Can I get a Ph.D. in physics if my bachelor's degree isn't in physics

  • #1
ZapperZ
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OK, I've seen this question, or various incarnation of it, being asked several times on here. People with various background and trainings, ranging from engineering to computer science to business (luckily, no philosophy) want to know if they can use their degree to go on to physics graduate schools. I have a quick and easy way for you to check for yourself if you are (i) qualified and (ii) have the necessary background to do this IF you intend to go to a US educational institution.

1. Get a copy of the GRE Physics test and do it. If you did not score in the top 25% (see posts 4,5 and 6 for clarification), you may have a problem with adequate preparation. A practice test can be found here: http://www.ets.org/gre/subject/about/content/physics

2. Go to the physics department at the school that you wish/intend to attend. Ask for a copy of their old qualifying exams. Most departments do keep a copy of these (a few links to old qualifying exams from a number of schools can be found in this post). Now read the questions. Forget about trying to solve them correctly. Just read and try to understand what the question is asking. If you find that (i) any of the phrase, words, notations, etc. all sound foreign and unfamiliar to you, you lack the necessary background and knowledge right away; (ii) you know what they're asking, but you simply don't have a clue on where to even start attacking the problem, then you are inadequately prepared and may need to consider spending an extra year of enrolling in advanced undergraduate courses.

These are two direct and concrete tests that you can do on yourself. It provides as clear of an indication as any if you have the necessary background.

Zz.
 
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  • #2
Question:
1. Get a copy of the GRE Physics test and do it. If you did not score in the top 75%, you may have a problem with adequate preparation
Does this only apply in the USA or does this apply internationally? Just curious. :)
Thanks.
 
  • #3
ZapperZ
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Pseudo Statistic said:
Question:

Does this only apply in the USA or does this apply internationally? Just curious. :)
Thanks.

1. Most schools outside the US do not use the GRE. I know some do, but as a rule, they don't.

2. Qualifying exams are, I think, unique to US schools. There may be some form of that in other parts of the world, but I use that phrase to define the single-most annoying, nerve-wrecking, sleep-depriving, stress-inducing barrier that any phd candidate in a US institution has to go through.

Zz.
 
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  • #4
chroot
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ZapperZ,

Just a clarification -- do you mean "in the top 75%" as in, above the 25th percentile?

- Warren
 
  • #5
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chroot said:
ZapperZ,

Just a clarification -- do you mean "in the top 75%" as in, above the 25th percentile?

- Warren

You're right. That's what I mean, except I didn't phrase it as correctly or accurately as you did. :(

Zz.
 
  • #6
chroot
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Just a note, I was told by the graduate admissions officers at several good schools that the 50th percentile is normally the minimum they'd be willing to accept, with the 60th to 70th percentiles being competitive.

- Warren
 
  • #7
ZapperZ
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chroot said:
Just a note, I was told by the graduate admissions officers at several good schools that the 50th percentile is normally the minimum they'd be willing to accept, with the 60th to 70th percentiles being competitive.

- Warren

I had a conversation with two profs. who are in the graduate admission committee from U. of Chicago and U. of Illinois at Chicago, and they both told me they don't even care about the GRE! :)

I think the issue here isn't the acceptance into grad school. There are many schools that will accept you even with a mediocre grade, if you're paying full fare. The question is, can you survive? There are many schools in which at least 1/2 of the incoming applicants could not make it past the qualifier. One would be setting one up for a disappointment, not to mention wasted resources and at least 2 years of one's life, not being able to continue pursuing the physics graduate degree. That's why I raise the bar on the GRE a little bit, especially since the GRE is considerably easier than most qualifying exams.

Zz.
 
  • #8
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Thanks Zapper Z, those are some helpful tips!

Do you know if acceptance is weighted heavily on the type of degree you have? I would think that physics majors would have the best chance of getting in, which is why im thinking of switching my major (if possible) from EE.

thanks,
-JFo
 
  • #9
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JFo said:
Thanks Zapper Z, those are some helpful tips!

Do you know if acceptance is weighted heavily on the type of degree you have? I would think that physics majors would have the best chance of getting in, which is why im thinking of switching my major (if possible) from EE.

thanks,
-JFo

Of course, physics majors would have a more favorable consideration - if not, what's the use of a physics degree? However, your acceptance depends very much on where you are applying to. The top-tier (what I call "brand name") schools expect you to land immediately on your feet and be able to proceed with graduate level classes and prepare for your qualifier. This means you should already have adequate background necessary to do those courses. Other schools tend to be more forgiving, where you might have a year (or even two if you didn't pass the qualifier the first time around) where you could enroll in a number of advance undergrad classes just to catch up.

Again, let me emphasize that, if you want simply to get accepted, this isn't as difficult as surviving and getting through to the end. I don't think anyone would want to waste a couple of years of one's life that would amount to nothing in terms of getting a degree.

