Advice for majoring in theoretical physics

In summary, the conversation is discussing a student's interest in pursuing a major in physics or mathematics, specifically in the field of theoretical physics/astrophysics and pure math courses such as diff, algebraic geometry, and topology. The student is unsure if a physics degree would cover these math courses and is considering a double major or transferring to a math degree. They are also unsure if they should specialize more in physics or math for a theoretical route and are considering two major options at their local university. They have also mentioned the importance of programming in their academic background and the potential limitations of a physics degree for someone interested in math. The conversation also touches on the role of pure math in theoretical physics and the potential for hitting a "brick wall"
  • #1
Aristarchus_
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I am going into my senior year of hs next year and I am meditating on what I should major in. I have a keen interest in physics but also a love of math. The field in physics I would like to major in is theoretical physics/astrophysics, and the pure maths I am interested in are diff, algebraic geometry, and topology.

I am wondering if a physics degree would cover these pure math courses and if one should ideally double major or study physics, or transfer to maths instead. I have read elsewhere that it is usually more difficult to specialize in physics than it is in math, therefore it was suggested that one should major in physics if one wants to go theoretical, regardless of the interest in pure maths (such as topology in this case).

There is a fine major option here at my local university, titled "Mathematics and physics" and another titled "Physics and Astronomy" (this is in EU). I am still quite hesitant as to my choice between these two since I again do not know whether I should have more specialty in physics or math to go theoretical. Any suggestion from people would be highly appreciated...
 
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  • #2
Aristarchus_ said:
my senior year of hs next year
High School? Which is what ages? Is it pre-university? What country? EU?

Do your local university offer "math of physics" classes? If yes, have you seen the curricula?
 
  • #3
malawi_glenn said:
High School? Which is what ages? Is it pre-university? What country? EU?

Do your local university offer "math of physics" classes? If yes, have you seen the curricula?
High school is pre-university. I have seen the curriculum, one can do a master's degree in theoretical cosmology from the "Physics and Astronomy" degree, and one can do masters in theoretical physics from the "Mathematics and Physics" program. It seems to me that both offer courses needed for the theoretical work, however, I am not sure how much maths is there really going to be in the physics degree to prepare me for later on, in comparison to the maths degree.
 
  • #4
malawi_glenn said:
High School? Which is what ages? Is it pre-university? What country? EU?

Do your local university offer "math of physics" classes? If yes, have you seen the curricula?
What did you major in? And how did you combine diff geometry and topology with theoretical physics?
 
  • #5
Aristarchus_ said:
And how did you combine diff geometry and topology with theoretical physics?
Masters in subatomic physics, took mathematical and geometrical methods in physics and GR and cosmology classes for my "own pick" courses. But I felt more comfortable with programming so I did phd in theoretical particle physics focusing on computer aided calculations and simulations.
Aristarchus_ said:
I am not sure how much maths is there really going to be in the physics degree to prepare me for later on, in comparison to the maths degree.
Do you have the possibility to ask a student advisor at your local university regarding this?
How many "own choice" classes can you take?
 
  • #6
malawi_glenn said:
Masters in subatomic physics, took mathematical and geometrical methods in physics and GR and cosmology classes for my "own pick" courses. But I felt more comfortable with programming so I did phd in theoretical particle physics focusing on computer aided calculations and simulations.

Do you have the possibility to ask a student advisor at your local university regarding this?
How many "own choice" classes can you take?
I have the possibility to ask, and I will definitely do so. I am not sure how many own choice classes, I think 3-4 max for "Mathematic and Physics" BA. For "Physics and Astronomy" however, it is less. Those which I can choose on my own, have to be physics courses that prepare me for that degree, so you might as well not even consider it a free choice, since it is supposed to be a course which gives me a strong background for the master thesis which would be, in this case, physics. Again, this is completely fine for those who are considering an engineering route, but I do not see flexibility (as of now) in this major for somebody who is keen on maths. I will explore more, and consult with some of the staff from the department.
 
  • #7
malawi_glenn said:
Masters in subatomic physics, took mathematical and geometrical methods in physics and GR and cosmology classes for my "own pick" courses. But I felt more comfortable with programming so I did phd in theoretical particle physics focusing on computer aided calculations and simulations.
But you said that one hits a brick wall in theoretical physics not knowing enough math anyways...So can pure maths be considered crucial when going a theoretical physics route?
 
  • #8
Aristarchus_ said:
But you said that one hits a brick wall in theoretical physics not knowing enough math anyways...So can pure maths be considered crucial when going a theoretical physics route?
There are other factors involved, such as time constaints. It is not plausible to study math for 10 years and then start with physics
 
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  • #9
malawi_glenn said:
There are other factors involved, such as time constaints. It is not plausible to study math for 10 years and then start with physics
What is a better option in your opinion? Double major, hybrid major, taking courses on the side...?
 
  • #10
Aristarchus_ said:
What is a better option in your opinion? Double major, hybrid major, taking courses on the side...?
It depends on so many factors. Like what is available, your study skill and ability to absorb new material, what fields of physics you want to pursue and so on.
 
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  • #11
Some general advice: it's better to stay more general for longer if you can.

The first year for most math and physics majors at schools in north America is pretty common... to the point where if you change your mind in your second year, transferring from one to the other won't require much back-tracking.

