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

  1. Feb 25, 2005 #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.
     
    Last edited: Jun 27, 2016
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  3. Feb 25, 2005 #2
    Question:
    Does this only apply in the USA or does this apply internationally? Just curious. :)
    Thanks.
     
  4. Feb 25, 2005 #3

    ZapperZ

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    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.
     
    Last edited: Aug 7, 2008
  5. Feb 25, 2005 #4

    chroot

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    ZapperZ,

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

    - Warren
     
  6. Feb 25, 2005 #5

    ZapperZ

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

    Zz.
     
  7. Feb 25, 2005 #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
     
  8. Feb 25, 2005 #7

    ZapperZ

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    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.
     
  9. Feb 25, 2005 #8

    JFo

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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
     
  10. Feb 25, 2005 #9

    ZapperZ

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    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.
     
  11. Feb 25, 2005 #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)
     
  12. Feb 25, 2005 #11

    jtbell

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    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.
     
  13. Feb 26, 2005 #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.
     
  14. Feb 26, 2005 #13

    ZapperZ

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    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.
     
  15. Feb 26, 2005 #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. :)
     
  16. Feb 27, 2005 #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?
     
  17. Feb 28, 2005 #16

    ZapperZ

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    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.
     
  18. Sep 6, 2005 #17
    This thread should really be a sticky.
     
  19. Jun 23, 2007 #18

    G01

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    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. Dec 29, 2009 #19
    Re: I have so-and-so degree, can I get into Physics?

    very interesting
     
  21. Dec 29, 2009 #20

    spb

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    Re: I have so-and-so degree, can I get into 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.
     
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