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Physics or Applied Physics Grad School

  1. Oct 7, 2005 #1
    I'm having trouble deciding which area of graduate school will be better for my interests. Maybe someone who knows more about the differences can help me out.

    The problem is, I enjoy learning how nature works, but I am also interested in creating new technology from the physics (and learning how current technology works). Another words, I want to study pure physics, the physics of technology, and have the opportunity to invent my own technologies.

    Maybe my middle road is experimental physics, because it is not theoretical physics nor applied physics. But I don't want my future carreer to be constructing experiments for theoretical physicists.

    My problem maybe that I enjoy two distinct fields, and that it is impossible to combine. The truth is that I would enjoy doing either one, solely. But ideally, I'd like to have more options.

    And to make one final point. It seems like applied physics graduates go into industry, but I may want to go into academia. Will I limit myself by going into applied physics?

    By the way, I am a senior in a dual degree program of Electrical Engineering and Physics. I currently enjoy my physics classes more, but when I see the physics I still ask myself, "What are the applications?"
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  3. Oct 7, 2005 #2


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    First of all, I too am in my senior year of undergraduate studies in electronic engineering. If building stuff is a priority, I think applied physics would definitely be for you. I've talked to my professor who teaches optoelectronics (about future graduate opportunities), and believe it or not, he is very knowledgeable in quantum optics and quantum mechanics... more than you'd usually expect of a professor of engineering. There is plenty of science to learn before you can start building complex engineering designs. I don't think the science will run dry at all. About your career prospective... remember you always have universities with schools of applied physics and engineering. That's my 2cents =)
  4. Oct 7, 2005 #3
    Thanks mezarashi. Yea, I plan on applying to schools that are good in both. But I'm worried if I apply to the "Applied Physics" school, then I will limit myself from the classes and oportunities in the "Physics" deptment. My first priority is learning about the physics, I can always work on the applications independently. They should fall out, more or less, naturally from the physics. But you may be right, there may be enough physics in the applied field. It might also give me a chance to explore other fields too, i.e. chemistry, biology, which could be useful in applied situations. I think I am leaning toward the applied schools now. Though, I would still be interested in hearing other opinons...
  5. Oct 7, 2005 #4


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    I guess we're kind of in the same boat, so I guess any input from this thread will also be helping me with my decision as well ^^

    I'm not sure if this okay to assume. You will find that technology is a bit more difficult to come up with. For example knowing maxwell's equations doesn't really help you come up with electronic circuits although it does explain circuit behavior very well. Usually you have an idea, want to implement it and need to know the physics to make it possible or optimize it. From there you rush to the books and theorems. I guess you shoudn't take my word. You should talk to some of your professors in the applied fields and really see how technology comes about. Hope to hear from others as well :)
  6. Oct 7, 2005 #5
    You can do both applied physics and theoretical physics if you want. Why do you think you can't do both? And why do you think you need to decided now? Your first year (or two or many) of graduate school will be spent taking classes- very hard classes and trying to pass the qualifier (an exam you have to pass to in order to obtain a Ph.D. ). AFTER you pass the qualifier will be when you start shopping around for a research advisor. This will be based upon what sparked your interest in your upper level classes, etc. Right now you have a lot of interests. You will continue to have many interests. Lets say you decide to do your research in a certain field in either applied, theoretical, or expterimental physics. Do you think that you don't have to have knowledge of the other disciplines? An experimentalist has to be knowledgeable of the theory of his experiments and whether their results fit the accepted paradigm or theory, or is it new physics? Does the experiment catagorize some new physics or novel way of using something that is applicable to other fields? The theoritician must be able to validate the theory against experiment and understand the applications of the theory. Who would fund theoretical work if it doesn't have any application? (Yes there is science for the sake of understanding and science itself, but this doesn't help the funding issue). And doesn't the applied physicist have to understand the theory he is applying and whether or not the application can be validated with experiments? You see everything is intertwined. Just because you do one type doesn't mean you can shun the others, or in your case: just because you do one, doesn't mean you cannot do the others also. I personally split my time between applied and theoretical physics. My research requires me to fill in the gaps of theory in order to apply it. So I do both. But you really shouldn't be worrying too much about this yet.
  7. Oct 7, 2005 #6
    Yea, you caught me on that one. I had second thoughts about putting that sentence in, but I decided to just let it fly. I agree, the technology is certaintly not that straightforward. Otherwise people wouldn't be getting Ph Ds in engineering. And actually, the more I think about it, applied physics fits me exactly. The whole reason I started this thread was to just bounce ideas off people--by the way, thanks to you for letting me do that. I am taking the GRE general in a couple days, so I need to make a decision by then, otherwise I'll have to pay the extra cost to send out scores (not the end of the world). I've been thinking about it for a while, and I'm finally forced to make a decision. So, right now, I'm feeling pretty confident about going toward the applied side. But I think some schools have the applied physics as part of the physics dept.

    Hmm... I may have to adjust the schools I'm applying for now: UC Berkeley, University of Chicago, and Cornell. Does anyone know the top schools in applied physics?
  8. Oct 7, 2005 #7
    So, Norman, does mean that I should still be applying to the physics department?
    Last edited: Oct 7, 2005
  9. Oct 7, 2005 #8
    Are the applied physics program seperate from the physics program? If they are you need to make a choice, and it seems you already have.
  10. Oct 7, 2005 #9
    Norman, that sounds like exactly what I want to do too. Take the classes, and then find the relevant research for applications. But at the same time, some of these applied physics schools sound interesting as well, since they tend to let students take classes outside physics. I would think that would be necessary to be successful in applied physics. Unless graduate physics is expansive enough to cover the mechanics of chemistry and biology, and possibly other areas which i can not forsee. I guess I just don't know enough about what is taught in graduate physics.
  11. Oct 8, 2005 #10
    After looking at a couple different schools' graduate courses, I'm going to stick with my orginal plan of going into physics. The courses contain the information I want to learn, and which ever specific area I find myself most interested, I'll continue that in research. Even if I end up doing research in a different department.
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