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Physics Possible computer science to physics career path?

  1. Feb 21, 2006 #1
    I have a strong computer science background, and I'm contemplating applying to graduate school in physics in the coming year or two. However, other than a general love of the subject, I don't really feel that I currently have the focus that I would need to have my application taken seriously. ("Physics is cool" really doesn't cut it as a statement of purpose.)

    I certainly don't expect to pre-select a thesis topic, but I would like to get some idea on how I could possibly take advantage of my computer science background to both gain admission and be successful in graduate school. What sort of specialities should I be looking into?

    Thanks for any advice and recommendations.
  2. jcsd
  3. Feb 21, 2006 #2
    I'm not sure what kind of physics you're interested in, but maybe check out computational physics?
  4. Feb 21, 2006 #3
    I'm not sure what sort of physics I'm interested in either :smile: .

    What exactly would research in computational physics involve? Finding better methods of numerically solving various real-life differential equations, for the most part?
  5. Feb 21, 2006 #4
  6. Feb 21, 2006 #5


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    You may also want to read this:


    Keep in mind that "computational physics" is first and foremost, a physics degree with emphasis on computational methods. It isn't a computer science degree. So one needs a physics degree.

  7. Feb 21, 2006 #6
    What does "strong computer science background" mean? Are you still an undergrad student or are you out of school and working? What physics coursework did you did in college? What have you learned so far on your own?
  8. Feb 21, 2006 #7
    I have been out of school and working for an embarrassing number of years. In addition to an undergraduate degree in computer engineering, I also have a more advanced degree in computer science. I feel comfortable calling my background here "strong".

    On the other hand, I have had the usual set of engineering undergraduate physics courses, but if I have any chance of admission, it will be because of what I have learned on my own. So far, I've been working my way through Griffiths' electrodynamics and quantum mechanics books, Kittel and Kroemer's thermal physics book, Marion and Thornton's dynamics book, and Schutz's book on general relativity. I'm mostly through these, and I hope to also finish Hecht's optics and Griffiths' particle physics books before I actually apply anywhere.

    I'm probably deluding myself into thinking that I can actually get in anywhere... but I have to try, right? :smile:
  9. Feb 21, 2006 #8
    Yes, I've been using the physics GRE as my benchmark. I'm basically assuming that if I can't manage to absolutely ace it, I have no chance of admission whatsoever. I know I will need a much higher score than someone with a proper undergraduate preparation.

    I'm not convinced I have any realistic chance if I *do* ace it though... which is why I need to develop some focus here.
  10. Feb 21, 2006 #9


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    Please don't take this the wrong way -- I mean no offense -- but I honestly don't think your computer science background is all that relevant. I also don't think you can prepare yourself for a graduate program in physics by reading textbooks on your own. If you really -can- ace the physics GRE, you'll probably gain admission to moderately selective schools, but I doubt the more prestigious schools will take you seriously on GRE scores alone. Keep in mind the Physics GRE is an enormous challenge even for outstanding undergraduate students, so I wouldn't advise that you can simply study hard and expect to ace it.

    My advice? Go back and take all the undergraduate classes you missed: thermo, E&M, particle, quantum, etc. It'll take you a few years, at most, and you'll be much better prepared.

    - Warren
  11. Feb 21, 2006 #10
    No offense taken. I don't think it's terribly relevant either... but it's what I have, so I have to at least make an effort to present it as a strength.

    As for taking the courses... I'd love to, except I'm not really in a financial position to just quit and go back to studying full time. Graduate school at least has the advantage that it might be possible to be to receive tuition and a small stipend, and that would make all the difference for me.

    I've tried looking without much success for online and/or evening courses that I could take in the SF Bay Area, but I haven't had much luck finding anything. I'm open to suggestions here as well.

    Anyway, I enjoy studying, and it keeps me off the streets. As the man said, life is what happens while you are busy making other plans...
    Last edited: Feb 22, 2006
  12. Feb 21, 2006 #11


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    You're also in the bay area? If you're in the south bay (or don't mind the drive), I strongly suggest you look into San Jose State's "Open University" program. This program allows literally anyone to enroll in any class they wish to take that has open seats, with no application or admission required. Furthermore, the credits you obtain can later be used for a degree.

    And, of course, SJSU is about as cheap as higher education gets.


    - Warren
  13. Feb 22, 2006 #12
    Thanks for the info! It helps a lot to understand where you are coming from and what you have done so far.

    I will post more later, but I mainly want to say that you are not deluding yourself!

