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Standing out for graduate apps.

  1. Aug 17, 2013 #1
    One thing that I hear that physics students should be good at is math an computers. Would a major or minor in computer science or math increase ones chances for grad school? If not what of computer sconce classes should you take? And what if your physics department does not offer computational physics? And what if your school is small, and the research options are not things you desire to study in grad?
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 17, 2013 #2
    I don't know about physics, but I would at least learn how to program in three different languages. If your school does not offer it, take an online course (for free) at www.coursera.org or www.udacity.com or just read books.

    Note that knowing how to program is not the same thing as knowing computer science. Computer science is itself a science which explores the theory of programming languages among other things, so it may not be directly useful in your work, as opposed to programming itself which is very useful to have in almost any situation.

    A course on numerical analysis and algorithms can be very useful as well.

  4. Aug 17, 2013 #3
    Well, by the time you finish your BA as a physics major, you should already inadvertently have a math minor (yes, you need that much math that it is inadvertent). I'm not sure how many more courses you would need to take in order to make it a math major, but it is certainly an option.

    If you are going to try to go for additional majors or minors, I would suggest figuring out which ones you feel would best suit what you are looking to do down the road. If you are still not sure, figure that out first before considering additional majors or minors. There are not any in particular that will necessarily give you a huge edge in any way, that is, unless there is something in particular you are looking to do that the major applies to.

    As far as computational physics, like bipolarity already stated, numerical analysis would be the substitute. In regards to their comment about learning how to program in three different languages, the suggestion may be a bit overboard. You will typically learn computer programming as you go and as you need to. Although some people do choose to learn on their own, don't stress yourself out about having to learn three different ones. Will it look good for a grad school? Sure. Will it make a huge difference if you only know one or two by then? No.
  5. Aug 18, 2013 #4
    From my perspective, you want 1) good grades, 2) good GRE scores, and 3) good letters of recommendation, not necessarily in that order. Summer research experience helps a lot too, particularly if you get your advisor to write a good letter of recommendation. The payoff really starts to happen when your research advisor, and hopefully one of your other writers (a prof or something) knows people at the grad school you are applying to. Then their words carry a LOT of weight. Of course, you probably still need good grades and GRE scores.

    I think course work is important, but if you come from a good program and have awesome letters from people the admissions committee know, I'd be surprised if an extra CS course or two would be the difference of you getting in or not.

    If you can't research at your school, try to get a summer job somewhere else. There are programs for that kind of thing. In my field, you can get summer positions through NUF, SULI, and ERULF. It's quite possible that the names have changed since the last time I worked with students from any of those programs was about 6-7 years ago.
  6. Aug 18, 2013 #5


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    Just take whatever research experience you can get at your school. The most important benefits of undergraduate research are getting acquainted with the research process in general, and having your supervising professor get to know you well so he/she can write good, well-informed letters of recommendation for you. If it also happens to be in the field you want to get your Ph.D. in, that's nice, but not necessary.

    When I was an undergrad, I helped a professor with some research on friction between metal surfaces, and participated in a group summer project on analyzing river water samples using X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy. When I was in grad school, I started out the first summer working in low-temperature physics, tinkering with a helium dilution refrigerator; but I ended up getting my Ph.D. in experimental high-energy particle physics.
  7. Aug 18, 2013 #6


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    It's always hard to comment on what specific graduate committees will look for because it varies from school to school. I would be very hesitant to recommend someone get a specific minor (or second major) on the premise that it will somehow boost his or her chances at graduate school.

    The first thing you need to do is take the necessary courses that will qualify you for graduate school and work as hard as you can to do as well as you can. After that, you have electives. I'm personally a fan of using those to really follow your interests. If a particular philosophy course captures your attention - follow that. You're more likely to do well in stuff you're actually interested in rather than stuff you think might help you. Similarly, you're also likely to do well in stuff you're interested in rather than stuff you think will be easy.

    Secondly, you really just have to make the best of the opportunities that you have. Just because you haven't done research in a particular field does not mean you're excluded from it for graduate school. Graduate committees realize that not every undergraduate student will have the opportunity to do a summer project in his or her field of interest. It can help of course, to get involved in a field early, but this is more from the point of view that you supervisor is more likely to be recognized and you'll have more tangible experience to draw on for things like your statement of purpose letter.

    Finally, if there's something you really want to study, but is not formally offered - approach your department about it. It might be possible to arrange a reading course in your final year of undergrad that's catered to your interests.
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