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Humanities Undergrad -> Physics Grad in CA – Can it be done?

  1. Apr 1, 2008 #1
    From doing some research online, a number of people received some pretty decent answers to related questions here on Physics Forums. So I thought I'd give it a shot.

    I'm graduating from the University of Maryland in May with two BA's in Art History and Philosophy. Though I enjoyed the subjects, my interests have narrowed back in on a core passion: physics, obviously. Unfortunately, I have little recent background or coursework that I can use at the moment.

    The process to getting from where I am now to a graduate program in physics is confusing at best, particularly in California. If anyone can help me figure this out, I'd greatly appreciate it.

    My plan is to start working full time while taking a couple of lower-division courses during the evenings, which can easily be done at one of the many community colleges. Of course, these lower-division courses will only get me so far, and after Calculus I, II, and III, as well as Mechanics, Electricity and Magnetism, and Waves, Optics, and Modern Physics, I'll have exhausted what the community colleges can provide.

    From here my next step becomes incredibly unclear. Most California campuses (both UC and CSU system schools) do not allow second baccalaureate degrees due to high enrollment at their campuses. The two UC's that do are Irvine and Davis; even then, it's very rare for this to happen.

    Another option is to take courses at a four-year institution by doing continuing education. Unfortunately, I will not be able to receive student loans (which I'll need), and you can only take courses on a space available basis.

    This leaves my only other option as trying to get conditionally classified as a graduate student in one of the graduate programs. This also has its downsides and looming questions. First, it seems unclear and unlikely that programs will accept someone who needs the whole cocktail of upper-division courses. Second, it seems like it would be incredibly difficult to get accepted without a lot of background in physics (read: good physics GPA). And finally, I'm not sure I want to lock myself into a lesser graduate program right off the bat.

    Also, I'll spare you all the details of my personal life, but the decision will be made a bit harder because of my girlfriend's grad school plans. We are limited to specific areas in CA; San Diego, in and reasonably around LA, and also in and reasonably around SF. This is an unavoidable restriction.

    Any ideas or suggestions, or some answers for me? I've tried talking to some of the programs directly, but it's spring break at the moment and it's difficult to reach anyone. I also talked to an adviser here, but the situation is so different in CA that it makes his advice largely moot.

    Thanks in advance for your help!
  2. jcsd
  3. Apr 1, 2008 #2


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    One of the state colleges states this in its admissions documentation:

  4. Apr 1, 2008 #3
    I was in the exact same situation!!

    i even made a thread about a second bachelors.

    so yeah UCs are almost out of the question.

    You mentioned being in the SF area...maybe u can try CSU East Bay. I think theres a BART that makes the travel convenient. They definitely accept 2nd BS (called them up a few months ago). I was considering going there. SF State used to accept 2nd BS, but due to arnold's budget cuts, they stopped acceptign apps this january. I dont know if CSU SD allows second BS.

    Also, Berkeley accepts second BS students, but only in college of engineering (and chemistry and optometry), which has engineering physics.

    Also, im curious, what kind of career do you plan w/ your physics BS?? U should check out odl threads on the jobs and careers possible.
  5. Apr 1, 2008 #4
    RasslinGod, to clear up, I'm planning on pursuing a PhD program in physics, not a career with a BS. The undergraduate coursework is being done only to ensure competency for the graduate coursework, and the only true way to gain competency is through such coursework.

    symbolipoint, the confusion I'm encountering there is over whether or not they will take an unclassified student who needs the full regimen of upper-division coursework, not just a couple of classes. As for courses for "professional or personal growth," those can be attained in continuing education programs, where my problem is affordability (since I can't receive federal loans).
  6. Apr 2, 2008 #5
    Let me introduce two words to you that might help... "Open University". Several CSU schools allow you to basically pay by the credit without being formally admitted, up to a certain credit limit. (In the one case I'm familiar with, I think the limit is 2 grad courses and 8 undergrad courses.) It's a good way to build up enough background so you can be admitted... conditionally or otherwise.

