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Options in higher education in physics (no math/science bkg)

  1. Nov 19, 2015 #1

    I've been reading this forum for a while now, and while I see many threads asking about similar questions as I am, I still cannot get answers to some of my questions. So I hope to get some advice here on PF.

    I am very interested in pursuing a career in Physics, but I don't have any background in math or science. Is it possible to go directly for a graduate degree if I self-study physics in my spare time? Or should I go for a second bachelor's degree? Or, should I take those pre-req classes at a college as a non-degree student? Because if I study on my own, I am worried about not getting any opportunities for research, or getting any recommendation letters. What are some decent physics programs (US) for second bachelor's degree students? Is it ok to study at a city college and get good grades and get accepted into an above-average physics graduate program? And If I decided to go for a master's degree directly, is it also possible to be accepted to any decent school if I did well on GRE?

    Thanks in advance!!
  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 19, 2015 #2
    Every Physics program I know of will require both the general and Physics GREs which you will not do well on without a solid math and undergraduate physics background.

    Here is what you might do: take ALEKS for pre-calculus. Then take Calculus 1 and Calculus 2 through Coursera. This will serve you well in your self-study of physics and the quantitative portion of the GRE. You will need Calculus 3 and differential equations also for your self study of physics.
    Once you think you are ready, take the GREs (both general and Physics) to see where you are. Then develop a plan from there once you see your scores from the first try.
  4. Nov 19, 2015 #3

    Wow, very very helpful! Thanks for the reply!! Once I do fine on GRE, how possible is it for me to find opportunities in research? I'm thinking how I can get my rec letters if I were to pursue a masters degree.
  5. Nov 19, 2015 #4
    Your opportunites will depend on your undergraduate degree, institution, GPA, general GRE scores, Physics GRE score, letters of recommendation, and possibly work history. Without an undergrad degree in math or science, your GRE scores (general and Physics) will likely be heavily weighted. Speculating on potential without knowing the full picture is unlikely to be accurate.
  6. Nov 20, 2015 #5
    I graduated from a state school with a degree in communications. And my work history is completely irrelevant to physics. So I feel really hopeless about getting into grad school... and I was just wondering if I should just get a second degree in physics to prepare for grad school.
  7. Nov 20, 2015 #6


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    I don't remember reading here about anyone who got into grad school in physics without an undergraduate degree in physics or a closely related field such as engineering or math, except for Ed Witten who is way out on the tail of the bell-curve, so to speak.

    Since you already have a bachelor's degree, I think you should first try to find a college that will let you do a second one without having to repeat all the general-education stuff. If that's not possible, then I would think grad schools would accept a collection of courses taken as a non-degree-seeking student that is equivalent to a bachelor's degree in physics. That is, math through calculus, differential equations, linear algebra and probably a math methods course for physicists; intro calculus-based physics (three semesters including modern physics); upper-level physics courses including at least classical mechanics, electromagnetism (preferably two semesters), quantum mechanics (again preferably two semesters), thermodynamics, some advanced lab work, and some research experience.

    I'm pretty sure that self-study isn't going to cut it. You need formal courses supervised by a professor, with graded homework and exams. The physics GRE isn't intended as a substitute for those, but rather as an alternative evaluation to help even out the varying levels of rigor and grading standards at different colleges. Also, letters of recommendation from professors who know you well are important. You're not going to get those unless they've supervised you in coursework or research.
  8. Nov 20, 2015 #7
    Thank you very much for your helpful advice. I also feel the need to enroll in those pre-req courses in order to get a better understanding of concepts, as well as recommendation letters.

    I'm actually quite interested in how Ed Witten got into Princeton to study physics without prior knowledge in math/science? I bet he must have been really good at math or have gotten really good GPA as an undergraduate? Do you know how different for students to get accepted into a top school back then?
  9. Nov 20, 2015 #8

    Vanadium 50

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    Ed Witten is the son of Louis Witten, so he got some early exposure to physics. He majored in history, and went into econ as a grad student, and then switched to applied math, and then switched to physics.
  10. Nov 20, 2015 #9
    There are a number of second tier physics MS programs where a BS in Physics or a closely related field is not a rigid requirement if one can demonstrate sufficient knowledge of Physics. ULL is one example:


    "If you have a non-technical undergraduate degree but wish to pursue an MS in Physics degree, an equivalence test (including basic but fundamental undergraduate mathematics and physics concepts) will be administered to verify your level of preparation to insure your success in the program."

    If one can get into a school like ULL and complete their MS program, score well on the Physics GRE, and do some decent research in the process, one would then be a viable candidate for mid-tier PhD programs.
  11. Nov 20, 2015 #10


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    If this means introductory calculus-based physics level (Halliday and Resnick level plus maybe an intro modern physics course), one could get that preparation at a community college. Get the calculus and maybe also the differential equations and linear algebra there, too. It might be a bit of a stretch from there to graduate level courses.
  12. Nov 21, 2015 #11
    I really appreciate all of your help! I will give it a year and see if I can handle the math. Because having a passion alone is not enough. Thank you again all for your advice!
  13. Nov 21, 2015 #12
    Thanks, will definitely check out ULL's program!
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