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Math or physics

  1. Apr 26, 2008 #1
    I am torn between theoretical physics and math. Are there any theoretical physicists here who regret not going into math? Are there any mathematicians here who regret no going into theoretical physics?
  2. jcsd
  3. Apr 26, 2008 #2
    Why not do both? I think they have a lot of things in common. Or take both math and physics courses and see which one you like more before you decide which one you want to stick with.
  4. Apr 26, 2008 #3
    I think he means in graduate school. From what I've read of his posts, he's getting close to graduating with a BS.
  5. Apr 29, 2008 #4
    I tried to solve similar dilemma recently. I'm getting close to B.S. (of physics) and I had to decide in which branch of this science I will specialized to M.S. before few months. In particular I thought about matematical modeling or theoretical physics. I planned to do both but it cost lot of time so I couldn't fully understand all and I was in great stress all the time. So, I coudn't recommend it.
  6. Apr 29, 2008 #5
    I would suggest that, if you play your cards right, there may be very little difference between the two options as far as your long-term career goes. That is, if you opt for physics, you could work to emphasize math-intensive stuff and so take lots of math courses, and vice-versa. Not sure if you're planning to do a PhD, but if so you could make an effort to get committee members from whichever department you don't end up in involved in your research. It's not unheard-of for people in physics or engineering (or econ) departments to have math profs as their primary research advisors. That doesn't provide much guidance as far as actually picking a department to apply to, but I think the important thing is to work to emphasize the entire range of your interests, regardless of which department you actually reside in. Then, the difference will be academic (sorry, couldn't resist...). I suppose what I'd concentrate on is finding physics programs/research groups with a heavy math emphasis, and vice-versa, rather than sweating which department as such.
  7. Apr 29, 2008 #6
    Yay that's really useful to know. And yes, I am planning to do a PhD.
  8. May 2, 2008 #7
    I have the same dilemma now. It seems to me though that math offers more job prospects because math departments tend to be larger than physics departments, and there are VERY few positions in academia in theoretical physics. I like the concept of mathematical physics programs, but they are usually approached from the math departments. I don't know exactly what physics they encompass though. Hopefully general relativity is included somewhere...
  9. May 2, 2008 #8
    Is that true?
  10. May 2, 2008 #9
    What about outside of academia? :biggrin:
  11. May 2, 2008 #10


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    Purely personal brainstorming, maybe of interest for others choosing a direction.

    Apart from math what else are you interested in?
    Nothing? OK, a lot of people look askance at mathematicians because they think they are like that! :tongue:
    But even then you were probably not always like that, it is a position people come to, possibly from a sort of brainwashing.

    Personally I like it when it is the math of something. Though nothing has quite the tradition and fusion with it that physics does. But there are some now affirmed math-using specialities.

    So I would say for prospects and satisfaction, try to combine with the study of something else. Lots of things have developing needs and invovement in math - engineering, biology, bioinformatics, biophysics, neurosciences, epidemiology, physiology incl. medical physiology, earthsciences, ecology and population studies, genetics, chemistry, materials science, linguistics, sociology, of course economics and finance. Some selection of courses in these subjects seems more useful than the maximum of advanced math couses in as many math specialities as possible as long as you take the centralest ones to reasonably high level.

    Job satisfaction: you have more of a chance of making a significant contribution to these than in well trodden fields like pure math. A mathemtician told me, let's hear others' advice, it's the only place you can make a significant contribution. If your ambition is to do something in the Riemann or Poincare or Fermat's LT or strings, although in theory it looks you could do it anywhere with a library, in practice what I've been told and the pop books on the above confirm, there are only a couple of dozen places in the world out of the thousands of math institutes where you stand a chance.

    Jobs: available outside the strict math institutes. In particular people with experience of modelling are quite sought after and readily find jobs. With finance employers have traiditionally been more interested that you are an able high-flyer (and from a top institution) than what relevant you know, though I imagine financial math and economics will increasingly count.

    Requirements: If you have studied one of these subjects in its own terms you will get to understand its problems from the inside. It is not as good being a mathematician and thinking people can bring you problems and explain them and then the mathematician can formalise and solve them, it cannot happen too much like that. You will never know some of the problems unless you are on the inside of one of these sciences.
  12. May 2, 2008 #11


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    Yes, especially "math intensive" physics like string theory etc. It is a bit easier if you are interested in more applied modeling and/or computational physics (e.g. surface physics etc).
    However, most physicists today are experimentalists although I can only guess at the ratio, 80-20%?.
    Where I work now there isn't a single "pure" theorist (which is actually a problem), the closest thing we got is a guy working on molecular dynamics simulations.

