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Physics BS in Chem, MS in Physics career?

  1. Dec 5, 2011 #1
    I am finishing my BS in Chemistry, minor in Materials Science, looking to go to grad school as a MS in Physics.

    In the past year, I've struggled alot with what graduate school to go to, and decided on Physics. I did this because in Chemistry, I learned all about applications of physics in physical chemistry and analytical instrumentation like NMR, laser spectroscopy, liquid crystals, etc. and realized that without physics knowledge, I couldn't do anything in the "real world" with them and apply this knowledge. Also, a BS in Chemistry has very low wages compared to a BS in Physics, so I would like to get a BS in Physics.

    The area I'd like to do research in is in soft condensed matter or optics. This is because these areas are the ones I'm more familiar with from chemistry, and where a physics MS would compliment my chemistry BS, rather than be totally unrelated.

    My family is saying that a MS in physics is a total waste of time. They're worried about career prospects and tell me to suck it up and get a ChemE degree. I tried to study ChemE core classes for a year and some of the core classes like Reactor Design and Chemical Kinetics were insanely difficult since they seemed extremely arbitrary and just seemed like games with dimensional analysis.

    Even though I never got C's, they were very challenging and time consuming, and I don't think I could survive repeating them. Nonetheless, my family tells me that it's because I don't like it, not that it's inherently difficult. They say if I just suck it up and force myself to like it, I'd be able to get through a MS in ChemE. They also say that if you think ChemE is hard, Physics is 100 times harder and I should just quit trying.

    For Physics, my relevant preparation is: 2 quarters of single variable calculus, 2 quarters of multivariable calculus, 1 quarter of linear algebra, 1 quarter of ODE, 1 year of general physics, 2 quarters of modern physics, 1 quarter of programming with MatLab, 1 year of Physical Chemistry. I can't take upper division Classical Mechanics or Electromagnetism due to restrictions; I emailed the teachers and they didn't let me in. I will be taking Mathematical Physics 1 and 2 as well as Quantum Mechanics 1 in the next 2 quarters.

    It'd be ideal if after graduation, I could find a technical job and preferably one related to chemistry and/or physics, but as I went through the alumni lists of some terminal MS programs, such as the one at San Francisco State University, it seems like half the MS graduates just go to another grad program.

    Does anyone have some recommendations?
  2. jcsd
  3. Dec 5, 2011 #2
    While a B.S. in physics might be a tough sell in this market, your family may be a little off-base where a graduate degree is concerned. It's a tough discipline, and many employers appreciate that fact. For example, there are a surprising number of M.S. and Ph.D. physicists working in the finance & banking industry making big bucks. Why? They're used to working hard to solve extremely difficult and complex problems.

    That being said, your family is dead on about a graduate physics program being tough. And that would be really, really tough! Dropout rates in most programs are enormous. With your interest in optics and background in chemistry, you might consider looking into optics engineering. Job prospects seem excellent for the foreseeable future. The Univ. of Arizona, Univ. of Alabama in Huntsville, and Rochester Univ. all have extremely good programs. (Although, I can't recommend Rochester unless your thing is slogging though snow up to your armpits.
  4. Dec 5, 2011 #3
    Here is the thing- most engineers DO get jobs doing engineering, most phds do NOT get jobs doing science- they bounce through a couple postdocs then end up working for a bank. One of my theoretical physics phd cohort went back to school for an associates in nursing because he couldn't find science related work! I bartend. I don't know a single person from my cohort of physics phds currently in a full time, permanent position in science, and I know many who left the field.

    If the end goal is traditional technical work, you are better off with the engineering degree.

    If you just want to spend a few years doing what you love for low salary and no long-term career benefit, before landing at an investment bank, then do the science degree.
    Last edited: Dec 5, 2011
  5. Dec 5, 2011 #4
    thanks for teh recommendations.

    Obaf: yeah my family is telling me to suck it up and get a ChemE degree, but i seriously tried to sludge through the work of it, and it was ridiculously tough. i just don't understand it. i found things like engineering thermodynamics, reactor design and unit operations far harder than the modern physics and physical chemistry classes. maybe its because i havent taken EM or classical mechanics?

    to be honest, i didn't understand most of chemistry either, especially organic and bio. things just happened, i memorized it and put it down on tests. i decided after 4 years that, chemistry's just not my thing, but now i'm graduating and its too late to change.

    getting a MS in physics was a way to sort of get into a more "engineering" sort of thing that wasn't chemical engineering and which would compliment chemistry, instead of be totally unrelated like EE/ME. i'm not hoping for a PhD nor will I want a PhD in physics. Just a MS so I can get some optics/EM and programming training, strengthen theoretical background in QM and thermo, learn how I can "execute" the applications I learned in chemistry and get research experience under my belt.

    i would like to get optical engineering, but i'm worried about my chemistry background. also, i'm limited by moving constraints to not move any more than 400 miles away from Los Angeles.