Zz.
 
  • #10
cronxeh
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And as a backup, if you dont get accepted or would need some time off or simply repaying your loans - you will always be better off with an engineering degree as well. If you can pull it off, go for a double major (EE + Physics)
 
  • #11
jtbell
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ZapperZ said:
I think the issue here isn't the acceptance into grad school. There are many schools that will accept you even with a mediocre grade, if you're paying full fare.

You may not even have to pay full fare. Large universities usually need lots of teaching assistants for the introductory courses. I suspect that many of them, at least at some schools, don't make it past the qualifying exam.
 
  • #12
Gokul43201
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Wow, I thought you (Zz) meant that a 75 percentile score is what determines that you're prepared.

Let me add that I'm one of these people in grad school doing Physics after an engineering degree. My GRE score was in the high 70s (percentile). And I found myself slightly underprepared when I started taking the regular courseload here.

The GRE does not test you on very much advanced undergrad knowledge - it mostly tests you on the basics. Of course, if your fundamentals are weak, this is not for you.
 
  • #13
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Gokul43201 said:
Wow, I thought you (Zz) meant that a 75 percentile score is what determines that you're prepared.

Let me add that I'm one of these people in grad school doing Physics after an engineering degree. My GRE score was in the high 70s (percentile). And I found myself slightly underprepared when I started taking the regular courseload here.

The GRE does not test you on very much advanced undergrad knowledge - it mostly tests you on the basics. Of course, if your fundamentals are weak, this is not for you.

Well, remember that the "tests" I listed originally are meant only as a minimal, starting point of self-evaluation. I suggest doing the GRE test from their sample exam - I didn't suggest one actually sit for that test. This way, the student has less of a pressure, and maybe even be able to look up the answer (I consider knowing where to look as a good sign the student isn't clueless). I also suggested that one doesn't actually attempt to answer those qualifying exam - just look at it and see if you can in fact understand just the question. Most physics students may not be able to answer such questions right away, but they certainly could figure out what it is asking.

What I wanted to accomplish was to suggest something more concrete than "You need to look at your background, where you want to go, what classes you took..."etc, etc... While all the advices that have already been given in all those threads asking about this type of question were good, I wanted to suggest something these students can try for themselves. It is the zeroth order self-evaluation on whether one has any realistic chance of not just being accepted into grad school, but whether one has a chance of survival. So if one is thinking of enrolling into a physics grad program in the US from a different academic background, these tests are, to me, the clearest indication of one's ability to survivie.

Zz.
 
  • #14
JasonRox
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This has definitely been the most useful thread in awhile.

I'm only a junior, but graduate school plans are in the air. This tells me alot on what to expect because I also heard that it wasn't easy (for mathematics anyways). Just to let you know, I never thought it would be easy just I never thought it could be so hard. The way some people describe it as, is just insane.

Although I'm going for mathematics, there might be similarities. So this is what I'm curious about...

I heard and was told that you need to know "like" everything. You needed a really good understanding of everything, or in other words, a good foundation. At the same time, you pick the area you want to focus on and they literally expect you to know everything in that area.

So my question is...

How much would they expect you to know in an area of mathematics/physics that is not related to the field you have chosen? Would they expect you to know 4th year undergraduate material, like a breeze?

Note: The questions are for things not related to your area of study.

For example, if I wanted to do work in Number Theory - Pure Mathematics, and they asked questions in Applied Mathematics, I'm most likely going to be screwed.

Note: I do want to go into Number Theory. I got my fingers crossed. :)
 
  • #15
cronxeh
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This is an interesting thread.

ZapperZ Can you comment on which courses an undergrad should choose as his subjects in addition to the 'usual' curriculum for Physics majors (Calc, Multivar calc, Diff Eq, Linear algebra, complex variables, probability & statistics)

I will be faced with a choice to make - either take Real Analysis (2 classes, based on Introduction to Real Analysis by Manfred Stoll) or Partial Diff Eq (the book is by S.J. Farlow) - (unfortunately I cant take both as I have other subjects for a dual major) - which class do you think I should take?
 
  • #16
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cronxeh said:
This is an interesting thread.

ZapperZ Can you comment on which courses an undergrad should choose as his subjects in addition to the 'usual' curriculum for Physics majors (Calc, Multivar calc, Diff Eq, Linear algebra, complex variables, probability & statistics)

I will be faced with a choice to make - either take Real Analysis (2 classes, based on Introduction to Real Analysis by Manfred Stoll) or Partial Diff Eq (the book is by S.J. Farlow) - (unfortunately I cant take both as I have other subjects for a dual major) - which class do you think I should take?

