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Physics vs Math Major

  1. Nov 30, 2009 #1
    Hiya guys. Like many students out there, I'm a hopeful senior looking for some advice. I'm applying to a ton of privates and UCs, and my main goal is to get into one of the top schools (HYPSMC, etc.). I really think I can get into one of these great schools, but the problem is that I don't know what to focus on. I absolutely love Physics and pure Mathematics, but I'm leaning a bit towards Mathematics. I intend to get a PhD in Mathematics or Physics after graduating undergrad and then grab some job that allows me a lot of research opportunities.

    However, I can't really decide whether I want to major in Physics, Mathematics, or even both. I wouldn't mind being "stuck" with Physics, as I absolutely love learning these concepts, but I think I prefer learning pure Mathematics instead. In the top schools, I'm not sure if obtaining a double major would even be wise, especially since I just want to focus on one and do very well in it. I'm aware that Physics covers a ton of Mathematics (which is also why I love Physics) and is more of applying Mathematic's theoretical components into practical life. I however really enjoy theory and mathematical courses that would not be covered in Physics. I'm just a bit wary of research/job opportunities with a Math PhD versus a Physics PhD. Also, are there opportunities to switch early on in the undergrad life? I just want to be sure because I feel like what I major in will easily determine the rest of my life. Not to be offensive to anyone, but I don't want to waste away my years of learning Mathematics and Physics for a job in a company. I want to continue learning for the rest of my life by dabbling in theories, experiments, and research.

    As for my own experiences with these two subjects, I think I do fairly well in them. According to my teachers, I'm the best they've ever had. I score perfects on all of my tests, I read Mathematics/Physics college books on my spare time, and I enjoy learning the Mathematics/Physics courses offered by MIT OpenCourseWare. I'm currently self-studying Physics C (I took AP Physics B last year and was ranked high in CA) and taking the course AP Calculus BC (which is extremely easy for me). I watched and learned the courses Differential Equations, Multivariable Calculus, halfway through Linear Algebra, and am currently doing the Physics courses in MIT Open Courseware. This may sound a bit sketchy, but I really have learned in these courses. I took all the practice tests/finals and problems after each lecture that were available and scored very well. I don't mean to sound overly pretentious or arrogant, but AP Calculus BC is a joke to what I learned in the summer and last year by myself.

    Thanks for reading!!!
    Last edited: Nov 30, 2009
  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 30, 2009 #2
    Re: schools
    You sound like you're applying to too many schools. There's no heuristic for determining how many is suitable for you. But you should read on some advice to see where you fall under: http://www.google.com/#hl=en&source...ow+many+colleges+to+apply&fp=a8fdbda9b4322631

    Re: which field
    > There are many old threads with good answers on the same problem in this forum. It would be easier to give you advice on this if it's two fields that are almost autonomous of each other - bioengineering and math, or something alone those lines. But I think it's something that can't be answered between physics and math. Personally, I'd suggest that you let your freshman year make the decision for you.

    Re: double major
    > There's much overlap between physics and math. A physics major usually takes enough math courses to earn a minor in math. If you are specializing early, then it becomes natural to take more obscure courses... mmm, Galois theory, Lie groups, an advanced course in PDEs? So it is very possible to get a double major even without deliberate plans. A double major in physics and math is a popular choice at MIT from what I gather.

    Re: self-study
    > That's great. One pressing concern is not that you're arrogant - hey, I think you deserve credit for your effort - but that there are many applicants to the schools you've listed that feel the same way.

    Hope I've helped.
  4. Nov 30, 2009 #3
    Calc BC is a joke, nothing new there. OCW is a great resource, and it sounds like you've made great use of it.

    Take this with a grain of salt, but I know people who have had challenging experiences at no-name universities and others who slacked off at Ivies. Don't stress the name too much.
  5. Dec 1, 2009 #4
    I would say that it isn't too tough or out of the question to do a double major (or even double degree, as there is a difference) in math and physics. This would set you up nicely for graduate school, choosing math, physics, or applied math. Note that at most schools, once you get into any one of these three programs, it will be relatively easy to switch to one of the others, especially if you have degrees in both math and physics. Also, which ever you choose, you will have a slight leg up as long as you are proficient in both areas. I would say most math and physics graduate students only know the other area at a rather cursory or secondary level.
  6. Dec 1, 2009 #5
    I think an Applied Math degree with a physics minor would put you in an excellent position to do either math or physics in grad school while giving you a chance to try your hand at both disciplines.
  7. Dec 1, 2009 #6


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    I'd say: wait some time until you've had some more advanced courses. Of course, it's nice if you have good (or even perfect) grades for the courses you named, but the real deal has yet to come: abstract algebra, real analysis, topology, etc. There you will spend most of your time proving things, while the courses you have taken so far probably focused more on computing.

    My point is: in the next year you will be more capable to decide whether you like physics or math better. Introductory courses can be a bit different. I myself discovered in my second year to be liking math (a bit) more than physics, while it was the other way around in my first year; the focus changed.
  8. Dec 1, 2009 #7
    It'll take you about a year and a half before your college courses start to get really specialized, so until the middle of sophomore year you'll probably be covering a lot of the core requirements for both a math and physics major. It was overwhelming for me, trying to decide what I wanted to major in, but once I got to college it became clear that I don't need to know right away.

    Even if you're leaning towards mathematics, you might still want to put down physics as your intended major. You should be able to get into all the math classes you need right away as the basic ones are required for many majors, so there should be enough sections to get into the math classes pretty easily. The advantage to declaring yourself an intended physics major would be that most of the time you would get preference on labs and things like that. For example, I'm a chem major, so I was allowed to sign up for a materials chem lab and a full honors class next semester. Just something to think about.
  9. Dec 1, 2009 #8
    Thanks a lot for you all your responses! I haven't checked this topic until today.
    First of all, I'd like to say that I don't think I'm applying to "that" many schools. It's 8 privates and 4 UCs. I haven't chosen the top schools for the prestige or something similar. Rather, I only care about the education that I can get from it. I believe I'm quite a tolerable person, so I can withstand many of the different social conditions apparent in each of these top schools. Not to sound arrogant, but I just want the best education I can possibly get, and I just think the MIT/Harvard and etc. be able to provide this in the best fashion. Hopefully you guys get at what I'm trying to say.

    For specifics, I really like theoretical physics and pure mathematics, but I know that this has a high chance of changing during my undergrad experience. I'm also wary on whether I can really learn at the highest level because, like Laundau stated, I've only taken the basic courses. I could like Mathematics and Physics now, but end up hating it after reading off books and only watching the professor babble on (I don't think this would happen, but there is a chance). Hopefully, my focused interests will remain on either of these two though.

    I really enjoyed listening to all your personal experiences and the advice you guys gave me. It's helping me a lot! I really appreciate it. The UCs were already sent and I put Physics as the intended major with Mathematics as the alternative like what pzona advised. I'm thinking that at the college I decide, I'm going to take courses that apply to both majors and slowly, I can narrow down my choice to one as I learn in undergrad. I'm wondering about the opportunities after undergrad school. Could I apply and try to get a Physics PhD after a Math major? Can it work the other way? What exactly can I do with a Math PhD (in terms of research and universities, not actual jobs)?
    Last edited: Dec 1, 2009
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