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Courses Graduate physics courses w/ no physics background

  1. Jun 3, 2010 #1
    With a solid math background, how well could I expect to fare in graduate physics courses without having taken their undergraduate prerequisites? I'm looking into graduate programs for physics, which would normally take an adequately prepared student about two years for an M.S. But if I had to take undergrad courses first, then I could be looking at three to four years.
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  3. Jun 3, 2010 #2
    Hi I'm in a similar situation, I'm about to complete a undergrad degree (UK) in Materials Science, and I wish to go into physics research for postgraduate degree. Although what i lack is the maths content of other physics unlike you, and the universities that i have spoken to say that the maths content is quite important. So I'm currently studying outside of the course to catch up on some maths, so i would say you stand a pretty good chance, as long as you're doing well in the maths course.

  4. Jun 3, 2010 #3


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    Please be aware that there are people from all over the world here in this forum. We can't tell which part of the world you are aiming for. All questions of this nature should clearly state the relevant part of the world that this applies to.

    If you are in the US, this thread may help you answer your own question and evaluate your own ability:


  5. Jun 3, 2010 #4
    Essentially I'm asking if it's feasible to study Jackson and Sakurai without having studied the two Griffiths, Goldstein without Marion & Thornton, etc.

    I suppose the lack of knowledge on the undergrad texts could cause a problem on the qualifying exam if that's what it covers -- that's something I'll have to look into. But I've heard by word of mouth that all I need is a good math background to study the graduate texts. I'm not sure if that's true.
  6. Jun 3, 2010 #5


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    Just because you know how to use a nail gun does not mean that you know how to build a house.

  7. Jun 3, 2010 #6


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    Dang, the exact analogy I was going to bring up!

    Personally, I've seen 2 and heard of 1 student's stories about switching fields like this that didn't have very good consequences. One was an electrical engineering student doing his graduate work in physics. He had more of an understanding of physics than a math student would. In order to get into the program, however, he had to take our undergrad quantum course, which he promptly dropped out of (and then the whole program) a few weeks later saying none of it made sense (although... well, it is quantum...). Another one was a math student who I believe basically tried the same thing as you did and going right into the graduate texts for him was like reading gibberish. Similar results there.

    The other student isn't so relevant but still humorous. There was a math major who was about to finish his degree and he had to take a intro physics course as is required by the university. Well, the professor who was telling me this story told me that one day the guy comes up to him and says that he FINALLY knew what a derivative meant! Of course he knew what it was from a mathematical standpoint, but no connection was ever made to a real application of it such as position -> velocity.

    On a more personal note, I felt a little of what you might be faced with. I ventured into my first quantum field theory text last semester and while I'm familiar with all the math involved, the author immediately throws particle physics information at me as one would expect. Now, I had never taken our particle physics courses and in the other courses, they were always part of the last chapters of a text so with the pace our university goes, we never really would get to them. So when I hit that, I found myself having to go look back at Griffiths particle physics text. Upon reading that, still even half of it Griffith's text was gibberish to me which made me need to go back even further.

    Moral of the story, graduate texts assume a solid undergraduate foundation. For example in Jackson, he assumes you basically know by heart most everything that you'd find in Griffith's E/M text. Finally, I do remember yet another stark reminder of the difference between physics and math! A PROFESSOR of mathematics was taking graduate courses with us one year. He was an absolutely great math professor, he knew his stuff, probably one of the most capable in his department. When he took our courses, he just did NOT get it. From what I hear from more experienced people is that physicists sweep a lot of things under the rug and say "let the mathematicians confirm this". Of course, that doesn't mean we do anything illegal, it just means that a mathematician might witness a course unfold and be confounded as to why we do the things we do. It was quite amazing to see him have major issues with things we did and I would stare at the board and think "...what is wrong with this?". I didn't even know what COULD be wrong! So from what I hear... I think the typical thinking is that mathematicians and physicists are sometimes in very different worlds, even at their more advanced levels.
  8. Jun 3, 2010 #7
    Well, good luck with your transition. It sounds like you're taking steps to prepare. I'm basically trying to figure my steps out right now, hence this thread.

    Yeah, that's true.

    Thanks for your detailed post. I think from everything I've read, I'm going to just start with the undergrad courses first. I've actually had a couple upper level undergrad physics courses: Griffiths E&M and Marion&Thornton Mechanics. That was a rough transition, just getting adjusted to the "culture of physics" as I heard it coined. But I made it through them alright. Unfortunately I only had one semester of each, so not enough for much of a foundation. I had to leave grad school, and the city, because I ran out of money. That really sucked because they were going to give me an assistantship the following semester. I told myself I'd give it another shot when finances were better.

    I might as well take it slow and do it right.
  9. Nov 25, 2011 #8
    I noticed these posts from 1.5 years ago. Today, I came across a similar post from today that may still be of use here.

    Here is the cut and paste:

    I posted a long sequence of what books/knowledge/skills you should have for grad physics and beyond at: https://www.physicsforums.com/showthread.php?t=540829
    At the top there is a short 8 page document for those at about the junior level interested in particles and fields (with a Word document), and then there is a long sequence of posts of a long Word document for going from junior level math/physics to grad physics and beyond (math/physics texts/references/key ideas/key skills). This, later, sequence is the sequence I have edited, thanks to great feedback and have available now. I haven't posted the reduced material yet, but I can email it to you (akalaniz AT gmail.com).

    (Both documents are there in that post, just scroll down.)
    (Please Note: Part 1 of the long document is on the limits of physics and math. Then Parts 2 & 3 are about the book lists and topics lists.)

    I feel the pain of some the other people who have replied. I got a piece of crap BS in physics from a liberal arts college, and got my butt kicked in grad school UT Austin. I ended up getting a pilot's license and joining the Air Force. Later, at the Air Force Research Laboratory in Albuquerque, I spent 4 years relearning my undergrad physics and undgrad math with the tutelage of a bunch of PhDs. It was mostly me that did self guided learning, but thanks to the PhDs, I had a heads up on what was required in grad school.

    After 4 years of self learning, I left the Air Force and knocked out a 4.00 MS Math, 36 hour non-thesis.

    Then it was back to physics grad school. The math helped, but not as much as you would think. Physics intuition/skills takes a lot of hard work. For example, Griffiths is a typical author of junior level E&M, and Jackson is the gold standard for graduate school. There's not much more in Jackson than in Griffiths when it comes to theory, but applications are far deeper in Jackson. It took me years working at an accelerator after my PhD to begin to appreciate the depth and beauty of Jackson.

    That file I can send you is also about filling the gap between pure (almost useless) math and math that physicists really need but can't get for lack of good sources.

    I hope this is helpful,

    Last edited: Nov 25, 2011
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