    "Continuing Education" is often something else entirely. Stanford's CE program, for example, is completely non-degree. They have a lot of interesting lectures (including an interesting series by Leonard Susskind), but they don't really lead anywhere.
  7. Apr 2, 2008 #6

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    I think it's extraordinarily unlikely that a physics graduate program will accept - even provisionally - a student who hasn't had a single undergraduate class in physics. Taking you means they don't take someone else, and that someone else is almost certainly much better prepared.

    If you are interested in a career in physics research, you really need to be looking at the best schools. There are ~150 PhD granting institutions in the US. You find a LOT more people who have "made it" from the top 50 schools than the middle or bottom 50. So your goal has to be more than to somehow scrape together enough courses to get in somewhere.

    To me, that suggests that the most promising course of action is to enroll in a UC school as a non-degree-seeking student. Most universities allow this, although it's often not well publicized. The advantage of this is that you get to take the same classes as "real" undergrads, and you may even be able to convince a professor to take you on as a research assistant. The disadvantage of this is that there is usually zero financial aid. You pay full freight.
    Last edited: Apr 2, 2008
  8. Apr 2, 2008 #7


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    Is moving to another state a possibility? It sounds like much of your difficulty is caused by the fact that state schools in California are overcrowded in general. The problem with moving (besides the general disruption of moving) is that you'd probably have to live in the new state and pay taxes there for a while in order to qualify for in-state tuition and fees.
  9. Apr 2, 2008 #8
    TMFKAN64, thanks a lot for those two simple words. It does seem to vary by campus with how many credits one can take. The case you mention is true at SDSU. CSU Los Angeles also has Open University, with 36 credits. I think this is a good idea – even in the case of just 24 credits – since I'll only be a couple classes short of what I need, if not entirely caught up.

    Do you have any idea if I can get federal student loans for Open University courses? I don't think so, which makes affordability a bit of an issue again. But with some finagling of finances, it might be doable. Also, do you know if it's very difficult to actually get the professor's/department's approval to be oversubscribed into these courses?

    Vanadium 50, you're absolutely right to suggest that a PhD program wouldn't take a student who has no undergraduate background. I just wasn't sure how unprepared a candidate they would conditionally take. I'll certainly have the lower-division courses, but it's an open question as to how many courses I will be able to take. And I am certainly well aware that I need to focus on the best schools, which is I'm extraordinarily concerned that some of these options would be just scraping by. I want to be competitive.

    Do you all think that Open University courses will make me competitive in the right way? I also realize I'll need to try to get some non-coursework research assistant positions, as well.

    jtbell, moving to another state is not a possibility, at least not until May, 2011. And considering I'll be in a PhD program for _at least_ four years, that's just not an attractive solution. We're going to be in California for in-state tuition for my girlfriend's graduate program, so we might as well take advantage of that selfsame tuition for my undergraduate physics courses.
  10. Apr 2, 2008 #9
    You may want to make sure that the Open University courses will transfer to (or at least be recognized by) other universities. A few of them I looked at seemed to indicate they would transfer to that particular school. Also, the "space-available basis" may be a consideration. You certainly will not have priority on those lists. The research positions would be the most important aspect of any application to a graduate program and this may be the toughest one for you to get. You may want to email some of the professors at the universities you are looking at and ask them if they would even consider an Open University student. To be competitive for the best schools, a combination of high GPA, good research experience, letters of recommendation, and many other things are all crucial.

    Yes, depending on what path you take, it could end up being more like 5, 6, or 7 years to complete a PhD after getting your BS. I don't want to sound rude, but have you really investigated the length of time and the outcome of the path that you are considering? It will likely take you 2 or 3 years to get undergrad courses done, another 5 or 6 for your PhD, then depending on your field another 2 to 4 years doing postdocs (unless you go industry). In other words, it is quite an undertaking. But, you probably know this already, so good luck!
  11. Apr 2, 2008 #10
    bravernix, I do need to talk to some of the graduate programs I'm interested in to see whether they'll accept the Open University courses as equivalent to a standard background in physics; since they stress simply being prepared for the rigors of the graduate curriculum, it seems unlikely to me that the course wouldn't be recognized.

