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Other relevant majors in Physics?

  1. Jul 30, 2009 #1
    First off, I'd like to say that this is a fantastic forum, and it's a pleasure to see so many interesting subjects and people. Looking forward to my time here.

    I am an undergraduate student entering my second year in Physics at the University of New Hampshire. After I receive my B.S., I plan to go on to graduate school and pursue a Ph.D in either Condensed Matter Physics or Materials Science. Furthermore, I'd like my research to center around applications to energy research, specifically with regard to optimized materials advances.

    As an undergraduate, I understandably have little experience with advanced topics and higher level research. Additionally, since the B.S. program in Physics leaves room for other classes, I would like to gain familiarity in other relevant areas. As such, I would like to ask graduate students/professors this question: how relevant is knowledge in another major to a Physics major? Put in a more general light, do you rely on subjects such as chemistry or computer science to a somewhat high degree? When you're doing research, do you often have to do chemical equations, or do you find yourself doing large amounts of computer programming? When you came into the graduate program, is there anything you really wish you picked up in your undergrad years?

    Although my intended area of expertise is in Condensed Matter and Materials Science, I certainly desire the input of those in any post-bachelor Physics program.
    Last edited: Jul 31, 2009
  2. jcsd
  3. Jul 31, 2009 #2
    A few points from a fellow Physics major...

    (1) At some point in their careers, most physicists I know (professors at my university, fairly exclusively) will choose to specialize in either experimental, computational, or theoretical physics. If you already know which way you're leaning, that will in general affect the sorts of advice you'd get. For instance, at my university, there are the following specializations on a per-professor basis:
    [experimental surface science], [condensed matter theory and computational material physics], [experimental condensed-matter physics], [condensed-matter physics].
    Just something to think about.

    (2) In my experience doing undergraduate research in physics, more important than a knowledge of other fields is a knowledge of physics. By this, I mean that unless you are already the bomb dot com at your area, you'd be better off taking more physics classes than, say, math or computer science classes to get the most research bang for your buck. Clearly, such courses can be beneficial, but the thing is that a significant amount of the other stuff you need to know will be covered in your physics classes anyway. The rest - except, perhaps, at higher levels - will just be icing on the cake, or preparatiom for further Physics study.

    (3) The kinds of things other courses will teach you may be useful and relevant in those fields, but may not be as useful in a physics sense. For instance, in my experience doing computational physics work, an understanding of computer science concepts as would be gained from computer science classes was not required, and may have even been a hindrance. Programming is a skill one should, ostensibly, learn without taking a course; taking the CS department programming courses might emphasize aspects not immediately relevant to your physics goals.

    (4) From what I've heard, most people wish they had taken more physics courses, and after that most people say they wish they had taken more math. I would imagine chemistry would come after that, and computer science last of all. Unless, of course, you throw "programming" in with computer science, but then again the programming you do for physics has very little to do with "computer science" proper.

    Just my two cents. I would reemphasize the fact that your ultimate focus - theory, experiment, or computation - would impact the kinds of courses one would recommend you take, to some extent at the least. In general, I think the best course of action would be to take as much physics as you can stomach.
  4. Jul 31, 2009 #3
    Excellent, I think that solidifies what I first assumed, and I'll be sure to keep that as my first priority. However, I have to wonder how much mathematics I will need for my career. After two calculus courses, UNH Physics majors are required to take differential equations and multidimensional calculus, and I anticipate that I will need other courses (partial differential equations, numerical analysis, and so on) to excel in upper-level/graduate student work. Should I focus on these higher-level math courses in addition to my Physics courses?
  5. Jul 31, 2009 #4
    1) Computer science: I agree that most CS courses won't be useful. I disagree that most people can/should learn basic programming on their own. A good intro CS/programming class is not just about "here's how you make arrays and print 'Hello world!' in language X", they're about good programming practices and fundamental aspects of how all those data types are actually processed inside the machine. Judging my much of the code I've had to deal with that was written by physicists, they should've been paying more attention in their intro classes.

    That said, beyond the intro level there's little use in CS courses, except perhaps in a data structures/algorithms type course (I took one that turned out to be very useful). Some very serious scientific programmers will benefit from deeper understanding of how computers work. If your department offers a computational physics course (perhaps as an occasional special topic, if not regularly), then I think that's a good idea even if you don't end up going into a computational field, and it doesn't prevent you from taking something you want more.

