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Math Math vs physics master

  1. Oct 17, 2009 #1
    I'm a college junior at a decent liberal art studying physics and math for a double degree. I'm quite torn over whether to apply to math or physics graduate department, and this decision has to be made even sooner than I thought. The thing is I'm going to run out of classes to take in my senior year (like many "advanced" college seniors), and I don't want to just do research since we are a small school and there IS no research here, not really. So I'm thinking I maybe should go take one or two graduate school classes at a State school close by (commuting is not a big problem, an hour round trip) next year. But I really don't know whether I should take math or physics! I mean I do very much want to go to Europe for PhD, and by Europe I mean UK, and by UK I mean Cambridge DAMTP (hey, don't judge, :P). I think I can do well in part III if I get a math master here, since that's what part III is all about, but then that is a bit like putting all the eggs in the same basket, because I want to do physics research in the future, not math (unless maybe in topology). And there are many other good institutions in Europe that have interesting things to offer. It will take an extra year or two to get a double master, and I just don't think it's worth it.

    A little about how I'm doing now: my math is alright (on the level of A-), my physics is mostly A, and I'm good at labs (which is ironic since I'm far more drawn to theory than experiments in terms of research). I'm taking EM now, and it's not doing anything for me (the prof is not trying very hard, material is boring, or probably just I'm using Jackson as companion and Griffith in comparison just looks juvenile). But my maths classes have been interesting, diff geo, abstract alg and probability. I'm also facing the decision whether or not to take stats mech next spring (physics graduate school requires this, but math obviously doesn't, and part III does not have anything resembles this!) I really don't know, please help me.
  2. jcsd
  3. Oct 17, 2009 #2
    A masters in physics doesn't open very many doors that a bachelors in physics doesn't. A masters in math, on the other hand, does open a number of doors.
  4. Oct 17, 2009 #3
    Would you mind elaborating on that just a bit? I'm just curious. :)
  5. Oct 19, 2009 #4
    Anyone perhaps more elaborate?
  6. Oct 19, 2009 #5
    I can't say much about math, but I agree with Monocles that master's degree in physics contains little added value. If you want to do physics research, that's laudable, but you must realize that there's been a severe oversupply of people who want to do physics research in the world for the last 30 years or so, compared to the number of positions available for them. If you want to do research, you need a Ph.D, master is insufficient. And even a Ph.D. does not guarantee success, far from it. Only perhaps 1 in 5 people who enroll into physics Ph.D. programs end up doing research for a living. (And they tend to be paid worse than comparably intelligent people in the industry.)

    So your choice should not be between master's in physics and master's in math. You should ask yourself if you want to gamble the next 5 to 7 years of your life for a shot at a research position. If you're unwilling to take the risk or you're not confident in your prospects, either go for a master's in math or try to find a physics job as soon as you get your bachelor.
  7. Oct 21, 2009 #6
    Actually in the US (and probably in Europe, but I can't say for sure), a masters in physics has a great value so long as your goal isn't academia.

    However, reading the OP it appears they're in (or going to) Europe and probably want to stay in academia, so . . .
  8. Oct 21, 2009 #7
    OP here. The thing is that I'm not entirely certain of a physics PhD, in US, specifically. Because I do want to move to Europe, but as a foreigner, the only way to get there in the first place is probably through academy (it's also natural to assume that if I have a PhD in Britain, it will be more compatible with a career in EU). Just a bachelor isn't going to be any good for job anywhere, so the question lies in - do I want to do master in math or physics, esp. if I want to apply for a PhD position in U.K.? I'm perfectly aware of the rigor in either subject (at least from good places). I like both of them honestly, if I can pick and choose some specific parts of them that will be ideal. About career in industry, math will get me to banks and such with good pay. Physics will do the same sometimes.

    So I think I just need someone that has knowledge of how things work over in U.K., that if they hire a theoretical physics PhD studentship, what classes do they usually look at? More maths or more physics? Is it like what monocles said, maths will open more doors for you?
  9. Oct 21, 2009 #8
    Give one example ...
  10. Oct 22, 2009 #9
    In the US, Industry and government both often value a masters significantly more than a bachelors. If you look at how government job promotions work you'll find that it is quite possible to start with a masters and end up in a higher pay bracket than you would have if you had been hired after earning a PhD. I didn’t usually find this was true of a bachelors, though of course a lot depends on how quickly you progress.

    Industry is more variable, and a great deal will depend on the culture, but the value for having a masters always seemed to be at least as good as having a BS with 2 years of experience. A PhD was trickier, because it adds a lot of value, allows you to start out doing more important things, but can take so long that the net present value isn’t actually an improvement over having a masters. Further - and maybe more importantly - a PhD added extensive specialization, and I found companies were loathe to pay a PhD salary unless the doctoral work was right in their area of business.

    Those impressions were made over a period of 2003-2008 and I doubt they've changed all that much since then, though I can't account for what the different economy might mean.

    Of course, as I think everyone will agree, a masters has no value in academia outside of preparing your for a PhD program. . .
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