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Chem undergrad realizes interests lie in physics; do I have any hope?

  1. Dec 10, 2013 #1
    TLDR; obviously it'll be helpful if you read the whole text, but I appreciate the wall of text may put you off, so I've summarized each paragraph:
    • Third year chemistry undergraduate at Oxford whose interests lie in physics instead.
    • Chemistry course has a significant physical leaning, especially more so for those who are keen.
    • Worked in a theoretical chemistry academic research group in the summer between my second and third years.
    • Am working at a high first and a career in theoretical chemistry is a strong option, but my heart lies in physics.
    • Didn't originally study physics due to a mixture of naivety and poor guidance.
    • Read the final paragraph at least, although details elaborating on the above points will be in the main body of text.

    I'm a third year chemistry undergraduate at Oxford. Over the past two years of my degree I've realized that my interests lie in physics. I'll give you a quick, non-comprehensive overview of my background, hoping just to paint a rough picture of me:

    The four year chemistry course at Oxford has a relatively heavy physical leaning, where it treats topics such as thermodynamics, quantum mechanics, and statistical mechanics, for example (not an exhaustive list), to significant depth. Physical and theoretical chemistry are by far my strongest and favourite parts of chemistry, and topics in these areas have significant crossover into physics; I feel like my interest and ability in these topics stems from their physical approach, rather than nature of being a branch of chemistry. The course also covers other topics, such as classical mechanics and electricity and magnetism, rather poorly, but I do cover these, as well as topics like those listed above, in my own time from a physicist's approach as well. In second year I did the supplementary quantum chemistry course (which builds on the foundational quantum mechanics introduced in the first and second years), and in third year an option I'll be taking is theoretical chemistry, where it again builds on quantum mechanics and statistical mechanics.

    In addition to these I partook in a summer project in the Oxford theoretical chemistry sub-department this year, where I worked on a currently-developing semiclassical theory in spin chemistry [J. Chem. Phys. 139, 124106 (2013) is an example paper], essentially spending my time simulating quantum dynamics of coupled electron and nuclear spins, and will be conducting my fourth year research project (whole year) in the same research group as well. For those of you who aren't really familiar with theoretical chemistry, it's literally applied physics - not like how some people may say in a derogatory way that chemistry generally is applied physics; there is no 'chemistry', by its usually understood definition, in theoretical chemistry.

    I am currently working at a high first in my degree, and especially scoring my best in physical chemistry. Recently I've decided I'm going to stop fooling myself and have admitted I find chemistry relatively uninteresting compared to physics. I know the current path I'm on is leading to a career in theoretical chemistry, which would be interesting and partly satisfying as it's essentially physics, but if I'm doing it because I enjoy physics, then in relation to my true interests, I'm really on the wrong path; I know I won't be truly happy. There's a difference between using something as a tool and studying its fundamental theory.

    At this point you're probably wondering why I didn't choose a physics degree. Well, I tried to be broad in picking my A level subjects, as I was considering being a doctor at that point (stupid school advising me medicine because I liked/did well in science), and due to being discouraged by my school and sixth form college to not pick five A levels (again, silly), I chose not to study physics as an A level due to it not being overly thrilling at GCSE. I did, however, have the textbook and read through it out of curiosity in my own time. My knowledge in physics now obviously exceeds A level.

    So this is why I'm now posting my concerns. For example, at the moment, instead of consolidating material for my finals, I'm learning various topics in physics for pure interest. People say that I think/speak more like a physicist than a chemist. Be realistic: do I have any hope of becoming a physicist? I.e. that is without starting again from scratch and taking a bachelor's in physics, as that would be extremely expensive and would essentially write off four years of my life. A hypothetical yet somewhat prospective path I currently have in mind is taking an MSc in physics after I graduate with my MChem. By that point I'd be a published theoretical chemist and would have had a good opportunity to cover a lot of physics. I do recognize that everything stated here is inferior to me simply being a physics undergraduate, but it's just the situation I'm in. A significant number of British courses I've looked at say academic requirements of a first in physics or related subject (some stating such as mathematics, engineering, chemistry, e.g. http://www3.imperial.ac.uk/pgprospectus/facultiesanddepartments/physics/postgraduatecourses/physics third paragraph after entry requirements). What are your thoughts? What are other countries like?

