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Going into Physics from a non-Physics background

  1. Jul 20, 2014 #1

    I'm in a slightly odd situation as I am not directly enrolled in a Physics program but am highly interested in certain topics (e.g. Plasma Physics, Thermodynamics, Fluid Dynamics, Particle Physics, Theories). I am actually enrolled in a Biochemistry program but will hopefully be either majoring or minoring in Applied Mathematics. Now, besides Introductory Physics and my own reading of topics, I have not formally furthered my studies in Physics, albeit I am very interested.

    My question is: for a student from a non-physics background (but one with math), is it feasible to pursue graduate studies in one of the aforementioned topics in Physics? (Sorry for the incredibly broad question!)

    I currently reside in Ontario, Canada and most programs don't require the GRE, so is there any other way to really see if I'm apt for further studies in the field? Do supervisors typically take on students from different fields like this? What are some essential or highly advisable math courses a student pursuing Physics from a non-Physics background should take? What are some good materials to read (would you recommend doing the problems in these books as well, or just reading?) when pursuing these fields in Physics? What level of programming and computer science knowledge should students looking at Physics grad programs have?

    For instance, beyond Calculus III & IV, Linear Algebra I, Ordinary and Partial Differential Equations, are there any other highly advisable courses?

    Sorry if this too general and please ask for further clarifications if needed! Thank you!
  2. jcsd
  3. Jul 20, 2014 #2


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    Science Advisor
    Education Advisor

    There's a thread around here that has to do with "can I get into physics with such and such degree" you might want to search for that - a lot of good information in it.

    Generally what most graduate programs in physics are looking for is someone who has an undergraduate degree in physics. There are some programs that can allow cross-over, such as engineering physics or physical chemistry. A minor in applied math won't cut it. A major in applied math with a lot of supplementary physics courses might be allowed, but that's a call that happens on a school-by-school basis. I think a minor in applied mathematics coupled with a biochemistry major is going to be a hard sell. The reason is that you won't also have a lot of the coursework such as: upper level E&M, upper level quantum, thermodynamics and statistical mechanics, or a senior laboratory course (in physics).

    If you're at a point where you haven't decided on a major yet, why not switch into a physics major?
  4. Jul 20, 2014 #3


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    Staff: Mentor

    As a rule of thumb, the "core four" upper-division undergraduate courses (beyond the first and second year introductory courses) that physics graduate schools look for (at least in the US) are:

    • Classical mechanics (up to at least Lagrangian mechanics)
    • Electromagnetism (preferably two semesters)
    • Thermodynamics and statistical mechanics
    • Quantum mechanics

    As far as math is concerned: calculus, linear algebra and differential equations are standard. In my experience (a long time ago!) complex variables would be nice to have. I ended up taking it as a cognate course when I was in grad school.
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