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Liberal arts physics major requires only 1 math class - should I be worried?

  1. Oct 5, 2008 #1

    I am an second year undergrad at a liberal arts college majoring in physics. I want to go on to grad school in physics (although I have no idea what field right now, but I'm leaning toward theoretical). My school's only math requirement for the physics major is a class called Mathematical Methods in the Physical Sciences (using the text book of the same name by Mary Boas). (This class covers a wide range of topics, including Linear Algebra, complex numbers, multiple integrals, vector analysis, Fourier series, ordinary differential equations, integral transforms, but doesn't do it in much detail or with proofs.)

    I'm really concerned that this won't prepare me enough for grad school. Do you think I should be worried about this or that I should be okay with just doing the math that is required for my major? Any advice would be much appreciated!

    Thanks a lot!
  2. jcsd
  3. Oct 5, 2008 #2


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    Um I would be worried. At my school, for example, what you might cover in this class would be covered in 6 or 7 one semester classes. I don't see how you can spend enough time covering these subjects in depth enough to master them in just one class.
  4. Oct 5, 2008 #3
    I agree with nicksauce. I can't fathom a normal math class that can cover enough math in 1 semester for a physics major. If your school has individual classes on those topics you should take those as well or instead. A normal undergrad physics curriculum will usually have 4-6 required math classes: Calculus 1 through 3, Differential Equations, Linear Algebra, and maybe a Math Methods class. Most schools will recommend you take more though, such as Complex Variables and Partial Differential Equations.
  5. Oct 5, 2008 #4

    George Jones

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    Is the course one or two semesters?

    Is this really the only required course? For example, do you have to take two terms of first-year calculus?
  6. Oct 5, 2008 #5


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    You don't need to take any math courses offered by the math department?

    No intro calculus sequence?

    I had to take a Mathmatical Methods course, but it was in addition to the standard calculus sequence plus a differential equations course, a linear algebra course, and a few math electives beyond that.
  7. Oct 5, 2008 #6
    I had to take 2 quarters of Boas during my Sophomore year. That was a crash course in all the math you'd need for physics. However, you were also required to take Diff EQ's, Multivariable calc, and Linear Algebra as stand-alone classes to get more out of them.

    By themselves the 2 quarters would not have cut it, but they were honestly the most useful courses I've taken for physics.
  8. Oct 5, 2008 #7

    George Jones

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    I think that my physics programme many years ago had twelve semesters of required math courses.

    First-year: linear algebra; two semesters of calculus.

    Second-year: advanced calculus; ordinary differential equations; statistics; two semesters of linear algebra.

    Third-year: complex analysis; special functions.

    Fourth-year: two semesters of applied math.
  9. Oct 5, 2008 #8


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    I also attended a small liberal arts college. We were required to take (or place out of) three semesters of calculus, linear algebra, discrete math, differential equations, and two semesters of mathematical physics with Boas. I felt prepared for graduate school with that background (finishing grad school now). I suggest you add a few more classes on your own, even if they aren't technically required.
  10. Oct 5, 2008 #9
    My Liberal Arts University only requires 4 Math courses:
    Calculus I
    Calculus II
    Multivariable Calculus
    Differential Equations

    Although, it does have a Theoretical Physics course that is a review of: Complex numbers, vector spaces, linear operators, and vector integral systems; Fourier series; product solutions of PDEs; and special functions.

    It does sound like your college is a little lacking if it only requires one course, but if they teach that in addition to Calculus courses then you probably won't be too far behind. Also, you could probably take extra math courses from the math department if you were really worried.
  11. Oct 5, 2008 #10


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    Keep in mind that the requirements for a major at most schools represent a minimum level. By all means, take more math (and physics!) if you're planning to go to grad school. Tip: take a course in complex analysis if your school offers one. It's the one math course I really wished I had had, during my first semester of grad school. My E&M prof in grad school was "into" conformal mapping.

    Where I teach, our math requirement for physics majors is four semesters of calculus (which is equivalent to three semesters at most other schools because our calculus courses are three credit hours each instead of four), plus differential equations. Most of our physics majors go into engineering, getting a masters' in engineering, or transferring to an engineering school under our 3-2 dual-degree program. We strongly encourage students who are planning on grad school in physics to take more math, not to mention more physics beyond the major requirements.
  12. Oct 6, 2008 #11
    My school requires Calculus I & II, Multivariate Calculus, Differential Equations, and two math classes in the Physics department called Mathematical Modeling and Statistical Physics.

    I can't see how someone could possibly cover even half of this material in one semester.

    In short, I'd be skeptical.

    EDIT: As others have mentioned, many people take even more math. Linear Algebra is common.
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