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Improving chances for Theo. Phys. graduate studies ?

  1. Oct 14, 2009 #1
    First of all, I want to apologize in advance for contributing to the pollution of the forums by the "I want to be a Theoretical physicist...but how?" type threads. Honestly, I thoroughly searched for an answer to my question, but was unsuccessful in finding direct answers. With broad key-words such as "Theoretical", "Physics", "Mathematics", and "Graduate School", it proved to be a very exhausting task sifting through the countless results.

    I am currently an undergraduate student at a large (but not well known for physics) university. Once I complete my undergrad studies (few years down the road), I would like to attend a graduate school to pursue a higher degree in Theoretical Physics. I have heard that Theo. Phys. graduate programs are competitive to get into (more-so than many experimental), and obviously Theo. Phys. requires a deep, broad understanding of mathematics. So my question(s) is this: Is a double major in Physics and Mathematics necessary to being accepted to study Theo. Phys. at a top graduate institution (as opposed to only a Physics BS)? Would a double major in Physics and Mathematics greatly increase my chances? If so, is it worth taking an extra year as an undergrad to complete the joint degree?

    Again, sorry if this question has been beat to death. I appreciate everyone's comments in advance.

  2. jcsd
  3. Oct 14, 2009 #2
    No you don't need a double major in physics/math but you should take your electives with the hardest math courses that you can find. Getting a 'B' is a really tough math course will improve your chances than getting an 'A' in an easy one.

    However besides tough classes the two big things that you should do are:

    1) undergraduate research. If your university has an undergraduate research program use it. This will also help you get good reference letters.

    2) some amount of specialization. Taking courses that specialize in one type of theoretical physics (say astrophysics or condensed matter) will help you a lot.

    3) Computer skills will also help a lot. Much of current theoretical physics consists of a lot of computer programming.

    Also theoretical physics universities are tough to get into but they aren't horrifically bad. The reason for this is that most universities need large numbers of teaching and research assistants so this means that there are lots of openings. Unfortunately, this doesn't extend to after graduate school. Your odds of getting a physics professorship are extremely low, but there are a lot of jobs available in industry for people with physics Ph.D.'s.
  4. Oct 14, 2009 #3
    Twofish, thanks for the reply and additional advice! I'm glad it is possible to get into a well-ranked theoretical physics graduate program (granted, one possesses all other qualifications) without a duel mathematics degree. Otherwise, it would take me two extra semesters (at the LEAST) to achieve it. I guess I was just concerned that the top schools either wouldn't or rarely, accept graduate applicants for Theory without the additional mathematics degree.

    Fortunately, I still have a ways to go to complete my Physics BS, so that will give me plenty of opportunities to take some advanced mathematics courses (as well as theoretical research).

  5. Oct 15, 2009 #4
    Also if you have a particular set of schools that you are interested in, you should go to their website and look at what their research topics are. If you have any chances to network with the professors there, do it (i.e. attending conferences, etc.) You should also look at grad schools that have research programs on topics you are interested in, and those may not be the obvious big names.

    One other thing about physics is that it tends to be somewhat less brand-conscious than most other fields. Even the branding tends to be professor-centric. What matters is who your dissertation advisor is, and what research groups you've been part of, and those aren't necessarily in the big name schools.
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