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Mathematical Physics - Math or Physics?

  1. Feb 14, 2008 #1
    I'm really quite sure at this point of my undergraduate education that mathematical physics is the answer for me - I love my upper level math courses, especially differential geometry, group theory, etc. But I started in physics, and remain a physicist at heart (I think!) - with most of my favorite mathematical theories somehow relating to physics (relativity, quantum mechanics, etc.).

    My question is, if I want to pursue a career in mathematical physics, do I have the greater advantage going to grad school for math or for physics? If I stay in physics, I'm guaranteed to get physics research, but maybe not be able to use the math so much. If I do math, how likely is it that my research could be related to physics? Any suggestions? I'm open to ideas...
  2. jcsd
  3. Feb 14, 2008 #2
    I'm finishing up my mathematical physics degree right now, and I've noticed that noone outside of academia seems interested in hiring us. Keep that in mind if you have interests other than academia (though I don't know how it is for pure math or general physics)
  4. Feb 26, 2008 #3
    Like Quasar, I really feel torn between math and physics. I'm trying to get a BS in both, but I really don't know what I want to end up doing in grad school. I've read however that graduate students are often allowed to take courses in other departments and that there is even such a think as a PhD minor at some schools. Does anyone know if this is true?
  5. Feb 26, 2008 #4
    There are lots of people who got their PhD in one department but teach in the other. There's a lot of mutual respect between the departments.

    Going back to the original question, if you do math physics in a math department, you will do math. It will be physics-related math, but more along the lines of proving sharp upper bounds for a priori estimates of the nonlinear Schrodinger equation. If this doesn't sound like your cup of tea, you should probably stay in the physics department. Physicists do a lot of math these days, so you shouldn't miss it too badly.
  6. Feb 26, 2008 #5
    You listed differential geometry and group theory as some of your favorite upper level courses and it makes sense. Those courses make you understand physics even better. If most of your math relates to physics and you LIKE that, stay as a physics guy. You are going to do a lot of math, you are going to need to learn a lot of the upper level math. Applied math can relate to the physical world but more often than not it is not necessarily true.
  7. Feb 29, 2008 #6
    How interesting, i am in a similar position and am facing the same dilemma. I am a second year physics undergraduate and im taking linear algebra with a view to taking group theory and differential geometry. I may be switching to a physics with maths masters degree if i am permitted but haven't arranged for that yet. I feel slightly in limbo as to what direction i will pursue with the courses i am taking and a little disconnected with my peers as they are leaning more toward experimental physics. While they are developing experimental skills i am not so much, until perhaps the 3rd year where i am 'forced' to do a project.

    Anyway, seeing as you guys are in a similar position i would love to hear what you end up doing and deciding.
  8. Feb 29, 2008 #7
    Me too! I don't think I could be helpful though. I'm an undergraduate, I chose to switch from physics to mathematics, and now I'm trying to graduate in mathematical physics as a math student. Perhaps I'll return to this thread after few years, and tell what happened :biggrin:
  9. Mar 1, 2008 #8


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    well I think (not sure if this is possible), that if you for example pursue maths phd then you can also add some courses in physics (don't see really a reason that they won't allow you to do so), and vice versa.
    I don't think that it's reasonable for someone to do a minor phd in another field, cause eventually it's full time job, I don't believe anyone could afford two full time jobs.
  10. Mar 13, 2008 #9
    I think for the current time I'm going to stay in physics - the thing that's hard isn't finding math (it's in EVERYTHING), but finding the specifics that interest me - I'm not really in applied math so much as pure math, kind of similarly to my preference for theoretical physics over experimental. But of course, it all rides on how my GRE goes in October... :O
    It seems that it's a little easier to be broad in physics, because mathematical physics makes a nice subfield, whereas in pure mathematics, physics can really just be some side interest.
  11. Mar 13, 2008 #10


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    A PhD isn't really in a subject in the same way - you learn whatever you need to know.
    Some institutes might have different rules in different depts so you might have a very different experience studying exactly the same topic in the applied maths and theoretical physics depts.
    In the end it really doesn't matter at grad school level if you call yourself a mathematician or theoretical physicist (you still aren't going to impress girls at parties!)
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