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Admissions Bio/applied math undergrad wanting to do physics grad school

  1. May 23, 2017 #1
    Hey everyone,

    I'm new to this community, and I came here hoping to find some advice on applying to graduate schools. A bit of educational background about me:
    • Biology BS & Applied Mathematics BS Double Major
    • Neuroscience & Chemistry Minor (declared neuroscience officially, but earned the chemistry minor because doing a Biology BS at UNC-CH automatically gives you one)
    • Currently a senior at UNC Chapel Hill
    • Completed the pre-med track, am currently applying to medical school and graduate school.
    • Have 3 more courses to go to earn my math major
    • Finished all my biology requirements
    • My research positions I've held at uni are varied. I've had three in total, and I have to say it's mostly me switching around wanting to gain exposure to different fields of science. I've done research in alcoholism & addictive behaviors, flight mechanics of birds, and on how different proteins interact in the cytokinetic ring to regulate it.
    • I have a decent GPA (3.3). UNC is a very challenging environment to me and I came from a high school that didn't place a heavy emphasis on STEM. I'm not using that as an excuse, but I will say without doubt my academic experience at UNC was quite trying.
    • Just took the MCAT. Awaiting the score right now.
    • Planning on taking the GRE and Physics GRE this fall.
    • Extracurriculars and special skills? Not sure if they matter that much for graduate school as they do for medical school (honestly, I don't know so someone please tell me) but I've done research as I mentioned above, was an art teacher, swim instructor, volunteer at a hospital, participated in model WHO conferences, studied abroad and took courses on anatomy & healthcare management, worked as a hospital translator, polyglot (can speak/understand 12 languages), and tutor.
    I feel like it's very apparent from the mini-resume that I wrote here that a lot of my activities and work have been tailored to go to medical school or are typical of a pre-med student. However, especially in this past year, I have been feeling terrible in that I have been lying to myself. I realized that me switching so many times around lab in uni wasn't because I was trying to get more exposure, but rather that I was trying to stay interested in biology and I just couldn't do it. Simply put, I could care less about biology and it was obvious by performance in my classes alone that I was more interested and engaged in my math and physics courses than in my biology courses.

    I cannot see myself in medical school and I do not want to go to medical school. I realized that my true passion lies in astrophysics and astronomy. I am taking courses on astronomy and astrophysics my senior year, in addition to finishing up the last remaining courses for my applied math major. I understand that an important part of applying to physics graduate school is to have a solid research background and strong letters of recommendation. I do have a couple of mathematics professors that could write me letters, but I don't have any professors that could write letters of rec based on research experience simply because my time in these labs has been so short, or I've straight up told the PI that I did not think the lab was a good fit for me. Don't get me wrong, I wasn't arrogant about how I did this. I just told them that "I think I want to keep exploring options, I'm young and I'm also looking at multiple career paths." They all seemed very understanding and accepting of it, but I feel like these PIs don't know me well enough and it was hard to find one-on-one time with them. In short, I don't think I would be getting strong letters of rec from them.

    That being said, I am looking for an astronomy or astrophysics lab to do research in for senior year. I've talked to one of the professors in the physics department, who is especially known for helping women in physics and STEM in general, and she has given me many pointers as well as told me what courses she thinks I should take senior year, and how those courses could lead to possible research opportunities.

    What do you all think? What should I do next to make myself a better candidate for physics graduate school? I am trying my best in the short amount of time I have left, and am willing to do anything I can to better myself as an applicant.
  2. jcsd
  3. May 23, 2017 #2


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    Well to be honest, you're going to have a hard time getting into physics graduate school without an undergraduate degree in physics. Most schools will consider something that's close, but I'm not sure of a bio-math-neuro-chem degree is going to do it. I would assume that you've covered the necessary mathematics, but have you taken senior level courses in electrodynamics, quantum mechanics, thermodynamics and statistical mechanics, a senior physics lab course etc.? Have you taken any advanced courses in astrophysics that will help you know if that's a field of study you want to pursue? Not only will these be the kinds of questions that admissions committee members will be asking, but you'll likely be competing against people who have all of this under their belts.

    The other question that comes to mind is that while you certainly have a diverse background, on the surface of it, it seems like you bounce around a little. How do you know that you're not going to wake up three weeks from now and decide that you really would rather go into engineering, or computer science, or interpretive dance?

    To get "there" from "here" your best bet is to take as many physics courses as you can. There is a distinct possibility that if this is something you really want, you'll have to switch majors again and/or add another year to get in the appropriate coursework.

    For what it's worth, the extra-curricular activities tend to matter a lot less to graduate school applications. They make a difference when they have a fairly direct relationship with the type of studies that you're applying to do. So, for example, research experience is big. Things like programming experience can be helpful too, or if you've ever been a part of a competitive engineering team that can add some checkmarks. With medical school they're generally looking for someone who can handle a diverse set of demands in addition to academics. At the end of the day, life experience counts when you have to deal with patients. Not so much when you're wrestling with MATLAB code.
  4. May 24, 2017 #3
    Thanks so much for this response. I definitely agree with what you said, and these are thoughts that have been surfacing for me too. I'm considering applying to graduate schools and all this cycle, mostly due to the pressure of my parents. I know it's a very slim chance that I would get in and most of my educational background isn't useful for astrophysics. I'm thinking that if I do not get in this cycle (most likely what will happen), I'll enroll as a part-time student and take prerequisite physics courses and focus on doing well in those, as well as gaining research experience, and perhaps a part-time job or internship. My math background definitely helps in that I've filled most of the prerequisite math, i.e., differential equations (ODEs and PDEs), linear algebra, etc. I took introductory calculus-based mechanics and E&M my freshman year too. I know that just because I do that doesn't guarantee my admission either, but I'm just at crossroads at the moment. During my senior year, I know I could take the following courses:

    -Upper level mechanics
    -Numerical analysis
    -Intermediate course in differential equations

    -Quantum Mechanics
    -Numerical Techniques in Physics (Course Description: Applications of calculus, vector analysis, differential equations, complex numbers, and computer programming to realistic physical systems. Three lecture and two computational laboratory hours per week) - I'm not sure if this is equivalent to statistical mechanics, could someone help me out?
    -Intermediate astronomy or astrophysics course (depends on what my university offers at the time)

    I know I should still take a course in electromagnetism and thermodynamics. I'm looking into course offerings but I don't think they've been finalized for this fall.
  5. May 24, 2017 #4


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    Buy a practice physics GRE exam. Set aside a hlaf day or whatever the appropriate time is, sit down with a timer, and take the test with exactly the time and breaks called for. You'll find out right away where your background is lacking. If you score in the top twenty percent against your peers, there's hope that your plan might succeed. If not, plan on taking an extra year of physics courses.
  6. May 24, 2017 #5
    Thanks for the advice!!! Do you think I should just focus my energy on the GRE and Physics GRE then? I've been pretty good with standardized testing in general, but would you say the GRE and PGRE are different in any way? I.e., are there any red flags about either of them?
  7. May 24, 2017 #6


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    No, exactly the opposite. I'm suggesting that you take it soon and use it as a diagnostic to assess your present state of preparation and to plan for how many more physics courses you'll need. For example, your plan does not include studying any more E&M. Your performance on E&M questions in the practice physics GRE will show you whether that's a good idea (unlikely) or a terrible idea (probably).
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