I feel very tacky in recommending you read my "So You Want To Be A Physicist" essay, but I will! :)

In one part (I forgot which), I deal exclusively on math preparations. To paraphrase Mary Boas in the preface of her book, sometime a physics major needs more math than a math major! At the undergraduate level, especially in US institutions, a physics major simply does not have the time nor the inclination to take that much math! And we need as much as we can to be able to do physics!

If you are a physics major, the easiest way out from all this is to either enroll in a mathematical physics course, if you are lucky enough to be at a school that offers this. If not, I strongly, strongly, strongly recommend you get the Mary Boas text that I recommended. Everyone that I have recommended this to and bought it did not regret getting it. It will give you the starting point for all the mathematics you need as a physics major, without having to take all the other mathematics courses.

Zz.
 
  • #17
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This thread should really be a sticky.
 
  • #18
G01
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This thread should really be a sticky.

I agree. I just found this linked in another thread. This was really useful information, even for those of us already in physics who want to go to grad school!
 
  • #20
spb
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And as a backup, if you dont get accepted or would need some time off or simply repaying your loans - you will always be better off with an engineering degree as well. If you can pull it off, go for a double major (EE + Physics)

This thread, and this post in particular, is incredibly helpful.

If I did a dual degree in EE and Physics, how helpful would the EE be in graduate school for Physics? Would the EE degree turn out to be an extra year of undergrad for a just-in-case option?

Also, sticky.
 
  • #21
ZapperZ
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This thread, and this post in particular, is incredibly helpful.

If I did a dual degree in EE and Physics, how helpful would the EE be in graduate school for Physics? Would the EE degree turn out to be an extra year of undergrad for a just-in-case option?

Also, sticky.

Your EE degree will be extremely useful to go long with your physics degree in your graduate studies, especially if you intend on being an experimentalist. In particular, the area of device physics, detector physics, and accelerator physics would SWALLOW people with your background, because in these areas, knowledge of electronics, EM-fields, etc. are such in demand.

Depending on what area of EE you specialized in at your undergrad level, or if you have any inclination in studying EM fields in various structures and geometry, try looking into accelerator physics, especially RF structures. Such skills are not only employable in accelerator physics after you graduate, but there are so many companies out there looking for people with that skill and background.

Zz.
 
  • #22
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Hi everyone,

From the last thread that ZapperZ put in,it seems that I can safely conclude that I,after doing my four year course on Mechanical Engineering, can opt for post graduate degree in Physics..is that right?

Now,in the mean time,(since I'm really interested in theoretical physics,and I took up an Engineering undergraduate Course just because my parents forced me to ),I can try to build up my Physics foundations enough by reading some extra material on basic concepts of Physics like mechanics,optics etc by going through books like..perhaps the Feynman's lectures on Physics? Would that be a good way to make myself ready for my post graduate course in Physics?(I thought that in this way,I could develop a strong mathematical base by doing my Engineering course and at the same time I could do Physics in detail.)

By the way,since I'm living in India,please could you advise me according to the possibilities I have in this particular country?
 
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  • #23
ZapperZ
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Hi everyone,

From the last thread that ZapperZ put in,it seems that I can safely conclude that I,after doing my four year course on Mechanical Engineering, can opt for post graduate degree in Physics..is that right?

Where exactly did I say that? And did you even read the entire thread at all?

Zz.
 
  • #24
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Sorry,I thought that since spb had done a course in EE,and you said that one could do Physics in graduate school after EE,and that the EE course would be helpful,I thought the same could apply to Mechanical Engineering.

Anyway,could you please provide some information as to what I could do,as I'm in need for some expert advice?
 
  • #25
ZapperZ
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Sorry,I thought that since spb had done a course in EE,and you said that one could do Physics in graduate school after EE,and that the EE course would be helpful,I thought the same could apply to Mechanical Engineering.

Anyway,could you please provide some information as to what I could do,as I'm in need for some expert advice?

You need to read VERY carefully what spb wrote: "If I did a dual degree in EE and Physics...."

In other words, he has a degree in BOTH EE AND physics!

Zz.
 
  • #26
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Then ZapperZ,what do you suggest me to do,if I want to pursue research in Physics?

Are you definitely saying that I cannot do MSc in Physics after B.Tech in Mechanical Engineering?

If I not,what degree can I take to become a lecturer of Physics? ( If I do M.Tech after B.Tech,can I take a course in Phd. that will allow me to teach Physics?)

I just can't find anyone around to properly guide me.... pleeeease help!
 
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  • #27
ZapperZ
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Then ZapperZ,what do you suggest me to do,if I want to pursue research in Physics?

Are you definitely saying that I cannot do MSc in Physics after B.Tech in Mechanical Engineering?

If I not,what degree can I take to become a lecturer of Physics? ( If I do M.Tech after B.Tech,can I take a course in Phd. that will allow me to teach Physics?)