    The research positions will certainly be the most difficult aspect of this process. However, I do think I'll be able to get my foot in the door with a couple professors. I did some research at NIST in polymers, and have also done some work for a Pediatric AIDS Clinical Trials program. The NIST work is more relevant, but I've at least got some past experience in research.

    The "space-available basis" wording is certainly a concern. But since they leave it up to the professor and the department, I find it hard to believe I won't find some personal sympathy for my situation.

    Thanks so far, everyone, for your help so far. This is obviously going to be tough, but it'll be worth it.
  12. Apr 2, 2008 #11
    I would seriously doubt it, but then again, I didn't try.

    I think this totally depends on the university and the particular professor. On the CSU campus that I've been attending, it was never a problem, but your mileage may vary.

    Keep in mind that these Open University courses are regular university courses... the only thing special about them is how you sign up and pay for them. There should be no more issue transferring credit for them than there is for any other CSU course. In my case, after two semesters of OU, I was competitive enough to be admitted to their MS program. Whether this will make me competitive enough to move on after I get my MS... well, stay tuned! :smile:
  13. Apr 2, 2008 #12
    TMFKAN64, thanks for all your help. It's very deeply appreciated.

    I'll have to look into the federal student loans question further. I think I figured out a way to financially handle it, but I'm not positive; besides, I won't know how finances will actually shake out for some time.

    At SDSU, there is not a SINGLE upper-level mathematics or physics course that was completely filled in the past two semesters.

    Do you mind if I ask which CSU campus you attended/are attending?
  14. Apr 2, 2008 #13


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    1. How do you know you want to do physics? Also, does this mean you want to study physics in school or also go on to become a teacher/researcher? If you do wish to work in physics after school, do you think you want to teach or do research? And again, how do you know these things?

    2. How strong is your physics/math prep coming out of high school? Have you tried recently to solve any physics problems out of a textbook or a physics SAT?

    3. Have you considered interdisciplinary grad programs like "history of physics"? You could presumably do something like that by applying to a Humanities department but end up doing a bunch of coursework in physics. Your MA/PhD may be awarded by the Humanities Dept., but you will likely have physicists on your graduate committee.
  15. Apr 2, 2008 #14
    Gokul43201, hopefully I can address all of your questions in brief.

    Physics has always been an interest; has been since as far back as I can reasonably remember (I prize my first physics books). I want to divide my time between teaching and _theoretical_ research, i.e. go into academia. My past experience in both teaching and research has varied from being directly related to tangentially related to physics. I've worked with the America Reads program, and have taught in other capacities enough to know that I love teaching. As for research, I've worked actively as a Guest Researcher at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, participating in a number of projects and contributing significant research time to one paper; I also know that research of that type is not interesting enough to me to be my focus. Instead, I want to work on the theory side, and I've served passively in assisting in theoretical research here at UMD (work on black holes). Outside of school, theoretical physics and higher mathematics both have dominated my interest. I'm particularly interested in how the duality of the mathematical concepts of zero/infinity may be related to the search for a so-called "Theory of Everything."

    Sadly, it's been awhile since I've been heavily involved in any of these courses. My high school background was much more solid, as I had initially planned on going to the US Naval Academy before deciding against it (I went to Pepperdine before transferring to Maryland). I recently tested into MATH140 (Calc I for natural science majors here), so I know I can handle the lower-division courses. That said, I'll need to immerse myself in them fully to get all that I can from the foundations.

    As for the interdisciplinary programs, I've considered them. There's also "philosophy of science"-type programs that are marginally interesting, but many of them don't pique my interest in the same way as actually learning physics proper. From what I said above, it should be fairly clear that I have a direction in mind, which, of course, may change.

    Hopefully that answers your questions.
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