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Programs Oxford PhD: Mathematical or Theoretical Physics?

  1. Sep 28, 2008 #1
    Hi everyone,

    I'm applying this year for a snazzy 2 (maybe 3) year scholarship for graduate study at Oxford. I want to study gravitational physics, getting a strong foundation in relativity and quantum theory before choosing to research black holes, quantum gravity, quantum field theory or cosmology (all areas I could see myself doing, ultimately).

    I need advice choosing between the Mathematical Physics (MP) group and the Theoretical Physics (TP) group at Oxford; unfortunately the TP website is down, and I can't tell what their research is about. It seems like there's more relativity in the math physics group (math department), but I'm also worried about doing the math PhD since they have no coursework and I'd have only 3-4 years to finish (while on the other hand a recent graduate told me the physics department there has classes). I've always planned to be at a US graduate school where I'd have another year of coursework.

    Ultimately I want to be a physicist, rather than a mathematician. So - which do y'all recommend? And also, can a person with a PhD in mathematical physics still apply for jobs in physics departments later down the road, or will I be limited to math departments?

  2. jcsd
  3. Sep 28, 2008 #2


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    No PhD programmes in the UK allow for an extra year of classes: all are 3 or 4 year programmes. Sometimes you will incorporate classes into your first year, say a couple of classes in the first semester.
  4. Sep 28, 2008 #3
    Thanks cristo. That rules out the advantage of additional coursework for either.
  5. Sep 29, 2008 #4
    Applying for Rhodes are you? Competition is stiff so good luck with that.

    Secondly, it's called a DPhil.

    Thirdly, from the sounds of it, I don't think you are ready for the maths degree at Oxford (and probably the physics one as well). A UK "PhD" is not the same as an American PhD.

    The DPhil is a research degree. You won't be able to "get a strong foundation [via coursework] in relativity before" conducting research; you are expected to have all the knowledge necessary prior to entry.

    Simply put, you'll have to do a masters or whatnot first; your DPhil application will be unsuccessful without it. If you are not ready for that reality, staying in the US is the best option (where coursework + research is the norm, unlike in the UK).
  6. Sep 30, 2008 #5
    hm, well, that's about what I expected to hear. Though I'm not sure I'm completely unprepared - I've taken a few graduate courses at my undergrad institution and am only a few classes from a Master's in Math.

    The whole thing is frustrating, as they really don't seem to offer much in the way of M.Phil degrees or anything at Oxford. They have the M.Sc by research, but from what I gather, that's really just what they give you if you fail at the D.Phil and they don't encourage you to apply for it.

    I've spent a considerable amount of time getting the application together and think I could have a decent chance, but I also don't want to mess up my career forever by doing something that I'm not ready for; on the other hand, if I were selected I could spend the next year working very hard to prepare (coursewise and background knowledge-wise) - I may not be brilliant, but I'm willing to work quite hard to achieve my goals... I just don't know what to do. Cancel all the applications because I'm afraid I can't do it well enough? Change to humanities program (haha, just kidding)? I don't know :frown:
  7. Sep 30, 2008 #6
    Out of curiosity, why do you specifically want to go to Oxford? If you really think you need much preparation it sounds like most places in the UK wouldn't suit you particularly, least of all Oxford. Anyway, if you want lectures physics would seem the obvious choice, but there is a caveat: you might want to find out exactly what graduate courses are offered by the physics department if you're planning to rely on them. http://www.admin.ox.ac.uk/pubs/lectures/Physics.pdf doesn't list one for relativity, but that list only covers the first term, so it's not comprehensive.
  8. Sep 30, 2008 #7
    Oxford is a very good university - it has a long-standing history of intellectual prowess and maintains it's position as a top university in the world. I'd love the chance to live in the UK for a few years as well; nothing puts your own country into perspective like living somewhere else. The Mathematical Physics group at Oxford, as far as I can tell, is nothing short of amazing. In this sense I can't think of a better place to do doctoral work.

    It's not so much that I feel I need coursework, but I'm approaching this having strongly emphasized physics in my undergraduate degree. I'm doing dual math/physics BS degrees, but my school's math department is kind of lousy (we're not even ranked at all, I don't think). So I'm only really concerned about doing math (because I do very well at my school, but is that going to be enough?). That's all. Actually, I wasn't even so worried about the whole lack of courses (it was a small detail) until I posted this discussion and people seem to think I am very underprepared; now I just don't know what to think at all.
  9. Sep 30, 2008 #8
    Trust me, you need coursework. To put it into perspective, even the best of the best of American students are ill-prepared to undertake a DPhil/PhD in the UK. Simply, the education standards are not up to par. You really do need to do a master's first as most people will be applying with one. You'll be at a significant disadvantage without it. And since you say your (maths) department is not ranked, that surely will not help you at all.

    Plus, applying to Oxford will not be all fine and dandy. Since you haven't finished your degree, if you were fortunate to even receive an offer (for a DPhil, or a master's even) most are conditional. You won't get an official letter of acceptance until you finish (so around June-ish?), but even then, it's no guarantee. It will be based upon your grades you receive (and your ability to secure funding, as it's not automatic as in the US). What about all the schools in the US when you have to commit to them in April? If you are really that sure about going to Oxford (and your abilities to be able to), why even bother applying in the US, right?

    Don't get me wrong, Oxford is great, but just consider your options carefully and make sure it's right for you. If it is, by all means, no one is stopping you from applying.
  10. Oct 3, 2008 #9
    I see your points. Unfortunately, I've already finished my scholarship application. But since the US system is understood to be at a lower level for BS, I probably won't get one (which is a good thing, I guess - I couldn't turn it down if I got one and would probably screw up grad school altogehter). But I did also apply for Master's programs at Cambridge and Imperial, so I am hoping they will work - even a Master's in the UK will be hard for me, I'm sure, but I think more manageable with hard work and they have coursework (this is definitely good).

    Thanks for your input! It's hard for a US student like me to really know where I stand compared to other students in both the US and the UK.
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