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Going into theoretical physics with a screw-up undergrad deg

  1. May 7, 2016 #1
    Hello every one I am from Hong Kong. I am in my mid-twenties and I have a very bad result in my undergraduate degree in physics and it hinders me a lot in applying for a graduate degree. Theoretical physics (gravitation, quantum field, strings) is the field that I want to do research in for my future academic career. Being sure that I have recovered from all the problems I had in my undergrad days is responsibility of my own so I do not intend to discuss here.

    I am considering two possible routes to achieve my goal. I can either study for a second degree and prove myself, or I can proceed to pursuit a theoretical physics MSc in the Europe.

    For the first choice is good because I will have the advantage of time, and been given a good quality education (which I didn't have before), to catch up and fill holes in my incomplete physics background. Also I will be given a second chance where I can achieve the best of myself academically. It will be easier to achieve future career goal with a good undergrad record.

    The advantage of the second choice is obvious: time. I get to save three years of time but I will be building my knowledge and research with a shaky foundation.

    I am aware that this field is tough and with a low employability, yet it is my biggest passion I have ever had in my life. So I guess if I were to achieve most in life I have no other choice of field. What is the best thing I can do to maximize my chance of pursuing an academic career (probably being a research professor) in this field? Given the low supply of academic job in this field, how should I approach the idea that I am not expected to further study and research in this field beyond grad school? What else should I consider?

    Financial concerns are not so important cause I am able to secure a funding for both choices.

    Thanks for taking time to help me solve my problem. Is there any pros and cons that I am missing in analyzing my two choices? Are there any aspect that I should have taken into account in making the choice? Please do not hesitate to point out any point of stupidity and ignorance from my arguments. Any opinion will be much appreciated :)
  2. jcsd
  3. May 8, 2016 #2


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    Considering that you want to go into grad school in physics, but already have a physics degree, what major would you choose for your degree this time around? Obviously, no school is going to accept you if you indicate that you wish to major in an area in which you already have a degree. Nonetheless, your second degree will have to look like physics (some flavor of engineering?) if you are to get accepted into a graduate physics program.

    Getting accepted into a theoretical physics MSc is not easy, either, as you yourself admit that you had problems on the undergraduate level. Why should graduate schools assume that you will magically do well once you get in.

    This is only obvious if you are funding it with your own resources.

    Without more details of the problems you encountered while in school I cannot offer more specific advice. However, I might well consider taking a few years off to work, build up a network and do lots of self-studying.
  4. May 8, 2016 #3
    Thanks for the reply.
    I did not include my background and future plan in my post so please allow me to elaborate it here.

    Univ days:
    I was born and raised in Hong Kong. I was specialized in Biology in my secondary school and was doing quite well, but I felt that my passion in physics is much more intense so that justify my entering to physic bachelor. When I was first admitted to the BSc in physics I have insufficient background training in both physics and mathematics. At that time I was naive and unprepared. I did not realize the magnitude of the challenge ahead by going into physics with such background, neither did I had the mentality and determination to complete the study.

    So I failed many introductory courses in physics and mathematics in my junior years of study. I was lost and can't follow the teachings, and neither did the teachers give much useful consultation for me because either they don't care or they hate weak student. I go through most part of my study on my own and doing self-study.
    It was tough and it drained me mentally and physically. I became more and more depressed, also compounded with procrastination I have destroyed my junior year GPA completely.

    Things get better in the later years. By the senior years my ability in physics had been improved to a point that I can catch up with the teaching from my teachers. Now I can past all the courses. To put things into perspective, by the senior years I can follow Griffith's quantum mechanics text book, also I can fully understand and have finished most of the exercise in the book. Nevertheless, I had not yet been able to pick up my broken lifestyle together with bad health status, This accounts for the bad grades.

    After Graduation:
    Very luckily I meet a professor in another University who does physics theory and computer simulations in nuclear materials. I managed to work as an research assistant for him. During my stay I have the luxury to re-study some of the materials that I am not so good at in my undergrad education. Also I studied, under his guidance, specialized physics (math) theory useful for the field, like non-equilibrium statistical physics and mathematics like stochastic differential equation. I found it hard, mainly due to the lack of math background, to follow and study mathematics topics. Yet I don't find much difficulty to understand these physics theories and put them to use in my research topic. It was an enjoyable experience to work with someone with the know-how and patience to teach you, and the research experience motivates me to further study theory. Plus I have taken time to rebuild my living habits, and solve psychological problems that I was faced with, through exercising and positive thinking .

    Future plan:
    Right now I am preparing for a GRE physics subject test in September. I do not have any scientific publication. The GRE is generally not required for the application of MSc in the EU but I intent to use the test result and give the admission committee at least some confidence on my academic ability and determination. There are theoretical physics MSc program in the EU, especially abundant in Sweden, that do not explicitly require GPA (at least I have a chance to fight for admission). I am confident that I can handle the study part of the program but I have no idea how far I can achieve in the theory research part as I had no experience. I think the only way I can guarantee my performance in theory research is to get a better physics/mathematics undergrad background education, which I did not have. This explains my choice of taking second degree.

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