Chemistry Major Thinking (too much?) about Physics

In summary, the conversation is discussing the possibility of pursuing a degree in physics after having studied chemistry for several years. The person is unsure if they should continue with chemistry or switch to physics, and is seeking advice on the matter. They mention having a strong grad school application package and a love for math, but are unsure if they would be able to handle the coursework and afford the additional time required for a physics degree. The expert suggests taking a sample PGRE and getting research experience in physics before applying to grad schools.
  • #1
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I have been doing research in chemistry for quite a while now. I love chemistry! But for about a year now, all of the questions that I've had are of a more purely physical nature. My mentor has some good answers for me, but a lot of the time he doesn't seem to care or know about the answer. He has even explained before that a chemist: 1.) shouldn't concern himself with knowledge of the field I'm asking about, 2.) wouldn't find use for this information, and 3.) I wouldn't have time to learn that stuff in grad school for chemistry anyways.

I would love to take a degree in physics doing work in atomic, molecular and optical physics.

I don't know whether or not to continue with my pursuit of chemistry; I have a strong grad school application package and I should get into a top program. But should I go into physics to satisfy my curiosity? I would love if someone could help me by asking questions that might make my decision more clear.

Should I mention that I like math? I've looked at the physics GRE and I'd guess that I'd score pretty well on it. What's a competitive score on that thing anyways, 85th percentile? 90th? I'm sure that's subjective, but a random number guess or a ballpark will satisfy me.

Thanks.
 
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  • #2
Different situation: I spent some years in a chemistry bachelors program before I switched to physics for reasons similar to yours (in addition, physics was not available at my school and I had a prior pre-university degree in chem, so it was the default option).

The questions you should be asking yourself is: how far into undergrad are you and how able are you to afford tacking on at least 3 years of coursework? (because you really shouldn't expect anything beyond first year math and physics to be transferable to a physics program coming from chemistry IME). It is not starting over entirely, but it's close especially if you didn't have linear algebra and advanced calculus in your first year. I got a scholarship to move to a good school in my country for physics, so the choice for me was simple.

Once you've taken at least a semster in formal EM, thermo, and quantum, I would take a sample pgre you haven't looked at yet under real test taking conditions (2h:50m on the clock) before speculating what you'll score on it.
 
  • #3
Lavabug said:
Different situation: I spent some years in a chemistry bachelors program before I switched to physics for reasons similar to yours (in addition, physics was not available at my school and I had a prior pre-university degree in chem, so it was the default option).

The questions you should be asking yourself is: how far into undergrad are you and how able are you to afford tacking on at least 3 years of coursework? (because you really shouldn't expect anything beyond first year math and physics to be transferable to a physics program coming from chemistry IME). It is not starting over entirely, but it's close especially if you didn't have linear algebra and advanced calculus in your first year. I got a scholarship to move to a good school in my country for physics, so the choice for me was simple.

Once you've taken at least a semster in formal EM, thermo, and quantum, I would take a sample pgre you haven't looked at yet under real test taking conditions (2h:50m on the clock) before speculating what you'll score on it.
Thanks for your reply!

Physics isn't available at my school either, and I am planning on graduating at this institution with a B.S. in chemistry. I am hoping to apply to grad programs in physics with my undergraduate degree in chemistry. I'm starting my senior year in about a month, and by the time I graduate I will have taken up through calc 1 and 2, vector calc, diff. eq., and linear algebra. My physical chemistry course was decently rigorous and so were my physics courses (although they were only your standard physics 1 and 2).

I was hoping that with a strong pGRE, GRE, LORs, and personal statement explaining my specific situation, that I would be admitted to a few decent programs. They would supply the remedial courses that I would need and it would just tack a bit of time on to my Ph.D.

Any thoughts?
 
  • #4
Going to grad school in physics coming from a bachelors in chemistry can and has been done. But if you don't have a semester of quantum+E&M under your belt, or thermo/stat mech (physchem may count for this) or physics research experience*, you are going to have a hard time making a case for physics grad schools to admit you even if you score flawlessly on the PGRE. The former two would raise the question if you're prepared for grad courses (not all schools allow you to take remedial courses), the latter (probably more serious) raises the questions: "do you know what physics research is really like?", "why didn't you do a Physics BS in the first place or take advanced physics classes beyond the minimum requirement?".

*: unless your research experience is along the lines of quantum chemistry or physical chemistry, numerically integrating Schrodinger's equation for a many-electron system, etc. and you are applying to grad programs specifcally for the discipline.

The point I'm trying to make is you have no hard evidence as to why you want to shift your career towards physics research. Your options are: get some physics research experience ASAP and take advanced physics courses before applying to grad schools, preferably both! If neither are not a possibility at your school, look into postponing graduation and spending a semester or two at a school that enables you to do so, some form of exchange program (I don't know the names of these in the US), in addition to applying to the several summer research/internship programs that are available through NSF's REU program and national labs, there must be a ton at the physics-chemistry interface.
 
