Do I need a physics degree to get into a physics graduate program?

In summary, if you have a math degree and are interested in physics, you may be able to get into a physics graduate program with the same level of coursework as someone with an undergraduate degree in physics. However, you may need to take additional courses to catch up on your physics knowledge.
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I know this might be a stupid question, but I am serious. Some of my friends are in graduate programs not much related to their major (a number of my friends majored in math but are in computer science grad programs, and vice versa), so I am curious whether the same holds for physics. In my case, I also have a math degree, but I am interested in physics instead. Would I have to go back to college and get my undergraduate degree in physics before applying to a physics grad program?
 
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Equivalent in set of coursework; meaning about the same as the degree, but officially earned a degree in something else. People will need to look at your transcripts and maybe see other information in order to make an assessment.
 
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  • #3
tetrahed said:
Would I have to go back to college and get my undergraduate degree in physics before applying to a physics grad program?
Almost certainly you would need to, unless you have taken a lot of physics classes. Speaking for myself, I have an undergrad degree in mathematics and a minor in physics, but that probably wouldn't have been enough to get into a graduate physics program.
 
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I know several electrical/electronic engineers who went on to get graduate degrees in physics. I suppose it depends on the university, the country in question, and the courses you took.
 
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tetrahed said:
Would I have to go back to college and get my undergraduate degree in physics before applying to a physics grad program?
What graduate specialty in Physics are you wanting to apply for? What was your specialty in your Math degree? Do you have any applicable work experience?
 
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  • #6
Beyond the requisite coursework, you typically also need relevant research experience.
 
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I disagree a little with @gwnorth. What you need is strong letters. Research might be the best way to get them, but not the only way.

I also think that this is analog, not digital. Deficient in two classes is a harder admit than deficient in one, but easier than three, and so on. A strong PGRE helps. Western Ozark State might be an easier admit than Stanford, and so on.
 
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  • #8
tetrahed said:
Would I have to go back to college and get my undergraduate degree in physics before applying to a physics grad program?
Depending on your proposed field of interest and your level of preparation,
some schools may accept you into their graduate program with the strong suggestion
that your first-year courses are mainly particular advanced undergraduate courses in physics you have not taken (e.g. mechanics, electrodynamics, quantum mechanics, statistical mechanics).
 
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  • #9
The expectation is that a grad student have the introductory sequence, classical mechanics, quantum mechanics, E^M, stat mech/termo, a lab class, and usually a catch-all called "modern physics" discussing phenomenology since 1900. Not every curriculum does this this exact way, but that's more or less what's covered.

Not taking one of these classes is what I mean by "deficient". Usually once class is not a hugh problem - one semester with an upper-division undergrad class is doable. Two is harder to deal with than one. Three is harder than two. And so on.
 
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I know of two places where they would give you (if they accept you) one extra year for you to cover undergrad classical mechs/EM/stat mech/quantum mech. But I suppose these kinds of places are unusual, and it is still one extra year dedicated to grad school (and not dedicated to making money in the industry). The path is still possible, though.
 
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andresB said:
I know of two places where they would give you (if they accept you) one extra year for you to cover undergrad classical mechs/EM/stat mech/quantum mech. But I suppose these kinds of places are unusual, and it is still one extra year dedicated to grad school (and not dedicated to making money in the industry). The path is still possible, though.
I have seen something similar for students pursing a MS and not PhD. Most require a BS in another field such as mathematics or engineering. Which were ranked pretty low.
 
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Certain parts of computer science involve a lot of math, and certain parts of physics require a lot of math. These crossovers are not uncommon. Obviously you'd need some prior computer knowledge not just math, or some prior physics knowledge not just math in these two examples. It really depends on what exactly the research would be looking at. It is highly likely that you would be required to do some extra courses to top up your physics knowledge.

I was taught on my computing degree by a guy with a physics degree who switched to computing afterwards for his second degree. Earlier, as a chemist I specialised in inorganic chemistry with NMR for my PhD but carried out a physical chemistry post doc in the organic department at a famous uni. And met someone I knew from a previous post doc whose Ph.D was also in inorganic chemistry but worked in the same organic dept as me. During my chemistry PhD, one of the other grad students had a chemistry first degree and was doing nothing but creating and using computing software on molecular structures. So crossovers are not uncommon, but you do need some knowledge that is very relevant when you switch over.
 
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Vanadium 50 said:
I disagree a little with @gwnorth. What you need is strong letters. Research might be the best way to get them, but not the only way.

I also think that this is analog, not digital. Deficient in two classes is a harder admit than deficient in one, but easier than three, and so on. A strong PGRE helps. Western Ozark State might be an easier admit than Stanford, and so on.
From my understanding grad programs want to know that a) you know what you're getting yourself into and b) have the capacity to be successful. Yes strong letters are important, but since a large part of being successful in graduate school is your ability to "do research", having a rudimentary foundation in "doing research" as an undergrad goes a long way to making you a more competitive applicant. Certainly for competitive admissions programs in the US/Canada/Australia it's pretty much an expectation. Master's programs in Europe may be more lenient as it is less common for undergrads in those countries to have had the opportunity to do so.

As for the PGRE, as during Covid shut downs most applicants were unable to take the test, many programs went test optional, and many more went full out "not accepted". There has been much debate of late as to the fairness/usefulness of standardized tests for admitting graduate applicants and as schools have become more committed to DEI initiatives, many programs (even top ones) have continued to discontinue the requirement.
 
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Well, the net effect of "no PGRE" has been to raise barriers to people from SLACs and other places without strong track records. Ironically, this allows departments to both pat themselves on the back for their commitment to diversity and at the same time recruit a less diverse class. "Win win" is what I think they call it.

But I digress.

If your university has a strong research program and you did not participate, yes, that's a problem. If you are at a SLAC without one, and you have otherwise strong letters, it is not.
 
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Country?

In the US, one can enroll as a "non degree seeking student", These programs are almost always without financial aid. If you need to take these courses and you need someone else to pay for them, you really have two problems, not one.

In another thread you were saying how you didn't need to take all of the core courses because you were an engineer, so let me tell you a story. On the first day of Jackson E&M, we saw a strange face in the room. We asked him what was up and he explained that he was a EE grad student, specializing in antenna design, and the EE class in electromagnetism was far too simple for him. He was sorry that he was going to smoke our sorry butts in that class, but that's just how it was.

He lasted one day. One day.
 
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  • #16
Vanadium 50 said:
He lasted one day. One day.
Good. What a tool.
 
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Well, we were kind of hoping he'd make it to the first test at least. You know, just to see who smoked whom. Purely for curiosity's sake, you understand,
 

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