    The good thing about doing theory is of course that it is cheap (you don't need equipment worth millions of dollars), but the people I know still struggle to get grants; the best way to attract funding is probably to have a strong collaboration with an experimental group; but this is of course difficult if you are working on some exotic problem in cosmology.
  13. May 2, 2008 #12
    I faced that choice, I double majored and was unsure about if I wanted to go into grad school in math or physics. I chose physics. Both fields are intellectually stimulating, and if you choose your adviser very carefully it will not be that important. I thought that I would end up regretting my choice, but honestly I have not.

    The odds are that you will not end up becoming a professor who spends most of their time on research. If you stay in academia, you will more likely end up having a teaching first type of professorship at a small college. Which would you enjoy teaching-- physics or math?
  14. May 3, 2008 #13
    Right now I have to say math i.e. I love presenting proofs in algebra and analysis and topology. I just cannot say the same for physics. But I think that may be symptomatic of being at a school where the quality of pedagogy in the physics department trails far behind the mathematics department. The physics classes I have taken are somewhat of a joke, which is in fact the main reason that I created this thread. However, I can imagine at other schools such as MIT, the physics and math classes are not as different as they are here. The courses I have looked at on MIT opencourseware are good examples of this. I think you can make teaching a physics quite close to teaching a math class if you are good at it and that is what the MIT professors do. I think that will be my goal, to teach a physics class that models a math class.
  15. May 3, 2008 #14
    Well I should warn you that if you teach introductory physics or math you will not be presenting formal proofs, and at small colleges the demand for teaching will be heavily focused around introductory courses.

    If your physics classes are a joke, then you might not be ready for physics grad school, and you will end up struggling in the beginning, and the first year already is a hard year. You have to balance TA duties with completing the course load (which move at a faster pace than undergrad courses).

    If you enjoy math, and feel much better prepared for math grad school, and you seem to enjoy the logical structure of proofs, it seems that math might be for you.
  16. May 3, 2008 #15


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    btw, can't you take some courses from the physics department while actually being a graduate maths student?
  17. May 3, 2008 #16
    There are plenty of people around working in mathematical physics. You can in essence do both. Study problems that arise in the study of physics from the prospective of a mathematician.
  18. May 3, 2008 #17
    I think I will be well-prepared for physics grad school not from my courses but from a lot of self-study.

    I think I will always "enjoy" doing math more i.e. solving Putnam problems, presenting proofs, manipulating equations, getting the correct answer is my foremost passion. However, that has not been compelling enough to go into math for two reasons: 1)I think that enjoyment might fade as I get older. Also, I like learning and teaching math a lot and 2) I lot solving problems that are given to me but I am not sure I actually like "doing" math. That is, coming up with new theorems and conjectures is rather a dry task for me. Brainstorming for new results in mathematics seems so awkward and undirected to me.

    I guess my ideal job would be this: teaching math, teaching theoretical physics, doing research in theoretical physics.

    Since 2 out of the 3 things on that list involve physics, I am planning to go into physics.

    Ughh, but this is still a really hard decision. I am doing an REU in particle physics this summer and next year (my third as an undergrad), I am taking or auditing 6 graduate math courses, so I will get lots of exposure to upper levels of both fields and hopefully that will help me decide.

    I guess my eventual goal might be to get a dual appointment in the math and physics department.
  19. May 3, 2008 #18
    Yes that is exactly what I want. The issue is what department are these people in?
  20. May 3, 2008 #19
    They are in the math department.
  21. May 3, 2008 #20


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    This is not what you will be doing throughout your PhD, though. You will not be "presenting proofs" in the way you have done in undergrad. You also may not know whether you have got the right answer: you may have an answer, but it'll be to stuff that hasn't been done before.
    Have you ever taught maths? I get the impression that you're in your second year undergrad, so don't have the experience to say whether or not you enjoy it! Also, if you don't like brainstorming for new ideas then I doubt that any sort of research is right for you. Theoretical physics is no different to maths in the sense that you will be trying to find solutions to problems that have no solutions.
    If you want my advice: it is utterly pointless planning out your career right now-- you don't even know whether you'll make it through grad school, let alone land yourself a faculty position! At the moment, I would concentrate on trying to learn the courses you are taking as well as you possibly can.
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