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Focusing on multiple branches of physics for graduate school

  1. Jul 1, 2014 #1

    I finished my M.S. in Astronautical Engineering in 2010, B.S. in Aerospace Engineering in 2009 with a minor in physics, and am finding that the work I have been doing in the aerospace industry for the past 4 years is unfulfilling.

    I would like to focus on something more research oriented and am very interested in:

    1) the nuclear fusion problem / plasma physics
    2) astrophysics / cosmology - particularly I would like to aid in the understanding of dark matter
    3) and at least be comfortable with the physics and mathematics involved in developing theories for quantum gravity / the theory of everything - not necessarily find a job doing this.

    I have a few questions:

    A) Can anyone give any advice on how I may pursue an advanced degree in which I could find a job (at a national lab perhaps) doing both 1 & 2 above?

    B) Since I already have a master's degree, would I need to take the physics GRE if going to a different school?

    B-II) I've thought about finding a professor at a university that is doing research I am interested in and contacting him personally - I know it will likely depend on the school and the professor, but do students do this often to bypass preliminary exams such as the physics GRE.

    C) For someone with my background, I am thinking I would likely have to go in as a M.S. student and apply for PhD after taking the schools entrance exam. During my time as an M.S. student, I would likely be able to take coursework that I may lack in-depth knowledge in. Is this correct?

    Thanks for all your help! I hope to get some great advice from you all.
  2. jcsd
  3. Jul 1, 2014 #2
    While I'm guessing you mean a Ph.D. (that you mention you already have a masters' degree and wish to pursue an 'advanced degree' makes me think that), the perspective on graduate school in The Illustrated Guide to a Ph.D. still applies even if you're not planning on a doctoral degree. Graduate research is about focusing your efforts, not spreading them thin. It's not to say you can't or won't work on multiple projects - my doctoral dissertation had chunks of smaller projects that panned out to some extent and that I could weave into a larger story (the skeletons of those that didn't are locked away in my lab notebooks from that period of my life) - but that they're going to likely be something where you can see the commonalities and how the skills/insights developed in one will help in the other.

    Contacting faculty prior to application can be a crapshoot - sometimes you'll get great feedback, sometimes you'll get a canned response (which may or may not include, "You should speak to our admissions coordinator"), and sometimes you'll get ignored (not maliciously, mind you - email inboxes of faculty can be scary things). I am not aware of how emailing/contacting a faculty member will get you out of requirements for admission or the degree, at least here in the U.S. Never heard of that loophole!
  4. Jul 1, 2014 #3
    Thanks for the info Mike. I eventually would like to get my Ph.D, yes. The thing is, I wouldn't mind getting another M.S. first if that was required. Hell, I would even go back and do undergrad again if I had to.
  5. Jul 1, 2014 #4


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    The first issue to resolve is whether your undergraduate education will qualify you for graduate school. It's hard to say in your case if you'll fit into the "or equivalent" requirement of "an undergraduate degree in physics or an equivalent field of study." The way to figure this out is by checkign with the specific gradaute schools you're looking into.

    If you haven't taken the physics GRE and the program that you're applying to requires it, they you have to take it. You'll have to look up school-specific policies on how recently you need to have taken it if you already have. Graduate study in another field does not remove the GRE as a requirement.

    Students will contact potential supervisors prior to applying, but this is done so the student can decide on whether that program will be a good fit for them. A professor won't waive any of the application requirements. The only potential advantage is that in establishing a relationship that professor may tell the admissions committee that he or she is interested in taking on that particular student. This can have a strong influence on the admissions committee decision, but it won't waive any of the minimum threshold requirements.

    Some remedial coursework is acceptable for graduate students - particularly if you are otherwise a very strong student. But usually this is limited to one or two courses. As a graduate student you're getting paid to be in school. No one is going to pay you for what everyone else had to pay for.
  6. Jul 8, 2014 #5
    At the school I went to, if you came in with an MS, you basically had to start over. Some students used the MS to boost their admittance chances (and possibly their background knowledge level), but they had to do the same things us BA/BS students had to do.

    I did have a friend who 'transferred' to another school post-masters. He did have to pass the entrance and comprehensive exams, but was not forced to do the other stuff students did in their first two years. Note, this was not at my school.

    If you want to do #1 above, you'll probably have to get a Ph.D. unless you want to be more of an engineer/technician. We had several people in my fusion Ph.D. program who did not come from a physics background. They had to play catchup in the course work. Also, my program didn't really have an 'MS only' track. You were expected to pursue the Ph.D. from the beginning. The first two years consisted of two research projects and about 7 classes. You could augment with basic physics classes if needed. So if you were seriously far behind, you might have trouble keeping up.

    Also, if you end up doing #1, you probably won't complete much of #3 :) If you like #1 and #2, I might recommend looking into programs that do solar research, interstellar wind research, MHD research, research on accretion disks, ionosphere research, etc. There's a lot of crossover in the basic physics. Though not really with dark matter most likely.
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