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Chemistry to Physics; viable?

  1. Oct 15, 2008 #1
    I'll start out by describing my situation at the present. I'm in my fourth year of undergraduate studies, pursuing a B.S. in Chemistry with a minor in Computer Science. I'd consider myself to have a fairly strong academic profile. My math/science GPA is great, my overall GPA is still good, though not as good (Damn Econ... I could always rationalize both supply AND demand going up, so I never did too well in that subject - I guess most people don't shop like I do...). I'm willing to talk to specific numbers if hairs must be split. I have a fair amount of research experience; I've done a year in solid state chemistry (largely computational, a few syntheses to confirm program outputs) and I'm currently working on an undergraduate thesis in the creation of an artificial photosynthesis membrane (much more lab work). I've got my name on one publication, and will hopefully have another before I graduate. I've presented at CERMACS and local research forums.

    So, on paper, things are going pretty well. As it turns out, however, my interests have started to shift, or, perhaps more aptly worded, progress. The reason I've become interested in physics in my later years of school was the same reason I chose to major in chemistry: In short, I love understanding the building blocks.

    Physical chemistry and personal study introduced me to notions that led to my interest in particle physics. I'd be happy to expand upon exactly what fascinates me about it, but for the purposes of this topic, suffice it to say that I'm considering applying to some graduate programs in physics. Graduate studies in physical chemistry may suffice, but it seems to me that nitty-gritty research in elementary particles is the purview of physics; while the research of physical chemists is fascinating in its own right (often lots of spectroscopic analysis of short-lived states/molecules), it's less along the lines of something I'd personally wish to become involved with (truthfully, along with a shift in academic interest, I'm also beginning to grow tired of the sort of labwork that accompanies 'wet' chemical research - again, this is a matter of personal preference; I have nothing against the field).

    I'm wondering how viable this transition is. I've heard of more drastic leaps (history --> physics, etc.), but I'm also farther away from physics than a mathematician or, in some ways, an engineer. As far as coursework goes, I've taken more mathematics than is required of a chemistry major here (calculus, ODE's, PDE's, linear algebra, discrete structures), this a result of general interest and computer science coursework. I've taken the physics required, which is a year of general physics (I did well, for what it's worth). I've also taken the chemistry department's course on quantum mechanics, which, while I'm certain is less mathematically rigorous than a physics course in the same, has familiarized me enough with the subject that I'm comfortable navigating literature and calculations in that area.

    This is getting long-winded, so I'll finish up, though I'm happy to expand upon anything I said here. Has anyone gone through a similar change themselves, or, in general, does anyone have any advice/tips to offer about coming to physics from a different field of science?

    (It's going to take me 2/3 of a 5th year to finish up the minor; I haven't yet taken the GRE; that will be this year - I'm planning on taking the general, chemistry, and physics).
  2. jcsd
  3. Oct 15, 2008 #2

    What I would say is that it is probably possible (most programs state a degree in physics or a RELATED field).

    Assets of your background:
    -- You've taken ODE's, PDE's, & linear algebra -- usually these are required in physics degrees but not chem, so it shows good math preparation.
    -- You've done research and published. While you might not want to stay in that particular field, research experience + publications are plus since they indicate that you'll probably succeed in research at the grad level. (In some sense, doing a switch from undergrad to grad is a natural time to do so).

    What I'd suggest is that since it will take some time to finish your undergrad degree anyways... during that time, take as many standard physics courses as you can squeeze in besides your graduation requirements -- especially an intermediate classical mechanics and electrodynamics course (BEYOND the standard 3-semester or 4-quarter calculus-based courses usually required for chemistry and engineering students as well as physics). Starting to do so now (mid-year) might be tough, it all depends on how often these courses (typically taken by physics majors only) are offered. It might be more feasible to take a statistical thermo course. Look at grad programs you are in and see what core coursework they require. They might accept your application without (so you'd have to do remedial coursework as a graduate student), but that depends on the program and how many applicants you compete against i the admissions process.

    Beside giving you more additional background in core material (probably needed for the GRE's, taking physics classes means you'll meet physics faculty. Hopefully they know your research adviser in chem and they'll be supportive. Have at least one of these faculty write one of your recommendation letters and provide support to your pursuit of a physics grad degree (i.e. say you're capable of it). Definitely have your research adviser write a letter, since research is a BIG weight factor in admissions committees.

    You'll need to prepare and take the physics GRE. (Obviously.)

    You might want to apply for more graduate programs than average, and be realistic in your choices.

    But I'd be optimistic if I were you. I got accepted into some EE programs for a phd program with my physics bachelor's degree (although I had a master's in an interdisciplinary engineering/physics "electro-optics" program too, so that helped). I eventually chose to stay physics, but that was personal choice.

    Best luck!
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