    Thank you in advance for reading my concerns - I'm currently in a very tormented state!


    I forgot to add this additional question: if I do have hope, are there any suggestions that can improve the likelihood of this? One idea I have is seeing if I can do a summer project in the physics department this summer, but I don't really know how to go about that, and struggle to see what I'd have to offer someone in a different department to me...
    Last edited: Dec 10, 2013
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  3. Dec 10, 2013 #2
    Two questions first: how are you at Maths and how much Maths do you know? This is absolutely fundamental because it is the most important difference between Physics and Chemistry or Biology. Quantum Chemistry, for example, is not the same as Quantum Mechanics even disregarding the content differences because the approach to the former is going to be significantly more qualitative whereas the later quantitative/mathematical. Let me put it another way: a Mathematician definitely can transfer into Physics (well at least theoretical Physics) if they learn enough Physics.
  4. Dec 10, 2013 #3
    Thanks for the reply.

    I know you'll probably put your palm to your face if you haven't already, but maths had always been my strongest subject in school (I refer you to the paragraph about naivety/misguidance). Mathematics for chemistry in Oxford covers topics such as calculus (including partial and vector), linear algebra, complex analysis, and more, and I also read in my own time (I have my own copy of Kreyszig's). Over the last summer I even learnt some more pure maths just for programming practice as well.

    'Quantum chemistry' as a title is pretty misleading; the supplementary subject does cover more 'qualitative' areas such group theory and computational chemistry (e.g. intros to DFT, Hartree-Fock, extended Huckel theory, etc.) but it also covers pure quantum mechanics. I'd say around the most depth it goes into is time-dependent perturbation theory. Additionally, like I said in the second paragraph (I don't blame you if you skipped over it), I looked at how physicists learn such topics as well (for quantum I have a copy of Binney and Skinner's textbook).

    Even the main-course (i.e. not supplementary) quantum mechanics is primarily mathematical, essentially. They may try to give context about a model system (e.g. conjugated polymers, Marcus electron transfer, first and second order Zeeman splittings etc.), but it's then mathematical.
    Last edited: Dec 10, 2013
  5. Dec 10, 2013 #4


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    The best person to ask about all this is your college tutor/supervisor/director of studies (I'm not sure what the Oxford terminology is, I went to "the other shade of blue":smile:).

    That's what he/she is there for. Use him/her!
  6. Dec 10, 2013 #5
    *Points crucifix at other shade of blue*

    Yeah I've very briefly touched on that with my physical chemistry tutor. The thing is, he'll actually be my supervisor for my fourth year project (he's a theoretical chemist) and his group is super competitive this year (two places for which most applicants are among the highest in the year) so I really don't want to put him off! At least not until after he formally confirms his decision, anyway.

    What do you think of the idea of looking for a summer project in the physics department? Would I have even a speck of desirability for someone to take me in?

    Thanks for the reply!
  7. Dec 10, 2013 #6


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    If you think you have a conflict of interest, go up a level in the college administration (senior tutor, or whoever).
  8. Dec 10, 2013 #7
    My fault, the only Chemist I personally know did her undergrad at KCL and definitely does not have the background needed for Physics but I guess theres the difference between KCL and Oxford. However, you seem to definitely have the Mathematical background needed for pretty much all of undergrad Physics. You said you covered and also studied actual Physics e.g. Classical Mechanics, Electricity/Magnetism, QM, Statistical Mechanics etc; could you list some Physics texts that you would be familiar with (I apologize for ignoring this in your OP but you didn't really specify how much you knew so I had no way of telling) aside from Binney/Skinner?

