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Switching from biology to physics

  1. Mar 19, 2007 #1
    To make a long story short I always wanted to study physics, but was convinced to study biology by my parents so I could eventually pursue medicine as career. I am about to finish my biology degree next year. I would have taken Cal 1-3 and Cal based physics by the time I am done. I am trying to figure out my next step. I talked to a physics advisor here at the University of Texas at Brownsville, and basicaly found out that I could get into their masters program instead of pursuing a bachelors of science, since the classes for the masters and bachelors are the same. Before I talked to this advisor I was thinking about applying to UT Austin in hopes of geting into the physics bachelors program. I was thinking that if I get a degree from this school and a good gpa I would have a shot at the really competive graduate schools. So what would you guys do to have a chance of admission at the competive graduate schools? Stay at a low tier school and get a masters and then transfer, or get a bachelors from a high tier university?

    P.S I would also like to add that time is not really an issue to me, I just want to get the best education possible.
  2. jcsd
  3. Mar 20, 2007 #2
    Biophysics is a HUGE up and coming field. I wouldn't throw your skills away so easily.

    If you haven't done any (?) calculus, then maybe a second bachelors is wisest.

    Another option is working hard on the physics and math next year, and then going to a masters program in biology and while there finish up the rest of the work in undergraduate physics. Then apply to phyiscs graduate school.

    But the second path is better off if you only have to do the junior and senior year of physics.

    Maybe, you should bite the bullet and get another bachelors.

    BUT! Biophysics and Biomathematics are growing without bound. Keep your eyes open to those.
  4. Mar 20, 2007 #3


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    While biophysics is "huge", in many cases, it comes out of a physics program, or a joint program in which there is a huge emphasis on physics. I know of many biophysics program that are actually part of the physics department. So it is, more often than not, really a physics degree with emphasis on biology, rather than a biology degree.

    In any case, I wrote about this switching of fields a while ago that the OP may want to read:


    Note that if you wish to go into highly competitive graduate schools for physics, such as UT-Austin, you will be in competition with other students who are physics majors and know immediately what are "orthonormal functions" and "Hamiltonian/Lagrangian mechanics" etc. I don't think you can catch up in just the short amount of time that you are given to pass the qualifier. So it isn't a matter of how much time you have, it is a matter of how much time the school will give you to pass such exams.

    I would seriously consider talking to someone from the schools you wish to apply for, whether you wish to purse a biophysics degree or otherwise, to see if you (i) have a reasonable chance to even be accepted and (ii) how much you have to catch up. There are many schools that will admit you to their programs and take your money. Whether you can survive and get through all their requirements is another matter entirely, and that is what you have to find out.

  5. Mar 20, 2007 #4


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    The other side of the coin is combining biology with maths; specifically, dynamical systems.

    I wouldn't suggest taking a second degree in maths (or physics) -- just look what's out there; stop by your maths department; generally, contact people -- people who are active in the field you want to pursue.
  6. Mar 20, 2007 #5


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    Having spent just a "teensy" bit of time trying to read a recent article in a biophysics journal, I would have to say that the field could certainly benefit from more physicists with a stronger biology background, or more biologists with a stronger physics background.

    Listen to Zz's advice regarding things you should ask about when applying to physics departments in terms of the time needed to catch up and if they will work with you on that. Of course, a master's first may help with that. I'm not contradicting anything he's suggested. However, what I do want to express, but may not be the reality (yet?), is that if physics departments want to have a serious biophysics program, I think they need to find a way to make such things possible. Otherwise, I think they're going to spend a lot more time spinning their wheels than getting things accomplished that are meaningful to biologists. Skimming through articles, it's clear to me that the emphasis is on the physics.

    If you were to do a Ph.D. in biophysics, something else to consider asking might be whether you can do one of your lab rotations through a lab that does just biomedical research related to your general area of interest. That way, you'll have a better perspective of what the biologist's view is of research and the depth you need to understand the biological side of the field in order to make your work relevant across both biology and physics rather than just treating the biological component as just another material.
  7. Mar 20, 2007 #6
    Yes, ZZ is correct to my knowledge. Biophysics usually belongs to the physics departments. At my school, we have 2 such groups. 1 in the physics dept., the other is medical part of our campus. I believe the medical biophysics to much closer to biology than biophysics is. But I know they work together from time to time.

    I would value your current training in bio. But if you wish for physics, then you're going to have do a lot of extra work.

    ZZ mentions in his post getting a copy of the GRE for physics and/or taking a practice qual. That probably doesn't mean anything to you since you said you haven't ever taken college physics or math. You'll probably be drawing a 100% blank.

    Instead. I suggest one of these possible paths.

    1) If you have the time and money is ok, then a 2nd bachelors - you could do it in 2 or 3 yrs. Two years maybe if you start your senior year taking these intro courses. There's no sense in trying for physics graduate school if you can't integrate and/ or solve a free body diagram.

    2) Continue with Bio in graduate school, but do intensive extra work in math and physics.

    It may turn out your more like a "physical" biologist than a biological physicist. If you haven't even taken the freshman courses, it's hard to say if you're really going to like it or not. Most people (I hope) like understanding how our Universe works, but not many really love pursuing new things about our universe and/or applying them.

    Despite you saying your parents forced you hand - (hard lesson there, follow your own dreams no matter who tells you otherwise), you obviously have some flare or desire for biology.

    I say, find a way to mix them.

    As far as cutting edge schools... why do you need them? Prestige? Go somewhere where you can research what you want to research my friend. The Biophysics community is probably not experiencing having too many workers. Most likely there's a huge shortage in those who can speak both languages.

    Maybe also look to industry afterwards too.

    Best of luck.
  8. Mar 20, 2007 #7
    Thank you everyone for responding to my post. The master degree that I was refering to would be in physics, not biology. According to the advisor the classes for the master are the same as 3rd and 4th year undergraduate classes.

    What I wanted to do was take cal 1 this summer, cal-2 and physics 1 during the fall, differential equations and physics 2 during the spring, and Cal-3 the following summer, while taking course for finishing my bio degree.

    When I finish my bio degree next year, I was thinking I should study the upper division undergraduate physics courses, so that way I could study whatever physics speciality I find most interesting in graduate school, not necesarily biophysics. But I dont know if this is the wisest decision since I was told that I could study the same courses and get a masters in physics instead of a bachelors in the same amount of time.

    My goal is to eventually attend UT austins graduate program. Have you guys heard of people transfering with masters into ph.d programs?
    Last edited: Mar 20, 2007
  9. Mar 27, 2007 #8

    I switched from computer science to Physics by doing a Masters degree in Physics. Its hard work. First stay in a small university and do a masters. Its hard to survive in a big university and take backup courses. Get good grades and then jump to a big university. Dont worry if you dont have get time to do research.


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