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Maths or NatSci Tripos for US physics grad school?

  1. Jul 20, 2015 #1
    Background: I am an international student doing Mathematical tripos at Cambridge and I have just completed my first year with a 2.i. I did 'Maths with Physics' for my first year. The following paragraph is taken from the department's course website.

    "The Mathematics with Physics option consists of courses given by the Faculty of Mathematics, which provide about three-quarters of the total workload, and courses given by the Physics department, including practical work, which provide the remaining quarter of the workload. The physics lectures cover Mechanics and Molecules (Newton’s Laws, states of matter, kinetic theory, properties of gases, liquids and solids), Oscillations and waves (including electric circuits and fourier analysis), Fields, Relativity and Quantum Physics (including electromagnetism, special relativity, quantum mechanics and cosmology). The mathematical lectures are on Vectors and Matrices, Groups, Differential Equations, Vec- tor Calculus, Analysis and Probability."

    For my second year I have the option to either continue doing maths or to transfer to the Cavendish for physics (as part of the NatSci course). There is a link to the course page.

    I have always loved doing physics and applied maths but lately I've enjoyed the pure maths courses very much. I enjoyed my first year there at Cambridge and learned a lot but currently I'm undecided as to what option I should pursue.

    My questions:
    1. Would not getting a 1st reflect poorly on me when applying to the top US physics departments?
    2. I am interested in the theoretical areas of nanotechnology but I would also consider other areas of theoretical physics. I am not decided as I still would like to explore more. So considering my interests, should I do maths or physics?
    3. If I do continue doing maths, will not doing experimental physics be a disadvantage in pursuing theoretical physics later on?
    4. WIll not doing experimental physics be a huge disadvantage when I later pursue a career in nanotechnology? My guess is that it will because the field is very applied and you need experimental skills to succeed in it.
    5. What can I do to further improve my undergraduate experience in studying maths and physics? I mean in terms of the kinds of internships and research activities and where to consider doing them.
    Thanks a lot for reading this and answering my questions. I would really appreciate some guidance.
  2. jcsd
  3. Jul 20, 2015 #2
    Talk to faculty in the two departments. Tell them what your long term goals are and ask them about it.

    Two important questions with regard to grad school in the US are:

    Which path would best prepare you for the Physics GRE?

    Which path would open doors to undergraduate research in the same field of Physics you wish to pursue in grad school?
  4. Jul 20, 2015 #3


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    Do you really think this is relevant? I think that no matter which course one takes the Physics GRE will be fairly trivial. Isn't it just used as a filter (by any decent US grad school) to eliminate the obviously unsuitable? If it isn't easy, I wouldn't even consider grad school.

    If I were in your position I would try to get an internship in my most likely area of interest each summer. But make it different each year. In your case, since you think you love theoretical, doing something practical is a great way to test your interests. And, if possible, do your best to create personal relationships with people in your likely area. Where you want to be, when it is time to apply to grad school, is in a position to ask your mentors to suggest specific departments and professors that would suit you. You want to have people who will write you glowing letters of recommendation, preferably to be read by people who know them personally.

    Naturally this works best when you have guessed right what you want to do. So endeavor first to do those things that help you guess right: try a variety of things; think hard about what you enjoy most and why you enjoy it; try to identify your (perhaps unfounded) assumptions and test them against reality. Talk to people doing what you think you want to do and find out how they got to where they are, whether they like what they're doing, and what mistakes they made on the way there.

    Best of luck! The fact that you are thinking seriously about this now puts you way ahead of much of the competition.
  5. Jul 20, 2015 #4
    I do think the Physics GRE is relevant. Nearly everyone who takes it is considering grad school, and half of them perform below average.

    Different departments have different scores that impress them, but one needs to score above the 80th percentile to impress the best schools.

    I would not consider it easy to outscore 80% of the others taking that test. Maybe it was easier for you than it was for me.
  6. Jul 20, 2015 #5


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    Of course, but we're talking about a Cambridge undergrad here, so top 1% in ability to get good scores on exams. That doesn't matter all that much in real life, but to me it says that the Physics GRE will likely be trivial no matter what course of study is chosen, so long as it's at least vaguely related to physics and math. Context matters.
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