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Advise for engineering student interested in physics?

  1. Jul 30, 2014 #1
    Hello everyone, I'm new to PF and it seems like a great community. I have a few questions about physics education and I'd be very thankful for any responses (really, anything is greatly appreciated!) and insight you all may have.

    A little background:
    I am a 4th year mechanical engineering undergraduate at a "good" university in the US. I've been immensely fascinated with physics and science from a very young age.

    I've taken some physics related courses like heat transfer, vibrations, intro physics courses (basic mechanics and EM), fluid mechanics, thermo, controls, basic dynamics, basic chemistry and some engineering labs.
    Some math courses: Intro Calc classes (1, 2, and 3) and intro to ODE and a basic numerical methods course.

    I'm currently working as an undergrad researcher and my first manuscript will soon be sent for review. My current research is related to analytical chemistry and fluid flow but this is not my main passion. Currently my main passion is physics and math.

    Main question: In your opinion, which courses are most likely to offer a decent and broad background in physics? I will spend another 2 years at this university and am almost done with my engineering degree so I have the opportunity to take a few physics (and/or math) courses (out of interest). About 4-6 courses.

    Which 5 physics courses would you all recommend? Intro to modern physics? Electromagnetism 1 and 2? Intro Quantum Physics? What offers the best introduction and opens the doors to a broad range of concepts?

    I'm unsure about what I want to do in the future. Any advise for grad school? Is it at all likely to be accepted to a great physics graduate program with only a slight background in physics?

    Thanks to everyone for reading and commenting!
  2. jcsd
  3. Jul 30, 2014 #2


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    Staff: Mentor

    If you're considering grad school in physics, keep in mind the "core four" subjects that grad schools generally expect you to have studied, above the first-year intro physics level:

    • Classical mechanics
    • Electromagnetism
    • Quantum mechanics
    • Thermodynamics & statistical mechanics

    You've already studied classical mechanics and thermo, although from an engineer's point of view rather than a physicist's point of view. For example, I suspect you haven't studied the Lagrangian formulation of mechanics, nor the statistical mechanics approach to thermodynamics. However, starting from what you already know, you can probably self-study the extra parts if you don't have time to take full CM and thermo courses.

    I would focus on those areas that you don't have any upper-level experience with: electromagnetism and quantum mechanics. I'd suggest taking the "intro modern physics" course before QM, because it will expose you to a wider range of topics and give you more historical background than the QM course, which will probably focus on the math and problem-solving aspects of QM. I wouldn't be surprised if intro modern is a prerequisite for QM at your university, anyway. That's the way it is at the school where I work.
  4. Jul 31, 2014 #3
    Thank you for your reply jtbell, I can see how electromagnetism and quantum mechanics would be useful for grad school. I am able to self-study many subjects so I doubt that self-studying statistical mechanics and the Lagrangian formulation will be too challenging.

    Do you think these introductory courses will allow me to self-study deeper topics in the future?

    Keep in mind, the main reason I'm considering taking physics classes is out of interest, not so much for any career or academic goal.

    Also, are there any mathematics courses I should take? Or otherwise self-study? Anything fundamental or anything that is an absolutely necessary pre-req? Are proofs the best way to learn the math tools needed for physics? Is the formal education route the best route, or are online resources making formal education obsolete (for those who can self-study)?

    Sorry for the overwhelming number of questions and please forgive my ignorance and generalizations. Thank you so much for your insight!
  5. Jul 31, 2014 #4
    I double majored in EE and Physics. I took E&M 1 and 2, Optics, Classical Mechanics, Quantum Mechanics, Intro to Modern Physics, and a couple of others. I took another class (generic Junior level Physics class) where we discussed things like tidal forces, general relativity, and cosmology. It covered a LOT of material and was very interesting, but had relatively little math, which meant it was a little harder for me than the other classes were. I'd personally like to go back and take E&M 3.

    As for math, I took Applied Mathematics (for a Math minor) and Probability (required for my EE major). We did Lagrangians and Hamiltonians in Applied Mathematics, and then I re-learned those in Classical Mechanics. I think the courses you have may be sufficient.
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