1. Limited time only! Sign up for a free 30min personal tutor trial with Chegg Tutors
    Dismiss Notice
Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

An extra major in physics?

  1. May 30, 2013 #1
    Hey everyone!

    Well, I am entering what would be my senior year at the University of Arizona where I am double majoring in Applied Mathematics and Molecular & Cellular Biology. I plan to pursue a Ph.D. (and beyond) and have been engaging in activities that will make me more competitive for graduate programs, such as working in various research labs, extracurricular projects, and taking extra classes beyond my curriculum (that's what originally led to my extra major in MCB).

    However, I had been thinking about picking up another minor in either aerospace engineering or physics - both would coincide greatly with my desired field of graduate studies - but then I had an arguably crazy idea: do a 3rd major in physics.

    I went through all the curriculum and have worked out a schedule that would make it feasible, but I'd have to spend an extra year as an undergraduate - which I don't really have a problem with doing.

    I am aware of the general notion out there being that you have to just pick one thing and stick with that, but I don't necessarily agree. The further I tread along in the coursework and in my research labs, the more relevant and interconnected I am seeing all of these supposedly separated fields of study to be to one another. I believe they converge in many aspects, and having an understanding of multiple fields can bridge the current voids.

    I don't plan on ever not being in school or educating myself, and I don't care about going further into debt by staying an extra year as the knowledge itself creates an exponential amount of potential relative to pocketing the $20k.

    I guess I am just wondering what people with experience might feel about this. I'm interested in engineering physics, space/astronautical/nuclear/bio engineering, neuroscience and bioastronautics graduate programs.

    I'm thinking that if I spend the extra year building a stronger foundation in physics that I'll be much better off in grad school even if I go into a field where physics curriculum isn't stressed such as biomedical engineering.

    As biomedical engineering as an example, I think "What if I don't spend the extra time and energy in pursuing the physics. I'm sure I'd get through the biomedical engineering graduate program just fine, but what if not having that extra bulk to my foundation causes me to miss out on some great revelation that I would have otherwise had?"

    Maybe I'm just stressing out because I feel so overwhelmingly unready for graduate school, and applications are right around the corner. If the undergraduate curriculum has taught me anything, it's that my knowledge is exceedingly scant in a magnificently wondrous world full of discoveries awaiting assiduous and keen minds. Despite my diverse background and voracious quest throughout my undergrad, I still feel like there are a million things I need to learn before I go to grad school.

    Is it common to feel this way? Do you think I should spend the extra year and pick up the 3rd major in physics, or should I just try to get into grad schools this year and just go from there?

    I'm feeling incredibly lost at this point. I'd appreciate any advice!
  2. jcsd
  3. May 30, 2013 #2
    I really think you should be considering what it is you want to do when you go to grad school, because grad school is a lot more focused than undergrad. Getting a PhD isn't about knowing something about everything, it's about knowing a whole lot about a specific thing, within a specific field. Personally, I would only pick up a third major if I wanted to be a physicist. Grad schools aren't looking for polymaths, they're looking for the ones that have demonstrated that they will excel in [insert field] related research.
  4. May 30, 2013 #3
    This is a dangerous outlook, while it may not be important to you now, please remember that you will have to pay it back at some point. Any increased chances of of getting into grad school and doing what you like does not guarantee you a job. A simple look at the forums will tell you that recent Ph.D.'s are having some extreme difficulty in finding any jobs at all.

    Taking another year to do what you want is fine, whether or not it will actually be useful (applied math is already fairly closely related to physics) is up to more debate. But you need to take a more serious look at what you would want to do with your graduate degree and what will happen if you can't get your dream job (MUCH more likely).

    Going further into debt for an extra year of tuition with no plans on how to pay it back is a recipe for disaster.
  5. May 30, 2013 #4
    Agree with both wotanub and Sentin3l.

    To stress this point:

    Your assumption that an additional degree will provide an "exponential amount" relative to the 20k + interest is likely false. Instead, the additional degree will probably have $0 value to you. Undergrad physics isn't worth much, especially when you already have two other degrees.
  6. May 30, 2013 #5


    User Avatar
    Homework Helper

    Use your enthusiasm to really do well in grad school, I think. Surely that's where the action is.
  7. May 30, 2013 #6
    I suppose that I wasn't clear in what I meant. I meant that the knowledge acquired and/or the opportunities it will open for personal gain far outweigh saving $20k. My point being that finance isn't a factor in my decision, so I'm hoping for responses void of the "financial gains" component.

