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Do You Need Undergrad Degree in X to Pursue MS/PhD in X?

  1. Dec 9, 2014 #1
    If you wish to pursue a graduate degree in X, do you have to have an undergraduate degree in X?

    I read that one of the greatest physicists living today - Ed Witten - was a history major and linguistics minor prior to going to graduate school at Princeton for applied math (after which he switched to physics there).

    My first thought was how is this possible? I then realized he was a student many years ago, as he's in his 60's now. So, I wonder if this would still be possible today?
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  3. Dec 9, 2014 #2

    Doug Huffman

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    Is a Graduate Record Exam required?
  4. Dec 9, 2014 #3

    Vanadium 50

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    One usually needs the equivalent of an undergraduate equation, as the classes are taught with that assumption in mind.
  5. Dec 9, 2014 #4
    There are rarely true absolutes in academia, and it's generally more prudent to speak in terms of probabilities rather possibilities. I think it's safe to make a statement along the lines, "The further Y is from X according to some reasonable metric on the space of academic disciplines, the less probable it is to be accepted to do graduate work in X with an undergrad in Y." How much less probable it is depends on many factors, such as what X itself is (certain fields are inherently interdisciplinary and so accept from a much wider range of fields and some rely on smaller bodies of existing work and so are easier to jump into) and what exactly "an undergrad in Y" means. For instance, did the student major in Y but at least took some electives in X? Apart from the question of whether you're qualified to work in a new field, graduate schools will want to know why you're interested in X without any prior experience in it. I had a math TA when I was an undergrad who had officially done his undergrad in something "artsy" but, having done almost all his electives in the math department, got accepted for a PhD on the condition that he did a year catch up coursework first.

    It's worth noting that Ed Witten's father, Louis, is a theoretical physicist specializing in gravitation (who often jokes that his greatest contribution to his field was making Ed) so it's probably a safe bet that mathematics and physics occupied at least some of Ed's extracurricular interests prior to officially joining the discipline. Maybe the BA was a sort of adolescent rebellion :p
  6. Dec 9, 2014 #5


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    It's worth noting that Louis Witten, now 93, graduated from Johns Hopkins as a civil engineer, served during WWII, and then returned to JH after the war and entered the graduate physics program, where he obtained his doctorate degree.

  7. Dec 10, 2014 #6
    Good points. And that was funny of Ed's father. lol.

    I figured Ed must have had something like that in his background to give him competence in physics.
  8. Dec 11, 2014 #7
    No. But it makes your life a lot easier.

    And as usual, it is a bad idea to pattern your life after that of a genius. The rules don't apply to them the way they do to the rest of us. :)
  9. Dec 11, 2014 #8


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    I think the answer would depend on how closely related degree X is to some other cognate field Y.

    To give a practical example, someone with a BS in math or similar quantitative program (e.g. physics, CS, engineering), for example, can very quite easily go on to pursue and earn a MS/PhD in statistics. However, someone with a BA in, say, English lit, may not be so easily earn a MS/PhD in statistics unless he/she took considerable coursework in the field.

    I would also concur that Edward Witten's experiences and background is rather unorthodox, and one shouldn't draw too many lessons from his particular experiences.
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