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Grad School Preparation

  1. Dec 30, 2009 #1
    Would earning a B.S in Mathematics and a B.A in Physics look better for graduate school consideration, or a B.S in Physics and a B.A in Mathematics?
  2. jcsd
  3. Dec 30, 2009 #2
    I had a BS in physics and a BS in math. Talking to the admissions people at the grad school where I ended up going, it seems the second degree didn't even really matter.

    I assume the BS in physics and BA in math would be the better alternative of the two you've picked. But that's just my unqualified opinion.
  4. Dec 30, 2009 #3
    His school may not let 'cause of bureaucratic madness (my school does this.)

    I'd also assume that a B.S. in the field you actually plan to apply for grad school in is better, but since the only difference between the B.S. and the B.A. is probably the core, and by having both you'll show you've done all the requirements, I doubt the school will care.
  5. Dec 31, 2009 #4
    But considering that I would like to pursue theoretical physics, would it make more sense to have a more solid foundation in mathematics?
  6. Dec 31, 2009 #5
    I'm assuming your doing a full math major either way. What is the difference between a BS in Math and a BA in math at your school? What's the diff between the two in physics? At mine, the only diff is in the non-major prereqs, so having one BS shows all of them have been completed anyway. Is there a reason why you're not getting two BS degrees?
  7. Dec 31, 2009 #6

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    Than in physics? No, I don't think that makes more sense.

    In any event, what matters more is the classes you are taking, not what letters go with the degree.
  8. Jan 1, 2010 #7
    I'd agree that the BS should be in the field in which you intend to pursue your graduate studies. However, when giving weight to your second major, it's also true that the committee reviewing your application will look at your included transcripts to see what upper level coursework you've taken (in both degrees) and to observe the strength of both majors (the same holds true for giving weight to a minor).
  9. Jan 1, 2010 #8
    Well for what it's worth, I would say that my math degree wasn't helpful in physics (don't get me wrong, I just did it for fun, so I wasn't expecting to get anything useful out of it physics-wise). Now I'm an experimentalist, so maybe the theorists do stuff in their research that I don't know about, which would make a math degree helpful. But I've taken a few advanced courses in physics, like particle physics and field theory, and nothing I learned in math was particularly helpful. It probably wouldn't hurt to take a course in complex analysis and either advanced calculus or Fourier analysis. Other than that, all the math I learned in physics was very different than what I learned in math class. Even taking differential geometry didn't really prepare me for the tensor calculus I had to do in cosmology and QFT.

    If all you want to do is prepare for a theoretical PhD, I think it would be better to take graduate quantum or a class in your prospective research area (e.g. condensed matter, astrophysics, or whatever). But again, I'm not a theorist, so take whatever I say with a grain of salt.
  10. Jan 1, 2010 #9


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    Speaking as a theorist (wannabe) I'd actually say more or less the same thing... upper-level math courses generally aren't that helpful, because you tend to learn the required math as you go along in physics. And not in the formal way that mathematicians study it, either, but in a "physically useful" way, of sorts - that is, you learn the math as a tool for the physics, not for its own sake.

    However, depending on what specific area of physics you want to study, there are certain math courses that might be useful. For instance, if you're going into high-energy particle physics or a related field, group theory would be a good choice. Or if you're going into general relativity, differential geometry. If you're doing anything that requires you to study quantum field theory, take complex analysis. To some extent, all these things are taught in the relevant physics courses, but because they're only tools and not the focus of the course, it often becomes necessary to rush through them a bit, and at least in my experience, I think it would have been useful to have a more formal introduction to the subject to lay the groundwork for understanding what I learned in my physics courses.
  11. Jan 1, 2010 #10
    Yes, these are good points, especially the part about how physics classes teach you the math in a physically useful way. On that note, I'd point out that my physics department offers a course in group theory. So a well-prepared undergrad might want to think about taking this course if it's offered. Most departments also offer a mathematical methods class (or sometimes it's offered through the math department, but is still intended for physics and physical chemistry majors). Really, this should contain most of the stuff a person needs for graduate physics.
  12. Jan 1, 2010 #11


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    Lucky you... my department doesn't. Or at least, it's taught very infrequently. And my mathematical methods course completely skipped that topic.

    Speaking of math methods courses, the one I took was really a review course - if there was anything in it I didn't already know, I doubt I would have learned it very well from that class. Of course, these things vary from one university to another, and depending on who exactly is teaching the class, but I guess the moral of my experience is that it wouldn't be a bad idea to try taking some of this stuff as an undergrad, in case you don't get another chance.
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