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Engineering to PhD in Physics Questions

  1. Apr 4, 2015 #1
    So I am currently a freshman undergraduate engineering student at the Cooper Union and one of the things that I am interested in is a PhD in Physics (Cosmology/Relativity and/or Quantum/String Theory). I am either going to pursue Chemical Engineering or Electrical Engineering. Will either one of those give me a good entry into a PhD in Physics. If not, what should I pursue given that Cooper has only engineering majors? If engineering will give me a good entry into a PhD program in Physics, what should I do to increase my chances to get into a good grad school for it? I am particularly interested in Special/General Relativity. Are there any specific courses that I should take in order to be more successful?
  2. jcsd
  3. Apr 4, 2015 #2

    Vanadium 50

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    You might want to read the thread "Can I get a Ph.D. in physics is my bachelor's degree isn't in physics" sticky. I think you should ask yourself if your university does not have a program for meeting your goals, whether it might be better to find another university.
  4. Apr 4, 2015 #3
    Actually, I am very happy with my university. But the thing is, I'm not sure what I want to do in the future (i.e. Physics, Med, Business or work force directly). So, I'm just asking around about what I could do. And Thank you. I'll check that thread out.
  5. Apr 4, 2015 #4
    Pretty much all physics graduate require you to take the physics gre exams+expect that you have done the core undergraduate physics requirement ( classical mechanics, quantum mechanics, statistical mechanics, and electromagnetism). Usually the level of Griffiths for quantum+E&M and Taylor for CM... similar level for STat/thermo.

    If your University does not offer these classes, then it would be difficult for you. You might have a tough time in graduate school for physics. The physics gre also tests you on the above material, but it is a 100 multiple choice (170 min) so it's really important you understand concepts and can do basic calculations ( fast). However, you can take time and learn these on your own. If you can demonstrate that, then it's very good. You can show ad com that you are disciplined +very independent.

    The field you are interested seems to be mainly high energy theory ( very competitive+minimal funding at the moment). If you are interested in pursuing this field, then I suggest that you really make sure you master the core physics I mentioned above. It's always good to have a firm basis. You do not need to have research experience hep-th as an undergraduate, but you should demonstrate that you are strong in physics/mathematics. Your classes/gpa + physics gre would be a good indicator of this.

    BTW, if you are interested in this field because of "popular books" ( like most people I meet) then I suggest you meet people who work in this field. go to talks! Maybe you can go to talks at Columbia/NYU/CUNY or something..... You will learn more about the field this way ( even if you don't understand the talk itself, you can ask questions or talk to people).
  6. Apr 4, 2015 #5


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    I was in your situation X years ago.
    Have you talked with Alan Wolf [not to be mistaken with Fred Alan Wolf]? He was in your situation X+Y years ago... (if I recall correctly) as the physics department was being dismantled.
    He had some interesting stories about Cooper and UT Austin. At Cooper, Wolf (in Physics) and Kondopirakis (in Math) were my favorite professors.

    ( In fact, Prof. Wolf assigned an optional reading book for the Modern Physics class (214): General Relativity from A to B by Robert Geroch. I read it... it was interesting... but seemed verbose at the time.... very few equations [written for the non-science major]. Later, as I was sitting in on Geroch's graduate-level relativity course, I re-read that book and it all clicked In fact, it's surprisingly deep in foundations beyond the typical "pop book"...I don't think I ever told Prof. Wolf about that.)

    As a freshman with the same dreams, my plan was to get an EE degree first (like Einstein and Dirac) then go do the PhD in Physics. While I was already very interested in relativity, I felt engineering at Cooper was more practical and more marketable and Cooper was tuition-free at the time. I recall some advanced physics courses in the catalog that I had planned to take. I was disappointed to learn from Prof. Wolf that some of those courses are just on the books and had not been taught for years due to low interest [possibly a leftover of the physics program]. Silly me for not following up earlier.

    After the EE circuits class gave me trouble, I ditched engineering and planned an exit strategy with with Prof. Wolf's help.
    In my fourth and last semester, I took some outside classes at other schools (PDEs at NYU via the enrollment agreement [is it still active?] and Lagrangian mechanics at Columbia [as an independent-study class at Cooper]). Then, I left for Stony Brook to be a math and physics major. All of my courses transferred and I ramped up/overloaded on math and physics courses, fearing I was behind the regular majors--I don't think I was. Eventually, I did get a PhD in physics specializing in Relativity/Quantum-Gravity.

    If circuits didn't give me trouble, I might have finished the EE degree. I'm not sure what I would have done at that point. Continue on in school for the PhD in physics or get a "real" job? :)
    [Edit.... one thing that I didn't realize that the time... as a graduate student in physics, you are likely to be supported by a teaching [or possibly research] fellowship, which covers tuition and often provides a stipend. So, more schooling along this track didn't lead to more student debt.]

    Certainly things have changed since then.
    Cooper isn't tuition-free any more. With Polytechnic now under NYU, I don't know if Cooper students can still take NYU courses.
    If you can still take courses at NYU, you might want to take some intermediate math or physics courses (like mechanics or electrodynamics or quantum mechanics). I'd certainly consult Prof. Wolf for advice and options. Maybe there is a small group of students with similar goals and interest in physics or math. Maybe a special topics class can be arranged or a small group of students take courses outside. (It would have been nice to have a fellow student from Cooper in these outside courses.)
    Last edited: Apr 4, 2015
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