AP scores of 5 in C: Mechanics and a 4 in C: E&M, which the department agreed to accept as qualification to take a placement exam, which was basically a cumulative final for their first-semester course.

Looking back, the calc-based AP Physics offerings aren't that great (in the sense that there is, in my opinion, a greater disparity between a remotely decent calculus-based physics course in college vs. the AP relative to similar comparisons that can be made for AP Chem or others), but it looks like my knowledge of the fundamentals isn't lacking, at least not to the point that it limits my current performance in upper-div mechanics or upper-div E&M.

Anyhow, having done quite a bit during my years of high school, I have some flexibility now that I'm enrolled as a full-time student pursuing a physics degree.

My current hope is to go on to a PhD program in physics. My current interests are in condensed matter and quantum information/computation, but I don't believe I can commit to that until I get more experience as a research assistant. Here are some of the options that I'm considering to get myself on that path:

Option 1: Graduate with my Bachelor's degree in 3 years (total, so Spring 2020 would be my graduation time).

I could comfortably graduate in 3-years and still sample a few non-required courses (though not enough for a minor, but certainly enough that I'd be pretty happy).

The main concern I have is if I'll be cutting short my undergraduate research experience, since I will only be starting this next spring with a theorist who does condensed matter work. (So that leaves one summer and a fall semester before I submit graduate school applications.)

As far as letters of recommendation go, I have one professor that I've had for two courses in a row, and can ask for a strong letter of recommendation from. I hope to get two from professors that I'll do research with, or possibly one that I do research with, and another one from a teacher/student perspective. Obviously this would be much easier if I were at the institution for an extra year.

Being ahead in my physics coursework, I should be fine to study up and take the Physics GRE this upcoming April, and again the following September (if I choose to).

Aside to option 1: Double jeopardy on graduate applications.

Follow the plan to graduate in 3 years, submit graduate program applications towards the end of 2019, continue following the plan, receive and evaluate decisions. If accepted to a good program, go for it.

If those applications fail, add a minor or second major to remain an undergraduate student at the university for a fourth year, or perhaps take the minimum number of required credits to be a full-time student, and focus the majority of my time on research for that fourth year before submitting applications once more.

If I commit to a 3-year plan out through next year, and decide against it at the time most decisions (for fall admissions, since rolling is its own thing) are released, the 4-year "master plan" would no longer be a possibility, and my choice of a double major would probably be restricted to math or applied math, since I would not have the formal coursework to meet the necessary prerequisites for a computer science minor/second major in order to follow the sequence of courses correctly within the remaining two semesters.


Option 2: Take a 5-year "progressive degree program" for an M.S. in physics and complete it in 4-years.

I would be able to complete an M.S. in 4 years, alongside my B.S, without cutting corners on coursework (which departments is permitted to do, to some extent for undergraduates doing a Master's program). I'm not certain how my master's thesis would be received, since my department doesn't formally do the M.S. or M.A. degree, it's generally only offered to graduate students (who are only accepted to the PhD program at the time of entrance; there is no applying directly to for the master's degree objective) who wish to drop out of their PhD program.

I've talked with several physics professors and graduate students at my university, and general agreement is that the M.S. in physics isn't all that meaningful as a terminal degree, unlike engineering master's degrees. Some even say it's sometimes even looked down upon, since some institutions (such as my own) have treated M.S./M.A. Physics degrees as "consolation prizes" for graduate students who have completed the first two years of coursework or more, but decide not to finish their doctorate. (Though I don't see how this perception would apply if I complete it within a "normal" 4-year undergraduate timeframe.) Some efforts within my university are being done to orient the M.S. as a teaching degree for those who plan to teach physics at the high-school level.

I've also been told that taking graduate coursework in physics at one university probably isn't worth it if I'm going to a PhD program at a different university (which is likely, assuming I get into a program). Graduate coursework in physics (and in many other disciplines) tends to transfer poorly, if at all. However, it does have the potential benefit of making related coursework easier in the future.

However, most of the professors I talked to have seen it as an interesting question, if an undergraduate with an M.S. in 4-years may have better chances of admission to a good graduate program.

I suppose my main question is whether my chances of being admitted to a decent graduate program are probably better with a 4-year M.S. and a comfortable level of undergraduate research experience, vs. getting out one year early with my B.S. and less research experience, and if the possibility of doing double-jeopardy on graduate school applications is meaningful, or if results are probably not going to change based on what I can accomplish given an extra year.

As far as what I would enjoy "in the now," rather than "what might help me get into grad school," I find any of these options to be quite good, though I think I'd like to get into more advanced physics courses earlier, rather than potentially spend one year doing less directly-related coursework. (As in aside to option 1.) However, I do recognize that a deeper understanding of mathematics (given that I'll pick most of the right topics) and computer science would certainly not be detrimental to my future pursuits in the field.

Option 3: Add a major or minor in mathematics or computer science.

I think I've introduced enough to make this fairly self-explanatory, but let me know if there are questions specific to this option. If I commit to this earlier, then I can maintain a balance by taking physics courses and math or CS courses in parallel, rather than attempting to fulfill requirements to completion in series.

Option 4?: Try to forgo most of the above worries and remain at my current institution for graduate school.

Assuming I connect well with a research advisor in my current department, I have very good chances of being admitted to the graduate program here, though most professors I have talked to strongly recommend going to another institution for more exposure to different faculty and to broaden my experience overall. However, they occasionally do have undergraduates that ask to stick around and are open to taking them on.


Thanks so much for reading this wall of text, and thanks even more for any additional insight.
 
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Thanks for the thread! This is an automated courtesy bump. Sorry you aren't generating responses at the moment. Do you have any further information, come to any new conclusions or is it possible to reword the post? The more details the better.
 

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