When you're still in high school, and you haven't taken any courses in it, it's really hard to know what the study of "theoretical physics" actually involves. Sometimes, what people think they will like as they enter their first year changes once they actually start studying. You might get into a third or fourth year class and discover that you really have an affinity for computational methods, or you might do a senior thesis project in medical physics and find that's a really good fit for you career-wise.

So try to find a major that will absolutely let you keep that door open, that will qualify you for graduate school (when you really get to specialize), but that also allows you to fully explore the breadth of physics and mathematics that interest you.
 
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  • #12
Theoretical physics is also kinda broad, for instance there is lot of theory work in quantum information, condensed matter, biophysics, dynamical system and chaos, etc.
 
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  • #13
Aristarchus_ said:
I am wondering if a physics degree would cover these pure math courses and if one should ideally double major or study physics, or transfer to maths instead. I have read elsewhere that it is usually more difficult to specialize in physics than it is in math, therefore it was suggested that one should major in physics if one wants to go theoretical, regardless of the interest in pure maths (such as topology in this case). There is a fine major option here at my local university, titled "Mathematics and physics" and another titled "Physics and Astronomy" (this is in EU). I am still quite hesitant as to my choice between these two since I again do not know whether I should have more specialty in physics or math to go theoretical. Any suggestion from people would be highly appreciated...
Undergraduate degrees in Physics should be general enough to provide all the necessary preparation for any Physics graduate program regardless of intended specialization including the requisite level of mathematics. Students should not need too much field specific knowledge prior to entry to graduate studies. It's at the graduate level where the bulk of specialization should occur. Picking a more specialized degree may be of value if a student has an equal interest in two related fields (e.g. combined major in Physics and Math) so long as it does not end up diluting the primary major. Taking additional math courses should not result in the student skipping out on fundamental Physics courses. In the US/Canada where undergraduate degree structure tends to be relatively flexible, many schools do provide guidance with regards to supplementary courses students may want to consider taking in addition to (not instead of) the core program requirements. For example my son's school provides the following recommendations for senior level courses:

Students interested in computational and theoretical physics and especially those considering postgraduate studies in this area should take the following courses:

Linear Algebra II
Introduction to General Relativity
Analytical Mechanics
Intro to Neural Networks and Machine Learning
Electromagnetic Theory
Quantum Mechanics II
Computational Physics
2 additional courses from Levels III, IV, V Astronomy, Mathematics, Physics

An academic advisor familiar with the requirements for admission to specific graduate programs could provide even more targeted advice but another approach would be to research the undergraduate Physics programs at the universities whose graduate programs you would be interested in applying to in the future and see what courses they take.

As examples

Oxford Mathematical and Theoretical Master's - "Oxford students are eligible to apply for transfer to the MMathPhys in their fourth year, if they are enrolled in the third year of either the MPhys, MMath or MPhysPhil courses".

Cambridge Physics MASt - "students study alongside the fourth-year students taking the Physics part of the integrated Cambridge Natural Science course, commonly referred to as Part III Physics. Details of the current Part III Physics course can be found on the Department of Physics website."

Edinburgh Theoretical Physics MSc - "We are looking for significant knowledge of the following physics topics at advanced or intermediate undergraduate level:
  • Classical/Lagrangian Dynamics
  • Electromagnetism
  • Quantum Mechanics
  • Special Relativity
  • Statistical/Thermal physics
Similarly, we would like all of the following topics in mathematics:
  • Vector calculus
  • Fourier Analysis
  • Tensors
  • Complex Analysis
 
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  • #14
Aristarchus
Does your university have an Engineering Physics program?
From: https://www.colorado.edu/physics/academics/undergraduate-students/bachelor-science-engineering-physics#
Engineering physicists focus on research and development, design, and analysis, often specializing in frontier areas of engineering including nanotechnology, quantum devices, ultra-fast lasers, adaptive optics, cryogenic electronics, computer simulation of physical systems, solar cells, magnetic storage technology ...
I received my BS in Engineering Physics and the math requirement was the same as a BS in pure Physics.
 
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Related to Advice for majoring in theoretical physics

1. What skills are necessary for majoring in theoretical physics?

Majoring in theoretical physics requires strong analytical and mathematical skills. It is also important to have a deep understanding of physics concepts and the ability to think critically and creatively.

2. What courses should I take to prepare for a major in theoretical physics?

It is recommended to take advanced courses in mathematics, physics, and computer science. These courses will provide a strong foundation for understanding the complex theories and equations in theoretical physics.

3. How important is research experience for majoring in theoretical physics?

Research experience is highly valuable for majoring in theoretical physics. It allows students to apply their knowledge to real-world problems and gain hands-on experience with cutting-edge research methods and technologies.

4. Is it necessary to have a graduate degree in theoretical physics?

While a graduate degree is not necessary, it is highly recommended for those who want to pursue a career in theoretical physics. A graduate degree provides advanced knowledge and skills, as well as opportunities for research and networking.

5. What career opportunities are available for those majoring in theoretical physics?

Graduates with a major in theoretical physics can pursue careers in research, academia, and industry. They may work as theoretical physicists, research scientists, data analysts, or in fields such as engineering, finance, and technology.

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