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Phd Physics vs Applied Math

  1. Aug 31, 2014 #1

    I completed my undergraduate degree in physics, from a reputed liberal arts college, a couple of years ago, and wrote a capstone senior thesis on experimental condensed matter project. Along the way, I took plenty of match classes, falling only one class short of a math major. My physics and math grades were both topsy-turvy - I ended up with a physics gpa of 3.55 and a math gpa of 3.75. I have a bad memory, so I struggled a bit with in-class physics exams - I was much more comfortable with the take-home tests instead. However, in my math classes, I was much more comfortable with the in-class exams, and struggled a lot more with the involved proofs in the take-home versions - particularly in abstract algebra and real analysis.

    My senior thesis was not a success - my project was not going well, and I found myself spending most of the year measuring magnetic fields, and the noise therein, in a number of different ways. My project was very lacking in focus sometimes, and I found myself questioning if I *really* wanted to pursue a career in research. I decided not to apply to graduate schools right then, and instead started working as a research assistant in a computational biochemistry lab.

    Fast forward a couple of years, and I now think that I do want to pursue at least a PhD in some computational research. I am not sure I am cut out for the cutthroat world of academia, with its constant focus on paper-publishing and grant-pushing, but I figure that a PhD will open up other research avenues - national labs or big industry.

    In the last two years, I got a co-authorship in a major publication out of my undergraduate project ( which succeeded a year after my exit), a second authorship in another paper. By the end of this year, I hope to have another paper (co-author) published, and two more papers (co-author and first author) submitted (and published? Hopefully!).

    I did apply to a few physics graduate schools last year as well, but I really struggled with time management during my physics GRE, could not attempt 20+ questions, and got a measly 50th percentile. I was never going to get in anywhere with that. I am retaking the physics GRE this year, and am going to try much harder to manage my time better. While I confident I can improve on my score, I am not sure if I can hit the 90+ percentile I really need to compensate for my mediocre gpa.


    I am definitely still interested in physics for graduate school - I like physics, and I like coding, so I think I would like to be in a physics program with a computational focus. I feel like the best fits for me are either condensed matter programs, or astrophysics programs. However, I worry that I am not really cut out for the heavy theoretical focus that goes with these programs. I have also looked into some theoretical chemistry and some materials science programs - these programs have interesting enough problems to solve, but I think I would be more interested in the computational/math/physics side of these programs.

    I now find that I am getting almost as interested in applied math programs with a computational focus - I am interested in learning more about FFTs, FEMs, statistics, and probability. I also think that this would be a better career option than astrophysics, for instance. These seem more directly applicable to the technology industry. However, I have very little experience with coursework/research in any of these. I wonder if my interest here is simply a matter of finding the grass greener on the other side. Also, given my less than excellence at involved proofs, I am not sure if I am actually a good fit for these programs.

    I welcome any thoughts on if my background actually qualifies me for applied math programs, and if these would be a better fit for my interests and aptitudes.

    Some background in experimental/computational physics, but I am not sure if I have the aptitude or even the focus required for these. Getting more interested in applied math programs, but wondering if I am simply finding the grass greener on the other side.
  2. jcsd
  3. Sep 1, 2014 #2


    Staff: Mentor

    Welcome to PF!

    Your subject specific GPAs look okay to me for graduate school. You must realize that the top tier schools are highly competitive and that a better GRE will get you past the first screening after that it's hard to say as each school is looking for different types of students. I think there are a higher percentage of theoretical and computational people applying than those interested in experimental work and so you will be in the bigger pool of applicants.

    In any event, computational math and physics are good skills to have and will give a better chance in industry.

    So yes you should try to improve your time management skills by reviewing every step you take to solve a problem. Are you faltering on the initial setup? The algebraic manipulation? Or when you actually plug in numbers? Or the final check of your results?

    Next you should apply to a range of schools all of which should offer computational physics or math courses.

    To spice up your application, you should start by doing some independent project that features computational methods, something that you could write a paper on to include in your application.

    A good toolkit is the Open Source Physics java libraries. They come with many examples and an associated book showing how computational methods are used in a wide variety of problems.

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