    Actually to be honest, I mean you (will) have a first from Oxford and a good background, far from being hopeless, you will almost certainly be accepted to the average Msc Physics programme and likely Imperials as well.
  9. Dec 10, 2013 #8
    No worries, chemistry at Oxford does seem like a very unique approach, and chemists at other universities I've met don't seem to go into as much maths or physics as we do (bar Cambridge which, with being NatSci, obviously would be a complete pick and mix). With classical mechanics and electricity & magnetism, I feel like my understanding is relatively superficial at the moment compared to QM and stat mech, as the latter two have a much more fundamental role in chemistry.

    • CM: lecture notes from Oxford physics course and Introduction to Classical Mechanics by David Morin (I chose that as it covers Lagrangian mechanics as well as Newtonian). My hope is to eventually have a good understanding of Hamiltonian mechanics in order to really appreciate the common formulation of QM.
    • E+M: lecture notes from Oxford physics course, have gone through 'A Student's Guide to Maxwell's Equations' as an introductory book, and have Lorrain & Corson, and Duffin's books on hand (although not read through properly).
    • QM: lecture notes from chemistry and physics courses; the supplementary subject was very rigorous. I guess Atkins' Molecular Quantum Mechanics is also relevant.
    • SM: again, we cover foundations in a second year lecture course and applications (solids and imperfect gases) in two third year lecture courses, as well as the theoretical chemistry option course which I think has a strong basis in mean field theory. But on top of those the physics course notes again, and Blundell & Blundell.

    The impression I get though is that these are just foundational topics that essentially a physicist would soon take for granted? Even though I may show competence in these, I feel that what else have I got to offer in that? Or is that basis merely what they look for in an MSc, and anything else can be brought up to scratch as needed?

    Thanks for the insight :smile:, I'm just worried that if they've got a number of applicants, why would they choose someone with an undergraduate in chemistry over an undergraduate in physics?
  10. Dec 10, 2013 #9
    Yes those are more or less the essential core of undergrad Physics. Im currently a Mathematics and Physics undergrad at UCL and we basically only do the core Physics modules and modules from the Math department instead of laboratory / Physics options and as far as Im aware, most people in my course end up in theoretical Physics (those who do further study). UCL's Math&Physics course isn't in the league of Oxbridge/Imperial but you might be interested in the 3rd year courses in Physics (most have recommended texts)
    http://www.ucl.ac.uk/phys/admissions/undergraduate/tabs/third-year-description [Broken]

    The core 3rd year Physics (which Math&Physics undergrads have to take) are:
    Electrodynamics (Electromagnetic theory)
    Quantum Mechanics
    Solid State Physics
    Nuclear and Particle Physics

    If you are familiar with CM to the level of Morin then don't worry about it, you're basically covered for undergrad CM. Lagrangian and Hamiltonian Mechanics is not taught to undergrads at your average unis, as far as Im aware only Imperial (and presumably Oxford/Cambridge too) offer it to Physics undergrads (and at Imperial it is a 3rd year option). At UCL, only the Math&Physics do it as part of analytical dynamics but not the ordinary Physics undergrads. If you're keen, Goldsteins "Classical Mechanics" is the recommended text for us.
    For Electrodynamics, I would recommend Griffiths "Introduction to Electrodynamics", it is the recommended text in the 3rd year at UCL (Electromagnetic theory) and one of the most popular/acclaimed undergrad Electrodynamics texts out there.
    For QM, you're probably covered but a popular/acclaimed undergrad text for Physicists out there is Griffiths "Introduction to Quantum Mechanics". If you feel comfortable with it, take a look at "Principles of Quantum Mechanics" by Shankar.
    I think you're more or less fine with SM, I would instead recommend looking into Solid State especially but Nuclear/Particle would help as well.