    I also do not have a "dream job," nor do I have high living standards. After everything is said and done, my living expenses come out to around $7000 a year and I'm still working on alleviating my splurges of buying coffee at coffee shops every now and then to lower my living costs even further. My aim is for sustainability and efficiency.

    I'm not worried about paying back the loans and I've taken that into full account. Even in the most horrid of circumstances (talking about developed world problems here) that I can't find a job and have to work at Walmart, I'd have no trouble paying back my loans. I'm happy living an ascetic lifestyle and my track record for doing so corroborates my assertion that my lifestyle will not change, even if I got this "dream job."

    I'm also not worried about finding a job. Even if I get a Ph.D., in physics let's say, then I would still be happy just getting a tech job at a research lab in pretty much any field. I wouldn't view it as a "step down" or as menial. This is a plus side to my wide array of interests. There are always openings, and they are always willing to take on ambitious, hard working individuals who care more about intellectual prosperity than of financial prosperity (aka, I'd work for chump-change).

    Call me foolish, but I've experienced what it's like being extremely wealthy. I've experienced having everything you could ever "think" you wish for, and I've experienced having absolutely everything taken away from you to the point where you nearly kill yourself (damn hospitals and their workers for saving your life...).

    To be blunt, I could give a **** less about financial "prosperity," and I submit to you that the dangerous outlook is the one in which one's desire for monetary wealth and "security" guide decisions.

    Now that I've put that to rest, I want an outlook on this situation that doesn't involve the financial prospect. I care about advancing my knowledge with the hopes of contributing to science and society one day. Maybe you think I'm young and foolish, but I don't care and think it's quite presumptuous. I refuse to give up on my dreams.

    I'm seeking advice from someone who was perhaps similar in my outlook. Someone with their aim beyond the Moon. Someone who understands my insatiable desire for knowledge - these supposed, polymaths...

    Besides, you can't really be a polymath anymore. The "last" of the polymaths was Henri Poincaré and he died a century ago.

    Is there anyone out there similar to me?
  8. May 30, 2013 #7
    Ignoring financial incentives, it's still a horrible idea for many reasons, several of which have already been made.

    You really dont learn much of value in undergraduate classes. It's time to move on.
  9. May 30, 2013 #8


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Education Advisor

    At some point you do have to pick a direction and go with it, I'm afraid.

    One of the concerns with squeezing in a third major is that by the letter of the academic calendar you may be awarded the major, but if your intention is graduate school you may not be putting yourself in the best position. Usually those who have a single major have more options to choose courses they speficically want to take, while if you're squeezing in specific majors, you could end up taking a bunch of courses you don't like or don't want just so get get some additional letters on your diploma.

    Ideally you also want do more than just the minimum required course load. Say you get physics as a third major and decide to pursue this in graduate school. You might get in, but you may struggle against others who took more than just the required courseload in their senior year. You may also miss opportunities for introductory classes to specific subfields and end up somewhere you don't actually want to be.

    There are also concerns with running at a maximum pace. If you don't have an easier course here or there to mitigate the tougher ones, you might do fine, but what are you going to do when things don't go according to plan and you have no buffer to catch up?

    One final thing to consider is that really, there's nothing to say you can't go back and learn what you want later, when it may be more relevant. There are lots of people with PhDs in physics who go on to do work in molecular biology... although perhaps fewer who do it the other way around.
  10. May 30, 2013 #9
    I think you should do it if you want to. Sounds sweet!
  11. May 30, 2013 #10
    $7000 a year? I'm not sure of your living situation, but that is unusually cheap. Still don't forget to factor that when you graduate, the bills will start coming in.

    I was very much the same a long time ago, then I realized it's not worth it to keep taking time out of my life and spending money when I already had a respectable major which was related to what I want to do (I'm physics/math and want to Ph.D. in physics). An applied math degree is perfectly fine to get into a physics grad school (assuming that's what you want to do) and in some ways may be beneficial. What you study in grad school can be completely different than your undergrad.

    All in all, it's not worth it adding the degree when you can, for much less time and money, buy textbooks and work through them yourself. Even in the situation where you get stuck, you have plenty of resources (*cough* physicsforums *cough*) that can help you.
Share this great discussion with others via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook