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How important is taking extra math classes to get into physics grad school?

  1. Mar 1, 2009 #1
    Will not taking math classes beyond what's required for the physics major hurt me when trying to get into grad school for physics? At my school the only required math classes for physics majors are calculus I, calculus II, multivariable calculus, and differential equations. Also I've taken a semester of linear algebra. If it won't hurt me when applying to grad school I don't think that I want to take anymore math courses. I'm kind of scared of taking anymore courses in the math department (especially pure math courses) because I'm really bad at writing proofs and honestly am not particularly interested in math that I can't apply. But at the same time it seems like being a double major in physics and math makes you a much more attractive candidate when trying to get into grad school for physics. Am I right or wrong about this? If I don't take any math courses beyond what's required of me for physics do I have any chance of getting into a top school?
  2. jcsd
  3. Mar 1, 2009 #2


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    Math is easy and fun. Think of it as a break from your major.
  4. Mar 1, 2009 #3


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    @lurflurf If math is easy than that is due to your course choices.

    You have enough math classes for your undergrad physics curriculum and I would really suggests you dont take anymore math classes. If your scared of math than taking more math classes will
    a) might hurt your GPA
    b) take your time which might be intertwined with a). Use the gained time for PGRE and research.

    A higher PGRE and research will make you a much more attractive candidate.
  5. Mar 2, 2009 #4

    Vanadium 50

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    There are two issues you need to be thinking about: getting in to graduate school, and succeeding in graduate school.

    I would argue that if you want to succeed in graduate school as an experimenter, you need a class on probability and statistics, and a class on applied analysis: complex variables, method of residues, special functions, boundary conditions, that sort of thing. (If you want to be a theorist, I'd have to ask "Why? If you hate math so much why do you want to spend a lifetime doing it?")

    Most graduate schools offer a class in mathematical methods. You really don't want to be struggling through this class because it's all new to you and because you took a couple years off. You want this to be an easy A so you can start grad school off on the right foot.
  6. Mar 2, 2009 #5


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    For some maybe. For me, math was always more of a necessary evil or something. I've got a strong love/hate relationship to math. I do envy those for whom it comes easier. (is there really any other area where apparent 'natural' aptitude has such an effect? I doubt it)

    That said. I studied extra math, and I've never regretted it.
  7. Mar 2, 2009 #6
    Physicists make up their own math anyway, so taking real math courses will probably only make you a bitter and confused graduate student.

    In all seriousness though, the more math you take as an undergraduate, the better.
  8. Mar 2, 2009 #7
    The way that physicists teach math e.g. complex analysis you will never be quite sure why things work, and so it is difficult to be certain when various techniques will apply. But if you don't like math, then I don't recommend taking any more math courses, rather, I am just letting you know that the first year or two of grad school won't be that fun. Once the experimentalists and theoreticians go their seperate ways you will enjoy the remaining years if you like physics experiments.
  9. Mar 2, 2009 #8
    With regards to "getting into" graduate programs... When I was on a selection committee, I usually bumped up my personal score of a candidate by 0.5 points (out of ten) for a candidate that showed strong math coursework. This score, of course, was averaged with two-three other readers' scores... and put into a ranking formula with GRE scores, GPA, etc. So the influence on "getting into graduate school" is minimal.

    However, taking additional math classes will help you succeed in your current and future coursework (as others mention). I in fact skipped (what was for my graduate program the "optional") Math Methods Course and succeeded top of the class in (the recommended to be pushed-off) Jackson Electricity and Magnetism Course.... probably largely because of my strong undergraduate coursework in Math, including boundary value problems and complex analysis. (Note: I did also take Real Analysis as an undergrad, and I'm not so sure that helped me as much as the other two courses I mention... except perhaps that pain builds character. :biggrin: )
  10. Mar 2, 2009 #9


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    I agree with others that there is a difference with getting into graduate schools and succeeding and I would reiterate that you do not need anymore math classes if youre trying to get into graduate school . You might need courses on boundary value problems and complex analysis, method of residues, special functions,.. but outside of a mathematical methods for physics class this would amount to more than a few classes and if youre not feeling up for them then they are only bound to drag youre GPA down which will hurt your grad school hopes. The other option is to take a mathematical methods for physics class as an undergrad or as a graduate which if you struggle means youre going to struggle for one class when you get into the best graduate school possible or struggle as an undergrad which will hurt your grad school hopes. If you decide you do want to prepare yourself while maximizing your probability of getting into grad school the best option is to not take the formal course (learn it on your own/as a listener for the course/ during the course of a research project with a professor guiding you) or you could hold off taking the mathematical methods for physics class your last semester as an undergrad.

    If he decides to take these classes and gets a C he could drag his GPA down 0.3 or more depending on how many he decides to take. I dont understand why some people would advise him to take the courses and believe that below a 3.5 is uncompetitive for graduate school. That is like advising him out of graduate school.
    Last edited: Mar 2, 2009
  11. Mar 2, 2009 #10


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    If that is the case the remedial math work is more needed, not less. Though if grade inflation is to be a noble goal, I suppose the classes could be audited
    or taken pass/fail.
  12. Mar 3, 2009 #11


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    I still dont see why he would
    a) need to solidify his need more math work
    by taking remedial classes which could possibly hurt his GPA and
    solidify his lack of math skills for his graduate admissions comittee
    in the form of bad grades.
    b) need any of the suggested math so desperately during his time of his undergrad
    that he has to take it before his senior year.

    There are a fair amount of students who never thought to take any of the suggested math courses because they were pursuing some type of other double major .... Yet I dont believe that you could prove that there were bound for failure in graduate school because of it.

    I still dont understand how you consider course selection grade inflation. I thought grade inflation was
    a) the individual style of grading for a course
    b) a general trend by professors to grade in a less stringent manner
    what you seem to consider grade inflation I would think of as shrewd course
    selection or not being naive about admissions.
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