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Programs Physics Graduate Programs with No Official Background

  1. Sep 22, 2016 #1
    Dear Physics Forums friends,

    I am a college senior at US pursuing the mathematics and microbiology majors. Getting to the core of my question, I am curious if the graduate programs in physics (at least in US) also consider applicants from no official background in physics.

    I started out as an aspiring microbiologist, and I honestly had been hating the art of physics since my high-school years. Due to past research experience related to the bioinformatics (almost a year ago), I acquired huge love to mathematics, which I started to pursue a major in mathematics, and I begun to take various courses like analysis, abstract linear algebra, topology, set theory, etc.

    The topology course on the last semester introduced me some of fascinating interactions between the mathematics and physics. I think I started to become very curious about physics. Since I am already deeply involved in both math and microbiology majors, I was advised to pursue reading courses in physics, which I am doing right now. Currently, I am doing various reading courses in physics alongside with renowned faculty members, with books like Weinberg, Landau/Lifshitz, etc.; I am also doing reading courses in mathematics like set-theoretic topology and pursuing undergraduate research in machine learning and philosophy of biology. After completing my current research, I am going to take undergraduate research in the theoretical physics with my mentors from mathematics and physics.

    Since beginning the reading courses in physics, I was enlightened by the power of physics, and I realized that I really love it! The physics is even more interesting that mathematics, microbiology, programming, etc. The theoretical physics and mathematics physics are particularly interesting to me. I am started to really consider preparing for physics graduate programs. Due to ongoing medical treatments, I am going to stay 1.5 years after my senior year (total 5.5 year graduate track).

    Since I am pursuing two different majors and following medical treatments, my plan is to continue the reading courses in theoretical physics (they are great for building a strong relationship with professors and getting undergraduate projects), and taking some advanced courses in physics, such as relativity and QM. I really regret not discovering my interest to physics earlier than now, which then I would just take physics courses starting from scratch.

    How should I start to prepare for graduate programs in physics? could you give me some ideas about applications? How can I make my application strong (I am worried that I did not take a lot of physics courses)?
  2. jcsd
  3. Sep 22, 2016 #2
    You mention you will be taking some advanced physics course. I'd say that as long as those include QM, E&M, and some classical mechanics, you should be fine.
  4. Sep 22, 2016 #3
    To be honest, I am not sure if I can take CM, QM, and E&M on the rest of my undergraduate track. I got an enrollment permission from a professor who will be teaching the relativity on next Spring (I am doing reading course in relativity right now, so I more or less will be prepared for it). The courses you mention often conflict with very advanced courses in math and microbio I need to take to satisfy my major.
  5. Sep 22, 2016 #4
    is it merely a schedule conflict? If so, see if you can take them as an independent study, or talk to the professors to see if they can switch the times of classes (assuming the advanced classes are as small as mine were, ~2-3 people, it can be easily switched). Also, if you want to go to graduate school in physics, why are you still pursuing microbio?
  6. Sep 22, 2016 #5
    Thank you for the advice. Independent study is good idea, but I am already pursuing two reading courses in the physics (one in Landau/Lifshitz' trilogy, and one in Weinberg's relativity book); given that I read all series in of Landau/Lifshitz, is there way for me to express my knowledge from it to the admission committee, perhaps like recommendation letters from mentor, undergraduate research, and GRE?

    I should investigate more about the size of advanced classes; I assume you meant graduate courses. I am not planning to take any undergraduate course in physics; I think reading L/L under a guidance from my professor will prepare me and allow me to acquire an enrollment permission from the instructors of graduate courses. The biggest worry is the ongoing medical treatments; the treatment schedules are quite irregular (and can be unexpected) due to the nature of my illness, and they had caused some serious interference to my schedule in the past.

    I am still pursuing microbiology (more like a duty) since my major is actually an individualized major that involves advanced courses in the mathematics and microbiology. I am trying to see ways to abandon that curriculum, but so many people are already involved in my individualized major, and I cannot find ways to tell them. My hope is to change to math major, which will give me more rooms to take other courses like physics. Also, I have this feeling of doubt since I already take many courses in biology (I do not want my learning experience from them to go to waste).
  7. Sep 22, 2016 #6
    Also, do you think admission committee in physics will consider my past research experience in the non-physics areas? My current research in the machine learning-virtual reality and philosophy of biology are almost in completion, with good possibility of publication. I also did research in the experimental microbiology in the past. After completing my current research, my plan is to jump into available research projects in physics, with strong hope of theoretical physics.
  8. Sep 23, 2016 #7


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    You have about a slightly better than a zero percent chance. You'd never make it through quals without some kind of pre-graduate physics education in the core/specialized areas of physics, and assuming you did get into a program you'd most likely be taking remedial classes for a few years. There are plenty of physics majors, and more applicants than good grad positions, so you'd basically have to show why you'd be the better pick over someone who has all the prerequisite education already.

    That's a tall order to fill.
  9. Sep 25, 2016 #8
    Should I then give up any consideration of pursuing the physics graduate program and look for other areas?
  10. Sep 25, 2016 #9


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    What's wrong with mathematical physics or something similar? It's still a subset of applied mathematics, but that might scratch your itch. There are also plenty of other areas of applied mathematics, and some that deal with biology as well.

    If you're set on doing something like that you need to take as many applied math and physics courses as avaliable. If you aren't going to take any kind of formal education in physics though, you still have an uphill climb ahead of you.
  11. Sep 25, 2016 #10


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    This is what I would do given a similar situation. I would start investigating applied math programs dealing with physics. Then I would see what area in physics their research interests gravitate around (realitivity, strings, QFT, etc) and then take those physics/ or related courses and whatever math courses that might help in these areas (diff geometry, topology, LA, groups, etc.), and I would also start to look into research oppertunities at my current institution that somewhat aligned with these things and do those.

    When I applied to grad school I would have an idea of what schools I'm going to go to because I've already been researching them and their research areas. I would also apply to some plan b programs like computational biology or something as a backup.
  12. Sep 26, 2016 #11
    Without the courses on your transcript, you've got a tough hill to climb. A great GRE score will do a bit, but most schools will want to see a solid undergrad background in E&M, Mechanics, QM, and Stat Mech.
  13. Sep 26, 2016 #12

    Vanadium 50

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    If at the end of your reading of three volumes of Landau and Lifschitz you can work every problem and do every derivation, your university should give you credit for the corresponding upper division classes. However, that is a very, very big if. Nevertheless, if that's not your goal, why waste your time with Landau and Lifschitz?
  14. Sep 27, 2016 #13
    If I take advanced (graduate-level or MA intro.) courses in quantum mechanics, E&M, relativity, and mechanics, will they be suitable to replace standard undergraduate curriculum? My mentor assume that I will be pursuing only mathematics major along with microbiology, and he recommended me to take those courses starting on the next semester, judging from my reading pace with L/L and separate books on relativity (Weinberg and Schutz). Our physics program does not really enforce prerequisites as long as I get the instructors' permission for enrollment. I think I will talk with my mentors again about this, and also see if my current reading courses involving L/L will allow me to acquire credits for the corresponding undergraduate classes, as mentioned by Vanadium 50.

    The ultimate goal of my current reading course is to really learn all volumes of L/L.

    I am also going to talk with my major advisor to see if it is possible to modify my individualized major to add some physics courses to replace some of my old required courses.

    Also, I got two undergraduate research opportunities in physics, one in string theory and another one in data science involving quantum mechanics. I would like to pursue just one, so I am currently reading relevant research articles and books to learn more about them.
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