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How do grad schools treat math-physics double majors vs. physics majors?

  1. Jul 2, 2009 #1
    I'm about to be a sophomore, my gpa is lower than I'd want. I have a 3.5 Physics gpa and a 3.56 general gpa. The course material for Physics was actually pretty easy (and a lot of fun) but I skipped a lot of quizzes (I know, STUPID) which dropped me a letter grade to a B one semester so I have a 3.5 instead of a 3.85. I'm going to work a lot harder next year, attend more classes, hopefully raise that but...

    So far I've found the math department at my school to be pretty tough. My math gpa is a 3.15, pretty terrible. I don't think it will get easier. I like the material, just my peers are better at it, but that's not going to stop me from trying to learn it. The problem is, it will definitely continue to weigh down my gpa.

    So my question is, will grad schools cut me some slack seeing my tougher mathematics course load than say, a peer who only took basic mathematics and thus ended up with a higher gpa than me? Will the double major factor into their evaluation of my gpa?
  2. jcsd
  3. Jul 2, 2009 #2
    I'm only speculating, but I don't think it will matter. There are so many factors influencing course difficulty like professor, topics covered, test/exam difficulty, that it is difficult to compare students, especially when they come from different schools.

    I think grad school just take marks at face value. I could be wrong though.
  4. Jul 2, 2009 #3
    I was a physics and math double major. Actually my math degree helped to boost my GPA. However, the physics graduate program I got into didn't care that I took a bunch of hard math classes. Now, I'm not saying that you should boost your GPA with a bunch of irrelevant courses like PE or poetry or something. But the important thing is that you do well in your advanced undergraduate physics courses. I also had a pretty low GPA because of a bad first couple of years. But I made up for it by getting higher grades in advanced courses like mechanics, E&M, quantum, and stat mech. In fact, those four courses are probably going to be the most important ones that admissions committees look at as far as your grades go. If you enjoy math, there's nothing wrong with majoring in it. But if you're going to grad school in physics, then your performance in physics is what they will consider primarily.

    That's my experience, anyway. Maybe others' will differ.
  5. Jul 2, 2009 #4
    For the application process a dual major is not too important, but in terms of your own ability to succeed in grad school and beyond, if you plan to be a theorist, you absolutely must do a math dual major unless you can either (1) learn math on your own by self-study or (2) will be satisfied with having a miserable time barely treading water in grad school with slim to no post-graduate career prospects.
  6. Jul 2, 2009 #5
    Is this really true? I've heard that SOME math classes are useful for theorists, but there is definitely a point of diminishing returns, and that point is before you have enough classes for an entire math major. I can see taking PDEs, complex analysis, numerical analysis, and probability and statistics, but as far as I know most of the math beyond that isn't nearly as widely applicable in physics. Sure, it may behoove you to take algebraic topology if you're going into string theory, but it isn't as applicable in most other areas of physics.
  7. Jul 2, 2009 #6


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    I would agree with those comments. It is great that one decides to challenge oneself but the admissions committee do not reward this in any meaningful amount even if you succeed but will use it against you if you do not so challenge yourself at your own peril but I guess at this point its a little late.
  8. Jul 3, 2009 #7
    When I was on a selection committee, the only way a dual major influenced selection was if a committee member noticed this during the "reading" of the application. The reading score was out of ten points, and typically I'd give a small boost (1/4 to 1/2 a point) if I noticed a strong double major (with strong grades and coursework in the second major). Most of the committee reading score was based on research experience as noted in recommendation letters and personal statements. However, the committee reading scores were averaged, then weighted with many other factors, for example:
    GRE scores -- verbal, analytical and subject were weighted separately
    rank of undergraduate institution -- via our own internal ranking system of 1-3
    GPA -- GPA in physics and overall GPA were weighted separately.

    The process then spit out a list of the applicants via rank and intended area of research, which we used to determine offers. So via a system like this, a second major might give you a small boost, but it's probably fairly insignificant. Taking some of the math courses recommended by other posters in this thread may however help your physics class performance... both now and in graduate school.
  9. Jul 3, 2009 #8


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    This is exactly what I always figured.

    Semesters of challenging coursework at best give a 2.5% bump which is diminished after averaging. On the other hand the same coursework has the potential to hurt you more than that 2.5%.
    I would say it is fairly insignificant since a 2.5% boost on a subsection is pretty insignificant.
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