    A first class Oxford Chemistry undergrad (and especially considering the highly Mathematical/Physical treatment in your course) frankly is probably going to have more aptitude for Physics than an average Physics undergrad; I think youll be fine as long as you cover the core thoroughly.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 6, 2017
  11. Dec 10, 2013 #10
    That's really good advice, thanks! All noted and bookmarked.

    So apart from trying to cover relevant bases as effectively as possible, do you think there's anything else I could do? One idea I have is a summer research project in the physics department but I can't really see how I'd have anything to offer. Are you aware of any areas that a chemist with an aptitude for physics like me may be of some benefit?
    Last edited by a moderator: May 6, 2017
  12. Dec 10, 2013 #11
    Forgive me for not having read everything in detail. So I may have missed the point. I believe that physical chemistry and theoretical chemistry already is quite similar to the mainstream view of what physics is. Perhaps more similar than some actual sub-fields of physics, like biophysics, complex dynamics, econophysics or engineering physics. This leads me to conclude that you probably don't have to worry too much about applying to a physics position with your chemistry degree. But it also leads me to the question: Given that what you do is (presumably) already very similar to what you'd do in a physics degree: What exactly do you think you are missing? What does physics being your real passion actually mean?
  13. Dec 11, 2013 #12
    That is a very good question, and one I haven't entirely answered extensively in my head. I briefly touched upon that in the fourth paragraph, where I said there's a difference between using something as a tool and studying fundamental theory.

    The topics we cover in physical and theoretical chemistry don't completely cut it for me a lot of the times. We do study stat mech and QM to nice detail (although they still don't feel fundamental), and also magnetic resonance (do you do much about that as a physics undergrad?), but there are many topics that are much more on the chemistry end of the spectrum like spectroscopy, photochemistry, valence, kinetics, surfaces & soft matter thermodynamics, and liquids & solutions thermodynamics. These contrast in interest for me compared to topics that are studied as a physicist; everything I've done in extra reading interests me at least as much as my favourite topics in physical and theoretical chemistry. Moreover, I've much preferred the physicist's approach to many of the topics we do (e.g., QM, stat mech, classical mechanics, E+M, thermodynamics) when I've looked at them in the extra reading, in contrary to how we're taught them as chemists. I would say there's a notable amount of crossover with my degree to physics, but I wouldn't say what I do is similar to a physics degree. Bear in mind a third of what I do formally for my degree at the moment is physical, although that will obviously change next year.

    Additionally, as a theoretical chemist everything I'd be doing would still essentially need to have chemical applications eventually, and I feel like that'd be a burden and restrictive. It's hard to put my thoughts to words, but I want to be doing something that has more fundamental basis. If I've chosen a field based on the criterion of it having the most physics content, then surely I'd be happier if I'm studying physics rather than something else that uses physics? Also, I get the impression many theoretical chemists struggle getting their voices across. You get very successful ones, like the supervisor I worked with this summer and will be working with next year, but I also feel that as chemistry's a field largely based on experiment, many experimentalists (i.e. vast majority of chemists) don't take theory too seriously.
  14. Dec 11, 2013 #13
    I strongly suggest you consult professors at physics department for career advice, not only your current supervisor at chemistry department. This could give you extra information. Since you are in Oxford, there should be excellent local people to ask.

    IMHO, the career path depends on what kind of physics you are interested in.

    For condensed matter and anything except particle/high-energy physics, the barrier between theoretical chemistry and physics is not as high as if you have a degree in chemistry, you need another degree in physics at equal level (two MSc/two Phd).

    For particle physics, in general, you need PhD in particle physics to do particle physics. If you have PhD in particle physics, you don't need PhD in theoretical chemistry to do theoretical chemistry if you want to back to chemistry.

    In any case, double BSc is not necessary. In any case, you have hope, since Witten got his undergraduate education in history.
    Last edited: Dec 11, 2013
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