    2) Chemistry. Only if you're interested. You can learn what you need if you get into a field where it's relevant.

    3) Math. I don't think that courses in PDE or numerical analysis (especially the latter) are necessary to do well at the graduate level; I don't even think that most ODE classes as taught by math departments are useful. Beyond Calc III you can learn what you need to know through physics classes, including the math methods courses taught in most graduate departments. Only take extra math if you're interested.

    4) Physics. Take all you can. I imagine that UNH has a pretty typical program that will include all the necessary stuff for grad school. Beyond that, take whatever sounds interesting, including a condensed matter/solid state/materials class if it's offered. And of course, get involved in research as early as you can.

    For myself, I would have liked to have taken more physics special topics courses, and more stat mech since my upper-level thermo/stat mech course was too heavily focused (I think) on classical thermodynamics, and so I had some issues with SM in grad school. I'm glad I took the programming/computational physics classes that I did, and got by fine in grad school despite taking the minimum necessary undergrad math (but I took two semesters of graduate math methods -- and enjoyed it a lot more than any undergrad math class).
  6. Jul 31, 2009 #5
    I'll take some time to look at UNH courses and make some pointed suggestions.

    - As far as physics is concerned, I would try to take the following classes (don't feel bad if you can't fit them all into your schedule, just take the ones that work and which sound most interesting): 508, 605, 615, 616, 701, 702, 705, 718.

    - As far as math goes, definitely take three semesters of calculus and differential equations, as required by your program. Also, consider the following, if you're serious about condensed matter and materials science: 644, 645, 646, 647, 753, 754.

    - The materials science department offers a course numbered 762. That would be one to consider taking.

    - For computer science...: 410, 516, 671.

    - For chemistry... well, if you do want to take some chemistry, it wouldn't be a terrible idea... I'd say take the intro sequence if anything and then look into...: 517/518, 574, 681/682, 683/685, 684/686, 762/763, 774/775, 776***

    *** This class looks so interesting that I might recommend you do whatever you have to in order to take it. That would mean taking the whole physical chemistry sequence. You know, I'll point out at this point that NHS has so many good Chemistry classes that for somebody who wants to go into condensed matter / materials science, I could almost recommend that any courses you take outside of physics be in chemistry. I'm actually impressed.

    - This may take some finessing, but the civil engineering department offers a couple of courses on materials, though this may not be what you had in mind: 526, 622.

    - The mechanical engineering department has some nice offerings: 561, 730, 731, 760, 761, 763.

    I would recommend you take a close look at all the courses I've listed. In particular, the chemistry and mechanical engineering courses look most promising. Let me know what you think.
  7. Aug 4, 2009 #6
    For Computer Science, I just don't feel like the time invested in more CS courses is worth the return. As a former CS major, I've already taken the introductory course (CS 415), but it was very time-consuming (more so for someone who isn't in the major), and probably not the best use of my time.

    Although Civil Engineering does indeed concern itself with materials, I'd imagine that the course focuses mostly on the macroscopic structure, and I feel like my time could be better spent on other courses.

    For Mathematics, I was at first strongly considering picking up a http://www.math.unh.edu/undergrad/major/interdisciplinary/im_physics_option.html, but I think that I should spend my time elsewhere, picking up the information through self-study. I'd imagine that mathematics is easier to self-teach than chemistry, not least due to labs.

    Now, this leaves me with the three most promising options: Physics, Chemistry and Mechanical Engineering courses. To make good on my goal to focus on CMP/Materials Science, I think I want to take the http://physics.unh.edu/undergrad/programs/BS_MS.html [Broken]. This allows me to take all of the Mechanical Engineering courses that AUMathTutor listed (as well as PHYS 718) and do an honors thesis. In my spare slots, I want to focus on Physics and Chemistry courses (specifically Physical Chemistry 1-3) to gain another level of proficiency in the interdisciplinary Physics/Chemistry field.

    In summation, I believe focusing on Materials Science within the Physics major with spare time spent on Physical Chemistry courses is the most optimal use of my time and resources in preparation for my graduate career. What do you guys think?
    Last edited by a moderator: May 4, 2017
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