    I know from personal experience that what you are dreaming of is possible to achieve. My situation is remarkably similar to yours (out of school 12 years, programmer, undegrad degree engineering not physics, self-taught at Jr/Sr level), and I will be attending grad school in physics in the fall. (I've been accepted at several schools so far, no decision on where I will be going.)
  14. Feb 22, 2006 #13

    Congrats .
  15. Feb 22, 2006 #14
    I recall looking at this at some point, as well as the equivalent program at San Francisco State. I remember that SFSU had more courses of interest, but even then, I couldn't find classes I wanted that weren't being held during the day for traditional full-time students.

    I certainly agree with you about the price though... I'll have to take another look. Thanks!
    Last edited: Feb 22, 2006
  16. Feb 22, 2006 #15
    Congratulations! You have instantly become my hero!

    I have to ask... how did you convince the admissions committees that you had what it takes to work at that level? When I look at my own resume, I can' t help but think that anyone looking at it would think "Smart guy... but what makes him think he knows anything about physics?" I'd like to hear how you overcame that.
  17. Feb 22, 2006 #16


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    Take note that an engineering degree, especially electrical engineering, has a lot more in common and applicability in a physics program than a computer science degree. I have personally encountered electrical engineering majors who eventually got Ph.D's in physics.

    However, in all cases, they had to do quite a bit of catching up on areas of physics that they missed before they could pass the qualifying exams at the schools they went to. Again, if you had read the thread that I pointed to, getting accepted isn't the issue. If you're willing to pay full fare, there are many schools that will accept you into their graduate program. The real issue is whether you can survive the qualifying exam and then the rest of the program.

  18. Feb 22, 2006 #17
    Hmmm... so in my case, I should stress my undergraduate computer engineering degree more than my computer science credentials? (Basically, I have an EE degree with programming courses replacing the usual EE senior year. I suppose it's those missing senior year courses that are more applicable to physics though...)

    Oh, believe me, I know I'm playing catch up! :smile:

    I'll agree that there are two separate issues here... getting into graduate school and succeeding in graduate school. I can even believe that succeeding is the greater obstacle. However, I can't help focusing on the first problem in my path before tackling the larger one behind it!

    As I see it, if I am to apply for Fall 2007 admission, I need to be prepared to take the physics GRE by November 2006. While I'm not convinced that I'll be ready to take it by then, I'll still have almost a year beyond that to further prepare before I actually start school.
  19. Feb 22, 2006 #18
    I still want to reply more thouroghly, but one thing I would say is that you should run, not walk, to find a sample GRE test and take it ASAP.

    There are 4 sample tests out there (that I am aware of). One you can download from ETS's site. The other three are in a booklet that is no longer published but you can purchase from used book stores online. It is expensive, but probably worth it if you are serious about this (*).

    Depending on how you do on the sample test, you may decide that you want to take the GRE earlier than November - I think they also administer the test in April. It would be nice to get it out of the way. In general, I suspect that for someone with your (and my!) background, the physics GRE score is going to be relatively more important that it is for traditional applicants. We want something that proves that we know some physics, right?

    Having said that, I don't think that a "merely" average score is a show-stopper. It might mean that you can't get into Harvard, but is that such a big deal? The way I look at it, the real benefit of going to a school like Harvard is that if you want to become a physics professor, it's a lot easier with a PhD from Harvard than from "Average State University". But if you are starting late in life, does it really make sense to plan on going down the academic route? It's long and treacherous road. If you figure that you will use your degree in industry (this is my plan), or you are mainly interested in the intellectual achievement, then I suspect that going to Harvard does not provide the same benefit.

    Well, I might be wrong about this, but it's the way I've thought about things. Bottom line, the GRE can be a big help, so why not figure out where you stand ASAP? It will be a big help in planning your next steps, not to mention Zapper's excellent point that the GRE will help you determine whether you are ready to succeed in grad school.

    (I should also note that I had an excellent score on the physics GRE, so naturally that colors my views.)

    (*) I have a copy; if you are interested in working something out, send me a private message.
  20. Feb 23, 2006 #19
    That's my theory, and I'm pleased to see that someone has actually put it into practice. :smile:

    I downloaded the sample exams a while ago, but I've been putting off trying them... frankly, I know I'm not quite ready yet, and given that there are only four of them, I don't want to waste any...

    It's very encouraging to know that I might not *totally* be tilting at windmills... thanks! And good luck whereever you end up going to school!
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