I just can't find anyone around to properly guide me.... pleeeease help!

I'm sure you'll understand if my patience is running rather thin right now with this, because you seem to be comprehending something that I haven't said!

Have you read (and understood), what I wrote in Post #1, 7, 9, and 13? Only YOU can determine if you're well-prepared to do graduate work in physics. Not me. That is the WHOLE POINT of this thread!

Zz.
 
  • #28
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Actually, ZapperZ already said exactly what you need to do in his first post!

... you may need to consider spending an extra year of enrolling in advanced undergraduate courses.

In my case, "so-and-so" was computer science, and after a year, I was definitely ready for an MS program in physics.
 
  • #29
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Nice thread. I'm studying Electrical and Mechanical Engineering and am having doubts all the time if this was the right choice. The course is interesting, but I feel like physics what I should have chosen.
 
  • #30
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Right...I think I get the message!
 
  • #31
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This thread is making me think more and more about engineering (as if I ever stopped)....i'll continue tapping my fingers nervously as I keep reading this post..
 
  • #32
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Hi,
I'd think it is quite feasible to go to a post-grad degree in physics with a BS in EE or other degrees that require/demonstrate strong quantitative skills. There are big areas of overlap between physics and engineering, physics and chemistry and physics and biology. Just for example, in MIT there is a professor of physics that is interested in wireless power transfer, and there is a collaboration on this between the physics and engineering departments. I think it is important to realize that unlike undergraduate studies, your grad school experience will vastly depend on your chosen specialization and supervisor (at least for PhD, less so for MS), So it can be good to look at some researchers profiles on the web and try to contact them by email. Your skills and background may be just what some professor is looking for. She/he may help you to understand your chances to get into school, and maybe even help.
Of course, perhaps you really want to change direction, e.,g, you have BS in EE but would like to do research in string theory, then frankly I think this would be very difficult. But who know,
Ed Witten had his bachelor degree in history with a minor in linguistics. He went on to do a PhD in physics in Harvard and become the most cited physicist of all times. Of course, he is a genius and such a path is really a super freak thing. But switching from a natural science or math degree seems realistic.
 
  • #33
ZapperZ
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It is rather misleading to cite unusual exceptions as "proof". This gives the wrong impression that such a thing can be done, and done often. It isn't.

I've had a couple of physics professors who came from EE undergraduate background. So certainly it is doable to come from relatively close background and do a Ph.D in physics. But again, look at the qualifying exam and figure out if, based on your degree, are you able to get through right away without taking remedial courses?

The tests I've listed removed the original question from being simply a matter of opinion to something that has a concrete self-evaluation. It is now no longer purely anecdotal, but an actual "experiment".

Zz.
 
  • #34
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2. Qualifying exams are, I think, unique to US schools. There may be some form of that in other parts of the world, but I use that phrase to define the single-most annoying, nerve-wrecking, sleep-depriving, stress-inducing barrier that any phd candidate in a US institution has to go through.

Not all. The astronomy department at UT Austin doesn't have qualifiers and replaces them with a second year project and presentation.
 
  • #35
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Maybe its just a personal bias, but, I feel a significant proportion of people asking this question, of transferring to physics after undergrad, are either from mechanical or electrical engineering. Now, doing undergrad in physics just wasn't an option for me due to some personal reasons. From among the engineering fields I chose mechanical, feeling it was the closest to a physics degree and provided the next best preparation for physics grad school, besides physics. I'm looking for confirmation of this feeling of mine and that I made the correct decision.

Like any standard mechanical engineering degree plan, we are required to complete multiple courses in all of the following: classical mechanics, thermodynamics, fluid mechanics and heat transfer. We are only required a Resnick level of EM course (which I hear is enough for physics GRE!) along with circuit analysis or logic design and an electronics course. I also intend to take "Electromagnetics, Fields and Waves" as an extra course from EE department , which, from its course description, seems to be an intermediate level EM course, almost at the level of Griffith's Electrodynamics. Also, I maybe able to take a modern physics course, covering basic relativity and quantum physics, from engineering sciences faculty. Besides this, we do single and multivariable calc, diff eqs, statistics and probability, numerical analysis, and in senior year, as a part of specialization, we can take Finite Element Method which is basically just numerical solutions of PDEs (I think).

I'm well aware that all the courses I mentioned will be applications oriented, unlike how they would have been in a physics degree, but still, aren't we covering everything, in greater detail, except modern physics? I agree modern physics is a large part of a physics curriculum but wouldn't one or two additional modern physics course be enough to get me upto the level of an average physics grad?

On the other hand, a EE, besides "over-mastering" electromagnetism, will not cover any of the other basic fields of physics, will he? No thermo, no fluid and only an introductory first year mechanics course to fill the classical mechanics spot. So, isn't a mechE better off in terms of basic physics preparation ?
 

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