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Reconsidering my math double major?

  1. Jun 29, 2010 #1
    Hi all,
    I'm a physics and mathematics double major. I entered college thinking I'd love math and physics was more something my family wanted me to consider...right now I am a rising junior, and am absolutely in love with physics. However, I've learned that "mathematics" is very different from the arithmetic I liked doing back in grade school.

    I am considering dropping my math major, and would like PF's advice.

    Is there any real advantage to being a math major, from a physics grad school perspective? I think I have heard that the double major makes relatively little impact on admissions...

    Two other things I'm considering are the facts that there are a lot of humanities courses I am interested, and that the math major is really lowering my gpa. I don't see that changing.

    Also, I may decide to pursue law one day, because besides physics (which I love) there are certain human rights issues that worry me a lot and absorb much of my brain time. In case I do want to go to law school, the math major probably won't help me too much, but those humanities courses could add the perspective that would let me figure out a path ahead (whether that means law school or some other graduate field or going straight into non-profit work).

    Considering these things that I've said...what are the real pros of keeping my math major?? There are a few more math courses I want to take, but I think I would be happy with a minor...what do you think PF?
    Last edited: Jun 29, 2010
  2. jcsd
  3. Jun 29, 2010 #2
    I would think math would be just as useful as any other subject for law school just because you develop a sort of logical thinking/reasoning. But you also get that from physics, so if you don't enjoy the math major then by all means I wouldn't keep taking it. There's actually an interesting list http://web.phil.ufl.edu/ugrad/whatis/LSATtable.html", and I find it pretty funny that prelaw has one of the lowest LSAT scores. But I would say take the extra humanities classes that you want to and drop the math, or at least get a minor.
    Last edited by a moderator: Apr 25, 2017
  4. Jun 29, 2010 #3
    I cannot speak for the physics grad school part of the question, but I think that you might be right about the rest. If your heart is not in the mathematics part of the major, but it is in some humanities learning, then I think you should go with a math minor and pursue the latter. Personally, I think that humanities are very important in an education. When we do not stray from our major, even for just a few classes, we graduate with quite the case of tunnel vision. The world extends far beyond the realm of physics and mathematics and some exposure to that extension can do wonders for you.

    Just my 2¢ though. Good luck with your decision. :smile:
  5. Jun 29, 2010 #4
    This all comes down to the physics program at your particular university. Some programs teach most of the math methods you'd need in-house... others do not.

    I'm a grad student in Math, but the The best advice I feel I can give is that you will absolutely require a solid understanding of linear algebra, complex integration (for finding Fourier coefficients), vector analysis, and probability before you get far in graduate school.

    I say keep the major. Just satisfy the math major requirements with courses like differential geometry, topology, numerical analysis of ODEs and PDEs, and mathematical statistics. Also, keep your eye out for "special topics" courses in Calculus of Variation.
  6. Jun 29, 2010 #5
    Our physics department does a pretty good job of teaching in house. Well, it's not terrible- usually our physics courses are a semester ahead of the corresponding math courses (that changes now, but it was true for underclassmen). They did ok, not losing people at least.

    I don't think our math department is that great though. I've taken vector calculus and linear algebra, but I don't feel like I have a good grasp of either...will have to wait until quantum and E&M, just like ODE's needed modern physics to get fleshed out in my mind. I'm taking probability next semester. I've taken real analysis, intend to take complex and numerical at the very least. I'm also taking a mathematical modeling course for sure. That would make it 7 math courses that count towards my major...but I'd need 10 to get the major. Those 3 extra courses are practically an entire extra semester!
  7. Jun 29, 2010 #6
    Did you take the sophomore level linear algebra, or a higher level course? Vector calculus (usually calc 3) is not vector analysis... Some real analysis books do a solid breeze-through of green, gauss, and stokes... but not as well as a course focused on them.
  8. Jun 29, 2010 #7
    I have BS degrees in physics and math, and I'm in physics grad school doing experimental particle astrophysics. Maybe I can say something useful.

    Regarding admissions: I've talked to a couple of professors on admissions committees. I don't know how representative this is of all committees But from what I've heard from these and other people, the double major means absolutely nothing. The only things they care about are your GPA, your physics GRE score, your letters of recommendation, and your undergrad research (which they learn about from the letters you get from people you worked for). If the possibility of getting into a better grad school is what's keeping you in math, feel free to drop it.

    Since you said that the math major is dropping your GPA, you maybe should think about dropping it, because it's probably hurting you. GPA repair is a really hard thing to do, especially if you're looking to go to law school. The other thing you could do is take really easy courses like advanced calculus and linear algebra. My math major actually boosted my GPA, but the courses I took were so easy that I'd never have gotten into math grad school. Which is fine, since I never had any intention of going to math grad school.