    ParticleGrl: would MS be the same? there's no way i can get into a PHD program, nor would i want to get a PhD in physics. just an MS so i can get the theoretical training and get some work done on instruments. Also, you seem to be in a particle physics program, would materials science and/or optics be different, since these are already highly applicable? At least, from how i've learned chemistry, are supposed to be applicable in everything from telecom to pharmaceuticals?

    i've already tried ChemE and it was insanely hard, and if i picked EE, all my chemistry work is made worthless, so physics seems closer. plus, even with my catchup work in ChemE, I'm still equally far away from a ChemE degree as the physics degree.

    there's also the objective fact that getting into a "bad" MS Physics is far easier than into a "bad" MS ChemE, especially with my relatively low GPA, due to need for Physics TAs at "bad" colleges.
  6. Dec 5, 2011 #5
    if you dont like ChE, dont pursue a degree in it. . . it doesn't get any easier or change.

    what about med school? also your choice between EE and MechE should be based on whether you liked phyiscs1 (mechanics) or physics2 (e&m) more. . .
  7. Dec 5, 2011 #6
    thanks for your help, I think I'll stick with a physics MS for now, and see what I do later. Thanks for telling me that the ChemE degree doesn't get easier or change its flavor, my family keeps telling me that if I just kept taking more ChemE classes I'll "suddenly get it", and now I know they're wrong.

    i do not have the hundreds of thousands of dollars to invest in a med school program, my GPA is relatively low, and i hate memorization. i am not very good at arbitrary memorization.

    I'd like to learn not only the topic itself but also things I need to know to "make it happen" - EM and classical mechanics to understand instrumentation, quantum and stat physics to understand the theory of what should be measured, and the programming knowledge to "make it happen". I believe such knowledge would be very useful on a job, as the Chemistry BS shows that I know the applications, and the Physics MS shows that I know how to make them happen. Doesn't hurt that I have several ChemE classes under my belt too for the "making it happen" part. At least, it should make me more competitive for analytical chemistry positions, as in my internships at a pharmaceutical company, they've complained about having clueless analysts who cannot fix instruments.

    And another reason is financing. I can't afford to pay too much for a degree, and some of the state schools offer at least partial scholarship for physics MS candidates if they're willing to be TAs, graders or maintain stuff; there's less demand for TAs in all aspects of engineering.

    Thank you all for your advice, I will give physics my 100%. Hope to write you back when I can't figure out a question =)
  8. Dec 5, 2011 #7
    you're def a smart and wise kid. the idea with ChE is that you don't "suddenly get it" as much as you just wake up one day and are "numb to all of the crap" :P

    and imo you are making the right choice in pursuing the field that YOU want, not what someone else wants, or what is in high demand right now. degrees in chemistry and physics literally give you an amazing working knowledge of how things in the world work, which will enable you to solve problems in a variety of fields -- leaving you pretty much free to study anything or work in any other field later on.
  9. Dec 6, 2011 #8
    how did u get a chemistry degree without classes in classical mechanics and E&M? Those are usually required.
  10. Dec 6, 2011 #9
    i had classical mechanics and EM in general physics, along with optics and waves for the 3rd quarter which was required of all science and engineering majors.

    i did not have upper division, 1 year, physics major classical mechanics and EM. these classes are far more mathematical and theoretical (yet applicable) because they do away with alot of the assumptions in general physics; the less assumptions make them more applicable to the real world.
  11. Dec 6, 2011 #10
    Yeah, in ChemE you don't get why things are the way they are, you learn how to solve problems. That may be hard if you are used to get a deep understanding of a subject before actually solving tests.
    At the same time jobs pay a lot more than chemistry.
    You need to sort your priorities, do you just want to make money right now or do you want to learn more?
    If you want to learn, go for physics, if you want to get money, either find a job(even a low paying one, knowing people in the inside of the job market is a very good thing) or try for ChemE, but it will be hard if you hate it.
  12. Dec 6, 2011 #11
    Yes, I've already decided to get a MS in Physics because it represents the least opportunity loss, due to TA/grader pay, and because ChemE would be insanely hard, and would require me paying 30k out of my own pocket. I've done an internship at a pharmaceuticals company so I know some people on the inside, and in my opinion a low paying job in pharmaceuticals would not do as much for me as a MS physics at a bad school that needs graders. Thank you for your suggestions.
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