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Chemistry/physics double major?

  1. May 2, 2012 #1
    I will be transferring to UCLA in the fall as a chemistry major (with physical chemistry concentration) and intend to pursue physical chemistry in graduate school afterward and have a few questions about pursuing physics alongside chemistry:

    -Physics is such an interesting field (particularly particle physics) and I feel like I'll be missing out if I don't pursue it at all past lower division courses. Would double majoring be a good idea or a waste of time (and effort)?

    -If I finished my chemistry degree and decided that I'd rather pursue physics, could I study physics in graduate school with a chemistry degree (plus a good background in physical chemistry and maybe having taken a few upper division physics courses and education from self study)?

    -Since pursuing a bachelor's in physics might not be an option for me, I was thinking I could perhaps purchase some books and teach myself about some of the topics covered in upper division physics classes. Does anyone on here have any experience with self-taught physics?
  2. jcsd
  3. May 2, 2012 #2
    There is a ZapperZ thread titled something like "I have so and so degree, can I get into physics?" and also his "So you want to be a physicist" essay which may prove helpful to you.

    PhysicsGRE.com also has a number (not too high, mind you) of a students, with a non-physics background, who have expressed interest in pursuing graduate study in physics. According to my observations, most of these people have engineering degrees. Try making a search there. There was a thread on the very topic a day or two ago.

    I'm not even in college yet but from what I gather, it shouldn't ridiculously harder than with a straight physics degree, in your case. That is especially so if people in the department you're applying at conduct research in a field which is closely related to physical chemistry. Say, something related to materials science.
  4. May 2, 2012 #3
    Ah, thank you very much. I feel bad now for not searching better prior to posting.
  5. May 2, 2012 #4
    Yes! Absolutely double major, if possible. It's very helpful for anyone who wants to do physical chemistry to know more quantum mechanics, classical mechanics and statistical/thermal physics. Granted, an entire year sequence on E&M is not directly super useful (I hear, I'm not a researcher), ideas do come up from E&M as well.

    Physical chemistry is a vast field - almost as vast as physics itself (overstatement for effect!) - it's comprised of statistical mechanics, quantum mechanics, kinetics, thermodynamics and subfields such as spectroscopy and computational chemistry. The average undergraduate chemistry majors exposure to each of those fields is one year long sequence of physical chemistry. That's ridiculous. Each of those areas deserves 1-3 quarters alone and yet it is all packed into 1 year. Except for some schools, the only way for most of us to get adequate backgrounds in physical chemistry is by taking the closest-corresponding courses in a physics department. And then some topics which are useful are just not taught at all in chemistry departments, like classical scattering theory.

    I would probably say a physics major with a chemistry minor is more useful than a chemistry major for physical chem.

    I can't comment on transitioning to physics however.
    Last edited: May 2, 2012
  6. May 2, 2012 #5
    Looking at it, two years does seem like a very short time to learn enough material to be fully competent (not necessarily professional) in a subject. One example to back this up is the importance of group theory, partial differential equations, and Fourier series' (as I'm only in calculus 2, I'm not entirely aware of what most of the topics of upper division math are or why they might be useful, though) in physics/physical chemistry, yet majoring in either of these fields doesn't require any math past undergraduate DE/LA.

    On a side note, UCLA doesn't offer a physics nor a chemistry minor. However, what I have decided to do is stick with chemistry and minor in math while taking whatever upper division physics courses I can squeeze in and learning what I can that I deem necessary or interesting on my own.
  7. May 2, 2012 #6
    Yeah, math is important. Keep in mind, taking classes in PDEs, complex analysis, etc is useful but you learn a lot of new math by simply taking physics and chemistry courses.

    And on that note, you learn a lot more new math in physics courses than chemistry courses in my experience. A lot of new math could be taught in chemistry courses, but again in my experience, it is largely avoided (perhaps due to the diversity of students. Physical chemistry courses are predominantly filled with organic and biochem people). The exception being is it seems most chemistry majors are exposed to more group theory as an undergraduate than physics majors due to inorganic chemistry and, if offered, spectroscopy.

    Yeah, the actual title of minor 'probably' isn't that important. That's what I did myself. I majored in Math and applied science and just took a ton of classes and I don't think not formally having two degrees hurt me.
  8. May 2, 2012 #7
    The minor is only five classes, though, and there's at least five UD math classes I'd like to take (on a basis of interest as well as practicality), so I'll end up with it whether I want to or not (kind of like how so many people end up with associates degrees that they never had any intention of getting).
  9. May 2, 2012 #8
    Sounds like a good plan then.
  10. May 3, 2012 #9


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    I am myself working in chemical physics, with a physics background. Knowing more physics can be very useful if you are going for physical chemistry (or chemical physics), but not all physics will be helpful.

    In chemistry, you might profit from stronger quantum mechanics, statistical mechanics, and some E&M on the theoretical side. On the experimental side, all the regular experimental physics courses may come in handy (particularly the spectroscopy related ones; but there is a good chance those will be handed in chemistry, too).
    Additionally, mathematics like linear algebra might also be useful, but those topics are covered in chemistry math courses too, and you anyway can learn those topics only fully once you get to use them in your own work.

    There are, however, also many fields you will not find helpful at all. These include general relativity, everything field-theory and particle-physics related, and most of nuclear physics. While those are all interesting topics to some degree, they have zero relevance for physical chemistry, and you might be better off spending the time on gaining some much needed auxiliary skills (like programming, writing, or giving talks), which can be just as interesting.
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