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MS in Math to be competitive?

  1. Jun 26, 2010 #1
    Hi all, I am finishing an M.S. in physics in 2011, and hope to be a theoretical physicist (in which field, I do not know...but mathematical physics is looking kind of neat...at fleeting glance). I have also not done much research, not published, and had a questionable Spring 2010 part of my transcript. I never got my B.S. in physics. I only have my B.S. in math, chemistry, and engineering science, from 2006, and an M.S. in materials science and engineering. All of these turned out to not be Totally Helpful to an aspiring physicist (though: I sure learned how to plug n' chug like a pro).

    In order to buy time to 1) publish 2) study physics some more 3) make myself "indispensible", and able to serve the physics community (instead of just "sucking up" education like a sponge) by the time I apply to PhD programs in physics (e.g., I don't want to be in a "sponge-state", still, while applying to PhD programs!): I am considering studying mathematics at the same university I will get my physics M.S. in, as of 2011. My reasons:

    1) I have a good relationship with my highly-intelligent advisor (he had a 1980 tenure at the Institute for Advanced Study...lucky to be working with him). I've learned a ton from him, and feel like I have much more to learn.

    2) I know far less mathematics than I thought I did. I got through my math B.S. by plugging and chugging instead of appreciating the grand concepts. I want to re-visit math, and be trained to think mathematically.

    3) I will have 2 additional years to publish stuff. I needed a year of physics courses (e.g., QM and E + M) to just be able to understand how to think like a physicist, and that took away 1 year's time in which I could have been doing research. I'm working furiously to catch up. I mean, I just found out from my advisor that 3a) using the Feynman rules for QED verses 3b) understanding the so-called "field theory" from where the Feynman rules come from (e.g., applied vs. theory/first principles) seem to be entirely-different beasts, and I then wondered if a new ocean's vast waters were lapping at my feet.

    4) It's possible a math-M.S. will give me a bit of indispensibility that will make me stand out amidst other physicists. It could equip me to see mathematical structures behind a lot of physics-fields. I'm already enamoured with how all seem to be linear combinations in quantum mechanics. I am now curious about the mathematical structure of E + M ... where everything seems to be 1/r, symmetric/antisymmetric (just throwing out terms that seem pertinent...this is no expert's opinion).

    5) I might delay my taking of the Physics GRE until I am more ready. I haven't even had a formal undergraduate Classical Mechanics class (but had a graduate course with this brilliant but stuck-in-his-non-Goldstein-ways mathematical physicist...in which I reaped a less-than-savoury B-).

    But: reasons against:

    1) It's possible that a physics department could call into question my commitment to physics when they see an M.S. in engineering, an M.S. in physics, and an M.S. in math. I am hoping that fear will be assuaged by my (second) M.S. in physics.

    2) ??? stuff unseen?

    I don't really consider time to be a factor. I'm single, don't see my family often, and don't mind spending as much time as a student as need be in order to at least have a fighting chance at being a theoretical physicist (a highly-competitive field).

    Just let me know what I am not seeing, or failing to anticipate...
  2. jcsd
  3. Jun 27, 2010 #2
    There must be some sort of diminishing returns with masters degrees. I honestly don't see the point.
  4. Jun 27, 2010 #3
    Hi Jack, are you able to elabourate?
  5. Jun 27, 2010 #4
    You can work on your math skills in ways other than just adding another masters degree to your collection. At some point, saying "I have x masters degrees" is no more impressive than "I have x-1 masters degrees."

    At this point, it almost looks like you're procrastinating because you're afraid to move forward with your life.
  6. Jun 27, 2010 #5
    What does your adviser think you should do? It sounds like you're ready to apply for PhD programs, and once you're in, you'll probably need to do some coursework, and you'll have opportunities to study both math and physics, so I think being in a "sponge-state" at the beginning would be okay.
  7. Jun 27, 2010 #6
    Well, sure: I'm ready to go into a PhD program. I'm pretty confident I could get into a PhD program. But: as a theoretical physicist, I'm anticipating lots of competition to get a job as a tenured professor, so I need good training. Namely: I need to get into a respectable PhD program, preferably near LA, California, to be near my niece/nephew. Hence: I could get my math-M.S. That way there: I can do more research during that extra two years

    I will bring this to my adviser...indeed. I pretty much want to get on with my life, but my CV sucks, and won't get me into a PhD program where they'll really whip my butt into shape to Do Physics. Can't really be overprepared in the face of such competition to get a professorship.
  8. Jun 28, 2010 #7
    The math degree might hurt you. I could definitely see an admissions committee thinking you're too indecisive and not letting you in.

    They really don't want to see that you've bounced around and collected degrees like easter eggs. They want to see a solid undergraduate background in physics and preferably some published research; they want to see you've kept your focus.
  9. Jun 28, 2010 #8
    Rats...well, any other suggestions on how to buy extra time to do research before knocking on the doors of respectable PhD programs? It's been very hard trying to assemble a competitive CV within the very-short two years of a M.S. program in physics....
  10. Jun 28, 2010 #9
    ...Actually...I just had this "what if" question. Ok, so a math-master's may show a lack of commitment, initially. But: my goal is to publish in physics while working on the math-degree...and I suddenly realize that assumes a lot of time-management on my part. But in any event: what if I could get out a publication or two in a Physics journal while doing so? Perhaps that will restore a graduate committee's assurance of my commitment? (Because I really am committed to physics...)
  11. Jun 28, 2010 #10
    In my opinion, your collection of degrees is a huge hindrance. It shows at the very least a lack of the ability to realize an incorrect course, then correct it. At worst it shows that physics is yet another fleeting thought for you. You want to be a physicist but never got an undergrad physics degree. Yet, you still managed to get 3 other undergrad degrees and a master's in something else? Sure you are getting a physics master's now but if you aren't completely acing everything, it doesn't show well, so I doubt you'd get into a top program. You better have amazing letters of recommendation and a top of the line PGRE score. However, if you want to get into a middle tier program, you should be good to get in somewhere.
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