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Getting into Physics Graduate Schools as a non-Physics Major

  1. Mar 25, 2014 #1
    Hello, all,

    I am quite interested in pursuing a PhD in physics (preferably theoretical), but I've run into the slight problem that my undergraduate major is not physics. From what I've gathered, I pretty much have my choice of a graduate program in mechanical engineering from my accomplishments so far, but if I could get into a very strong physics program, I would find it hard to refuse. My general information is below; let me know what you think.

    Expected Graduation: May 2015
    Undergraduate Institution: Top 10 mechanical engineering, Top 50 physics
    Undergraduate Major: Mechanical Engineering
    Undergraduate Minors: Physics, Mathematics, Economics
    GPA: 3.87/4.00; ME GPA: 3.93/4.00; I've gotten an A+ in every physics course I've taken.

    GRE: 170 Q/165 V/4.0 W
    PGRE: Taking soon

    Research: In the area of dynamics (plus some in dynamics education). Started the summer before my junior year, continued thereafter. My professor believes I'll have 6 papers published by the time I graduate (2 submitted, 3 planned), though I think that's a tad optimistic. My work tends to be more theoretical than experimental.

    References: Should be good. Two have research and classroom experience with me (mechanical engineering), one offered me one after taking his final (physics).

    Additional Positives: Strongly involved in club sports; by graduation I'll have taken three grad classes in economics, two in math, four-plus in mechanical engineering, and one or two in physics; my GPA has been on an upswing. Three semesters as an introductory physics undergraduate teaching assistant (both E&M and mechanics).

    Potential concerns: I'm not a physics major, though I've taken more than the minor requires. I am undecided as to the exact branch of physics I want to study. My references won't all be physicists. I didn't write particularly well during the GRE.

    I know that these are very lofty goals, but the schools I would like to apply to are:

    UW Madison

    Or potentially others at a comparable level.
  2. jcsd
  3. Mar 26, 2014 #2


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    You need something to show that you've got something that is better than the applicants with physics majors.
    I not 100% sure about US schools, but in NZ and probably AU, getting into graduate programmes are mostly about getting the approval of the supervisor. If you can find a supervisor who is willing to have you as a graduate student for whatever reason, his/her nod during the application process will be more important than your major and your grade.
  4. Mar 26, 2014 #3


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    Something seems odd here. That's eleven graduate courses as an undergrad. Full time grad students don't normally take that many courses.

    And six papers?

    Again most grad students are lucky to have that many by the end of a PhD.

    If you are for real, I doubt you'll have much trouble getting into a physics graduate program.
  5. Mar 26, 2014 #4
    Provided you meet a certain threshold on the pgre, I concur, but the key here is a physics program, it might not be any of the ones you're listing. I would apply to no less than 10 schools of varying prestige, despite your high grades because of your background.

    Not knowing what branch of physics you want to go into (and why, in your personal statements) will not help you, I suggest you spend a lot of time looking into this and formulating why you would be a good fit to the programs you want to apply to. If their research foci is related to your experience (or if it isn't, but you can find some connection/figure out how those skills would translate into your new field), it will help. Presently, competition into even sub-20 ranked phd programs is very stiff even if you are a perfect fit, and you will have to provide a convincing case coming from an untraditional background.

    As a ME I'm sure you've had more than your share of thermo and electromagnetics, but have you taken any quantum and statistical mechanics courses? Having at least one will make it easier for grad programs to think you are prepared for the coursework and won't be needing any remedial undergrad courses.
    Last edited: Mar 26, 2014
  6. Mar 26, 2014 #5
    Thanks for the reply. I suppose I should mention that I am currently taking introductory quantum mechanics, and I've tended to avoid anything in the area of mechanics since I cover similar material in my major. I'm registered for a nuclear physics grad class next semester with a professor I've had previously and offered me a recommendation.

    And yes, I entered college with more than 50 credits, so I've had opportunities to take a lot of higher-level classes. I decided to do my minors with the highest level classes allowed.

    As to my publications, they probably aren't as rigorous as most would be, but at a minimum, I expect three to four (at least one first-author) to get published in a peer-reviewed journal. I will have spent two full summers on research, self-led or working closely with a couple professors.
  7. Mar 26, 2014 #6
    I should also mention that I am content getting my PhD in Mechanical Engineering if I don't get a very attractive offer for physics. I like the more pure nature of physics, but I can do similar things in engineering.
  8. Mar 26, 2014 #7
    I think you can get good offers if you research your options and inform yourself of what each school is strong in, what long-term projects and funding they have for them, etc. and use all that info to inform your application decisions.

    I suspect you'd have no trouble getting into schools that do hardcore experimental space or atmospheric physics (unmanned space probe instruments, metrology etc.), like UNH, CU boulder, and maybe Caltech and Harvard planetary science programs to name some. A ME background is very helpful here.

    I don't know what you mean exactly by 'dynamics', I'm going to guess that means dynamical systems and control theory? I don't know what physics PhD programs out there focus on this, I think this is mostly done in ME, aerospace, and applied math depts. Unless you meant controlled quantum dynamics, condensate experiments, etc., which would point you to condensed matter programs.

    A good place to start to figure out what schools do x kind of research is gradschoolshopper.com, then go to the source to confirm your findings and see if what is posted there is up-to-date.
    Last edited: Mar 26, 2014
  9. Mar 26, 2014 #8
    I think you have good academics but if you are only going to accept "attractive offers" for physics you might be setting yourself up for disappointment. Even though your academics are good there will be people with the same academics but physics majors and research.

    If you are going to switch fields you are going to take a hit in offers relative to your original field.
  10. May 5, 2014 #9
    Update: PGRE scores are in. I got 900. (Without answering the three physical optics questions I learned the next week, that was disappointing).
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