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Admissions Philosophy to Physics

  1. Sep 25, 2016 #1
    I graduated from a liberal arts school two years ago with a bachelor of arts in philosophy. I worked for a year, preparing to apply to grad school in philosophy. Then I had a revelation and suddenly knew that philosophy was a load of bull and that I needed to study science. Then I spent a year and two summers taking physics courses (non-degree) at a fairly high ranked university.

    The result is a transcript with nine courses and a gpa of slightly higher than 4.0. (My undergrad gpa in philosophy was about 3.7). The courses are eight physics courses, constituting the core of an undergrad physics education, including two semesters of quantum, statistical physics, math methods, mechanics, e&m, optics, and one of those dumb intro courses where you study out of Halliday. The ninth class was ODE. Apart from high school, these courses are the entirety of my formal education in the sciences (I took some philosophy of science when I was studying in the humanities, but that probably doesn't count). Of course, doing well in these classes required a good deal of outside study and catch-up work while I was taking them.

    I took the physics GRE in September and expect to get in the 800 or maybe 900 range, unless I screwed up so bad that I don't even know how bad I screwed up, which is a distinct possibility. I've also been putting in some hours doing research in a lab, though to date I don't have a whole lot to show for it as far as a finished product is concerned. However, I have learned some basic machining and CAD, as well as use of basic electronics equipment (oscilloscopes, lock-ins).

    I'm wondering what you all think of my prospects for admission into a graduate program. Do you think I could get into one of the top schools or is that too long of a reach? What's a realistic range? I'm taking a graduate quantum class now and am actually understanding the material (mainly Feynman and Landau), so I feel like I am intellectually prepared to study physics on a graduate level. The only trouble is my background is kind of thin compared to other likely applicants, particularly in formal math training. Do you think my chances would significantly improve if I put off application another year to take math classes or more physics classes? Math classes are just kind of boring though...

    Thanks for your input.
  2. jcsd
  3. Sep 25, 2016 #2
    I'm confused. Why did you not take those courses for a degree? Many graduate schools won't look at you unless you have a BS in physics whether you've done the coursework or not. Also, what math training do you have? I don't imagine you would've gotten very far in physics without some diff. eq., linear algebra, calculus, etc....
  4. Sep 25, 2016 #3
    I know some schools are strict about the BS requirement, so those are not options. But my understanding is that some are more lenient. Basically to get a second bachelors degree would have taken another four years. Depending on the program, I would have had to fulfill all sorts of extraneous credit requirements that have nothing to do with physics or math. That seemed like a waste of time, since I've already gone through that whole rigamarole a first time.

    My math training is high school calc, a math methods course, and an ODE class. The rest was just a lot of book reading and self-study.
  5. Sep 25, 2016 #4


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    That is generally not true, if your first degree was from an accredited university you could have transferred previous GE courses.

    Which is true for a lot of physics majors.

    That's weird, but I digress.

    That's not entirely the core (you need a few more courses in CM and EM), but not far off.

    That's probably the understatement of the year.

    That range would be slightly above average, however, I would be surprised if this were true. I wouldn't bet the house on those scores.

    Finished product? A publication?

    All useful skills. Been a minute since I've even seen a lock-in amplifier.

    Reaching way too far. By top school I assume you mean an Ivy? Isn't going to happen.

    Maybe that's the understatement of the year.

    Realistic? Apply to a lot of programs. Probably as many as you can afford. I don't want to say it's impossible, if what you're saying is true, you've taken some physics courses so graduate programs have something formal to look at, but you're going to need really strong letters as well to help strengthen your rather unorthodox application packet.

    Maybe, but I don't think you need more formal math, just physics. Taking a few more CM and EM courses might help, a few specialty courses like atomic/solid state/lab courses, take some more graduate classes, talk to professors at your current institution and get their advice.
  6. Sep 25, 2016 #5

    Fervent Freyja

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    Oh, the madness...

    Is there an award for the best satirical post on PF?
  7. Sep 26, 2016 #6
    Call around and speak with someone who knows the ropes at some of the 2nd tier schools. But you'll need to know your GRE scores before they give you any real evaluation. Think schools ranked in the 50 to 150 range. Top 50 is exceedingly unlikely. In the 50-150 range, there are always niches of need, and sometimes the admissions committee has leeway to fill those niches.
  8. Sep 30, 2016 #7


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    I feel some of the responses in this thread are being unnecessarily discouraging. It's important to be realistic, yes, but if this is what you really want to do, then there's no reason not to aim high. As someone with a somewhat unconventional educational path myself, I think I can safely say this: you might be surprised at what is possible if you are willing to go for it.

    Talk about this with the professors teaching your physics classes. Try to get involved in something that would distinguish you, such as some kind of publishable research from your lab work or a senior project. At the end of the day, you need to give a committee a reason NOT to toss your application on the first pass. Once that happens, who knows what could happen.

    In the meantime, figure out what it would take to transfer all your existing credits, including physics classes, and complete your BS in physics.
  9. Oct 1, 2016 #8
    Sound advice. Don't just move forward with the current strength of your application. IMPROVE it!

    I like it.
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