    Regarding the disparity between high school math and real math: yeah, that's pretty much true. Mathematics is about proving theorems and stuff. You don't have to be all that great at arithmetic. I'm good at math, but I'm so bad at arithmetic that when I'm unable to make change or something, the people around me think I'm retarded (no, really).

    Regarding "physics math" and real math: You said your physics department is good at teaching math in house. That's good. Most physics departments I know of are also good at this. Unless you go into some weird theoretical physics where you're doing look quantum gravity or something, you'll rarely need to use advanced math beyond vector calculus, Fourier, and differential equations. And if you do experimental physics, you may not have to do any math at all (I probably do one math problem a year in my research). To do well in physics, you really just need to learn single and multi variable calculus, diff eq, and linear algebra. Complex analysis and Fourier wouldn't hurt either. But beyond this, anything you ever need to know will be taught to you in physics class. Most physics departments offer a group theory class for the theory people who need it. There's sort of a diminishing returns principle here. I'd say that if you were to plot the benefit you get as a physicist as a function of the number of math classes you've taken, it looks like an arctangent function. A little math is good for you. But at some point taking more math will do almost nothing for you. I took diffeential geometry, and it didn't help me at all when I was taking general relativity. But if you're going into high energy experiment, taking an upper level stats class would be a great thing. It would have saved me a lot of trouble if I did that.

    Regarding law school: Uh, sorry, I've got nothing here. I'm not so much into humanities.

    Anyway, I can't really tell you whether you should keep the math major or not. I can tell you why I kept mine. In addition to being a GPA boost, I happen to like math on its own terms. Proving the Gauss-Bonnet theorem or finding the Laurent Series of a complex-valued function is actually pretty cool. It has zilch to do with my physics research, but it's really fun. So I got to enjoy my undergrad, and I have a second BS to hang up on the wall. And it's fun to say "I was a math major!" at parties and stuff. But it hasn't helped me in grad school.
  9. Jun 29, 2010 #8
    I took the standard lower level linear algebra, but ours is actually pretty hard (I've taken it three times in my life actually, this was the third and by far the hardest). Most math majors don't take another linear algebra course in their undergraduate studies.

    That's actually pretty helpful. Don't get me wrong, I admire people who like math, but it's rapidly starting to get too dry for me. It just doesn't do what the physics does. And it really is draining my gpa, I have no straight B's in physics but I do a few in math and it really drops my gpa.

    Also, the humanities should help heal that damage (for some reason I turned out to be one of the literate physics majors and humanities are a breeze for me).
  10. Jun 29, 2010 #9
    Your selection of courses is certainly important and maths is important for certain focuses of theoretical physics. It isn't about a double major but what courses it consists of, having taken things like abstract algebra will certainly be something positive since it is a big deal in physics.
  11. Jun 29, 2010 #10
    It sounds like you have most of the courses done already.. you said you need 10 and have already completed 7, right? To me, that's too far to turn back. In my logic, even if you've hurt your GPA during this 7 course period, you'd be better pressed to use the last 3 classes to try and learn a thing or two and bring your GPA up.

    Unless you're dead serious about Law school.. In that case, you'll need the humanities credits under your belt, so you may have to drop the math for them.

    And regarding humanities in a degree program, I think its very important in general. Now, I'm a math student, and that is in no small part due to my absolute lack of skill in the lab, so sometimes I consider my studies to be squarely in the center of the humanities. It's quite a debate actually, does mathematics fit better into the category or humanities or sciences? The answer may lie in what other courses you take, i.e. non major courses. For me personally, I have taken and like to take classes in philosophy and logic, quantitative literacy, and computer science when I'm not in a math class. It also depends on the kind of maths that you like, for me it's mostly pure topics. Even when studying applied subject matter, I'm more interested in the operations, mechanics and abstractness of the subject rather than how it's applied. To me, it would seem I'm more a student of the humanities, and they certainly play a large role in getting a well-rounded education.
  12. Jun 29, 2010 #11
    You mean humanities or natural sciences, both are sciences, it is just that one focuses on systems created by our social structure and the other focuses on the rest of the universe. Also maths is neither, maths is a formal science aka a science of sciences.
  13. Jun 29, 2010 #12
    Yeah, I guess this really must depend on who's on the admissions committee. The people I talked to don't seem to care about this. They even let some people into my school on provisional status, who didn't have quantum or stat mech (they took these undergrad classes their first years while TAing). You've obviously been told differently. I guess the admissions process is a bit more subjective than I thought.
  14. Jun 29, 2010 #13
    I don't have 7 already, I'd have 7 by the time I graduate by my current plan (still want to grab some of the more applied/easier maths and also complex analysis). Three more courses is almost an entire semester, it's a lot of time...
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