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Programs Chemical Physics to Mathematical Physics -- Early Confusion

  1. Dec 31, 2017 #1

    Undergrad UK Chemical Physics student here. Looking for some advice when it comes to sorting out my degree path.

    First however. Some background info for those unaware with the degree 'system' in the United Kingdom:

    Most Universities in the UK have you apply for degree programs through the UCAS system - pretty much the UK Common App - in order to get your qualifications known by universities. So in a sense you have to declare what you're going to study before you come to the University. Thus, the admissions officers them judging you based on your skills in certain subject areas instead of overall performance in the plethora of High School Subjects.

    I originally got accepted to my current university to study Pharmaceutical Chemistry. After the first week I realized that I really did not want to take 4 years of Biology, and wanted to take more maths - so I switched to Chemical Physics. This changed my degree department from Chemistry to Physics, and removed all the Biology classes and added more maths classes throughout.

    However, the more that I do Physics and Maths. The more I want to rid Chemistry from my degree path and just study Mathematical Physics - which is, from what I understand, a prerequisite to Theoretical Physics. Which piques my interest a lot. If I change to this mathematical phys degree I take 2 Physics Courses from the Phys Department, and 2 Maths courses from the Maths department per semester. Instead of 2 Physics courses from the Phys department, 1 course from the Chemistry department, and 1 Maths course from the Engineering and Physics departments.

    The problem is. Im kind of afraid to make this change. Not because I have to fill out paperwork, but because I feel that Im 'not smart enough to take it'. Sounds very silly but my mathematical background was not that good in High School, primarily because I was very lazy during the earlier years. But ever since the first weeks of study at university - Ive been asking for more and have been doing very well in Calc. I also very much like the Chemical Physics adviser, so I worry this may piss him off slightly that I would be leaving 1 semester after convincing him to take me on.

    Overall, its kind of saucy but I feel I need to get this sorted out as soon as possible. As I dont want to be left behind.

    If you've made it this far. Thanks for reading. And if you have any advice, or just past experiences with changing majors within the Physics department - please do share!
  2. jcsd
  3. Jan 4, 2018 #2
    How will you know if you are "smart enough to take it" unless you try? As long as you're willing to work hard, smarts won't be an issue.
  4. Jan 6, 2018 #3
    To: OP. I can't address your specific instance because I'm not familiar with the UK academic system. But since you've received only one general response, I'll add on some general responses for you to consider.

    (1) You don't want to live a life of regret. Five, ten, twenty years from now, you don't want to be looking back, and sighing, "If only I had switched ....". If you were at least somewhat happy with your current course, maybe not too bad, but, from your post, you appear to be totally dissatisfied.

    (2) That said, passion is not enough to live on. What are your ultimate plans? If you were to get an undergrad degree in mathematical physics, then what? A PhD in theoretical physics? Followed by a career in ...?

    (3) I agree with Dishsoap's first statement. You don't know whether you're smart enough until you try. Furthermore, perhaps previously you didn't do so well in math in high school because you weren't thrilled with math as a standalone subject. But now that you know that math is essential for theoretical physics (which you are thrilled with), you will be motivated to do well in math.

    I don't agree with Dishsoap's second statement. Just as your physical abilities ultimately limit your level of physical accomplishments, your intellectual abilities ultimately limit your level of intellectual accomplishments. E.g., if you're only 5 ft tall, you'll never be a top-flight basketball player, no matter how hard you train (though I suppose someone will cite an outlier or two). Similarly, not everyone can succeed as a theoretical physicist (or poet or musician or ...), no matter how hard they work. I got my PhD in physics, concentrating in experimental solid-state physics, and went on to a successful career in industrial R&D. But if I had chosen to pursue theoretical physics in, e.g., general relativity, I would have bombed, no matter how hard I worked.
  5. Jan 11, 2018 #4
    Maybe I'll offer some input as well. Both Dishsoap and Crysphys made some good points. I sympathize with you a little bit because I've bounced around as well during my education. Started engineering, then MS experimental solid state, now a PhD in theoretical solid state. I was in almost the same boat as you; I did an engineering in nuclear/mechanical. As such I was required to take some physics courses during my junior year (USA system). These courses really locked me in and I could've cared less for the engineering, to be honest. I was unable to change my degree by my junior year for several reasons. Anyways, after my BS I got accepted into a MS physics program.

    I was finally into physics, the area I wanted to be in. I kind of "fell" into solid state. But once there in experimental, I was still unhappy. I was really drawn to the theory side, but, as you do, doubted my abilities to do this. Every once in a while I would see someone doing theory work and think "wow theres no way I could do that". But it then I finished my MS and was forced to choose what to do next. I wanted to move to theory, but was nervous, not sure if I was smart enough, and knew very little about actually doing theory despite having an MS in experimental physics.

    But I decided, as Cryspys said, I didn't want to do something I was moderately happy with and then look back later and think "wish I would've tried it". So I took the leap and switched into theory for a PhD. And I couldn't be happier. I truly enjoy the work I am doing, to the point that I even do it in my "free" time. It was a rocky road to start but now I'm comfortable with it (relatively :D ).

    So if I had to give advice to you, I'd say swing for the fences. You won't know if you can hack it until you get there. But if you perform well in the math at your level you'll be able to do it at a higher level. Just take it one step at a time. But also, don't burn bridges. If you like your advisor now, maybe stick there and give them some good results so they'll write you a nice recommendation letter (depending how far in you are to your degree).
  6. Jan 12, 2018 #5


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    I'd rather said that theoretical physics is a prerequisite for mathematical physics, where personally, this is a step I wouldn't like to go. Mathematical physics is really rather a branch of mathematics than of physics which is mostly concerned with making the sometimes handwaving but successful arguments of theoretical physicists waterproof.
    I myself started getting a diploma in chemistry, and then switched for my thesis to theoretical physics, although I had only a rather limited mathematical background. I think the best way to make a career in theoretical physicist is to work in close collaboration with experimentalists and this requires above all a deep understanding of the experimental techniques they are using. The understanding of the experimental techniques you only learn by hands on experience in the lab and this you can only get in university while you don't need university to read a book on linear algebra.
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