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Getting into Physics Grad School with a Math Degree

  1. May 6, 2016 #1
    I've seen a few threads discussing a topic similar to this, and I've been making some serious considerations and thinking about things.

    I'm currently debating switching over from a Physics major to a Math major and minoring in Physics. There are a few various reasons to do this, one being it will save me time and money in the long run and I will be able to graduate on time. I do very much like mathematics, and I feel a solid foundation in mathematics could really help me further along the line.

    I've emailed a program director at a school with a Physics Graduate program I'm interested in, and she said they have considered mathematics degrees before, and if I was accepted into the program I'd have to play some catch up. I'm okay with that.

    I've started to realize that when it comes to higher education, there weren't ever any specific doors I wanted opened, but I wanted to keep the number of doors closed as low as possible. I'm still not entirely sure what I want to do, I like the looks of astronomy and planetary science, and I also like programming and some aspects of computer science, the problem solving of it all.

    I'm also currently conducting some research with a professor at the University I will be attending in the Fall, so I know getting involved in research really helps on your graduate school applications.

    So my few questions are, is this route a good way to accomplish my goals? I very much like the idea of saving time and money, and graduating in 4 years with my 4 year degree. What are good mathematics electives to take for Physics? I was thinking of taking all the mathematics classes that the Physics department recommends to Physics majors like Complex Analysis, Numerical Analysis, Vector Analysis and Partial Differential Equations. If it is possible to get into Physics graduate school with a mathematics degree, what are some other things I can do to make myself more appealing to Physics graduate schools?

    I know this is certainly a weird situation, and I have a feeling many of you when reading this are just thinking that I should just major in Physics. But as I said, there are some problems. I feel like if I take longer to get my degree I'll be wasting valuable time, and that just getting my degree in four years and going straight into a Master's degree program would be better than spending a extra year in undergrad. Thoughts? Thank you all for your time, help and advice!
  2. jcsd
  3. May 6, 2016 #2


    Staff: Mentor

    For starters, you probably want to take a few physics courses beyond introductory physics like Classical Mechanics, Quantum Mechanics and Electromagnetic Theory.
  4. May 6, 2016 #3


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    On one hand you're saying that switching out of the subject that you intend to pursue for a PhD would save you time, but on the other you've been told that you would have to play catch-up if you were admitted to the PhD program you're interested in. And really, do you think it's wise to pursue a PhD in a subject after you've specifically made an effort to cut your foundation in that subject short?

    Don't get me wrong. I understand wanting to finish "on time." I understand that undergraduate education comes with a substantial cost. It's not unreasonable to want to finish along with your classmates.

    But the other factor is that by switching to a mathematics major you move from otherwise having met the graduate school admission requirement of a bachelor's degree in physics, into the pool of candidates that have to make the argument that they are equivalently qualified with another degree. While it's certainly possible to get admitted into a physics graduate program with a mathematics degree, such a move would inherently lower your probability of a successful application. It's difficult to say by how much though.
  5. May 6, 2016 #4
    The minor in Physics at my University would have me take the two semester introduction to calculus based physics sequence, and Modern Physics + Lab for Modern Physics. From there, you can choose two electives, I was thinking of taking Mathematical Physics and Classical Mechanics.

    So you're saying it's just better to stick with Physics? The worst part of it is I have this full scholarship for 120 credits of tuition, and it would run out by the fourth year at my University, so then the entire next year would have to be paid for out of pocket, unless I get some more scholarships. Of course I always apply to scholarships but I receive very few.

    The thing is, I suppose I'm considering too many things. My mind is too hyperactive, I want to do too many things, I'm also liking the looks of graduate school in Math, I just can't seem to settle on anything. I thought about double majoring in Math and Physics, and that would take even longer and cost more money.
  6. May 6, 2016 #5

    Vanadium 50

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    Don't you find these two statements to be in tension? It doesn't save time if you have to play catch-up afterwards.
  7. May 6, 2016 #6


    Staff: Mentor

    Since you're not sure and you want to keep your options open then you have a problem of trying to stop time. Sooner or later though, you have to decide what you're going to do and saving time isn't the answer.

    Try making a list of pros and cons for each subject or alternatively find a path that encompasses most of what you want to do. As an example, consider doing computer modeling where you could satisfy your interest in comp-sci, math and physics together. Next decide whether you want to push deeper into physics or math or comp sci.

    You always have the option of working a bit after graduation and then going back to school with the caveat that you will have to play catch on all the things you'll forget.
  8. May 6, 2016 #7


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    Would they support you with an assistantship for the extra time it takes to catch up?

    The "core four" undergraduate courses for admission to (I think) most grad schools are classical mechanics, quantum mechanics, electromagnetism, and thermodynamics + statistical mechanics. I'd be very skeptical of applying to graduate school with only one of them.
  9. May 7, 2016 #8
    Well, I've been doing some more consideration and thinking. I spoke with a professor at my University that I'll be doing some research with over the Summer. He did a double major in Math and Physics. I talked to him about doing a double major, he said it could help at the margins, it could be an extra few points. The biggest thing with me is as I said, I don't want to close any doors.

    If I did a Physics major, it's going to take me 3 years from now to finish it. If I did a Math and Physics double major, it would take one extra year to complete. Would you guys say the extra year could be worth it if I want to keep my doors open and make sure I can also go onto graduate school in Mathematics if I wanted to?
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