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  • #5
You guys are awesome and your advice has helped a lot. I have decided that I want to complete my bachelor's in chemistry and then get a second bachelor's in physics. There is a good program in my state that awards second degrees after completion of 30 credit hours and all degree requirements.

Would this put me at a disadvantage while applying to physics doctoral programs for any reason? Is it looked down upon if you "jump ship?"
 
  • #6
Have you looked into either Chemical Physics or (probably less what you'd be interested in) Physical Chemistry graduate programs? Just a note, I'm in high school, although I have the similar situation to you, I love chemistry, but also have interests/curiousities in physics and math. I have taken AP Physics & Chem, a lot of math, organic 1 and Physical Chemistry 1 (Classical Thermodynamics half) and have started a graduate-level statistical mechanics course (from McQuarrie) and currently going through Levine's Quantum Chemistry, etc. so it's not like I don't have any background. Have you tried looking (as in actually looking, not trying to go through it, well unless you have the time to try going through them) through Shankar's quantum, Griffith's electrodynamics, and Taylor's Classical Mechanics to decide if physics is truly what you want to pursue? If still interested but undecided, maybe take some upper-undergraduate physics courses to help decide. Also, because you like math, try taking a look at Woodhouse's Intro to Analytical Dynamics to see if you'd be interested in the math side of physics.
 
  • #7
Thanks for the reply bud! I've definitely decided that physics is the path that I want to take. Unfortunately, my school doesn't offer any upper level physics courses, or I would have majored in that to begin with.

I'm most interested now if I should be completing my degrees separately or transferring first. I don't know how receptive admissions committees are to people with two bachelor's. I wouldn't want to be viewed as indecisive.
 
  • #8
Well you should see how much credit you get from transferring, since you might end up having to take significantly more classes if you finish chemistry then do physics elsewhere. All in all, it depends on the college's (that you're planning to attend for the physics) policies on second bachlors and how much credit you'll get when transferring. If you are looking into an area that both applicable/related to physics and chemistry, then it would probably look good, although it would probably be best to ask a graduate admissions person at the colleges you are considering. Anyways, of course, you should take my advice with a salt, as I've yet to experience any true admissions/transfering as of yet. Hopefully at least some of it was helpful though.
 
  • #9
I'd like to avoid spam e-mailing the huge list of graduate programs I'll be applying to. Does anyone know of a general trend or opinion? Any personal experiences or advice?

The program that I'll be applying to for a second bachelor's accepts up to 92 credit hours transferred towards a degree and requires 31 credit hours of 200 level plus in the major field of study. I checked and most of my credits will transfer.
 
  • #11
I've been advised to continue with my applications to chemistry Ph.D. programs, and to do something heavily physical/theoretical in nature. Anyone?
 
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  • #12
HeavyMetal said:
I've been advised to continue with my applications to chemistry Ph.D. programs, and to do something heavily physical/theoretical in nature. Anyone?

Depends on what you want to do.

In terms of coursework, the quantum and the thermodynamics should not be a problem. What would be major problems are EM and classical mechanics, especially classical mechanics, since it trains you to think in a way that you are not familiar with. Of course, EM is hard, but it is also hard for physics majors; classical mechanics though is what physics majors are familiar with, but you are not. Start training yourself on these. Also, start taking linear algebra and vector calculus if you have not yet done so.

In terms of research, it depends on the school. At some schools, the materials science side of physical chemistry is basically the same as condensed matter physics, and the spectroscopy side is the same as atomic/molecular physics. At other schools, they focus on completely different problems; the physics side might be doing mostly superconductivity, magnetism, topological insulators, i.e. physics only problems, while the chemistry side might be doing biophysics, surface science, photovoltaics, i.e. things that involve chemistry concepts and aren't so clean.
 

1. What is the difference between a chemistry major and a physics major?

A chemistry major focuses on the study of matter and its properties, while a physics major focuses on the study of energy and its interactions with matter. Chemistry and physics are closely related fields, with both using scientific principles and methods to understand the physical world.

2. Can a chemistry major also study physics?

Yes, a chemistry major can also study physics by taking elective courses or a minor in physics. Many chemistry majors also have a strong foundation in physics, as the two subjects are closely intertwined.

3. How does a chemistry major think differently about physics?

A chemistry major may approach physics problems with a focus on the properties and behavior of matter, while a physics major may approach the same problem with a focus on the underlying laws and principles of energy and motion. However, both majors use critical thinking and problem-solving skills to approach scientific questions.

4. Are there any benefits to having a background in both chemistry and physics?

Yes, having a background in both chemistry and physics can provide a strong foundation for a career in a variety of scientific fields, such as materials science, biotechnology, or environmental science. It can also help individuals to think critically and creatively about complex scientific problems.

5. Is it common for chemistry majors to think about physics?

It is not uncommon for chemistry majors to think about physics, as the two subjects are closely related and often overlap in their studies. Many chemistry majors may also have a strong interest in physics and choose to take additional courses in the subject, or pursue a minor or double major in physics.

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