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The field of math being more competitive than the field of physics?

  1. Jul 14, 2011 #1
    Hello guys,

    Before I start, I just want to say the what I am going to say below is just my personal opinion. I'd like to hear about it if you disagree. I just hope no one gets offended by this.

    I am a math and physics double major and thus spend plenty of time in both departments. Some math majors would take advanced-level physics classes like quantum, QFT and GR and they would end up doing pretty well in the class. When physics majors take advanced-level math classes like real analysis and abstract algebra, they would have a pretty hard time. They usually struggle through the first semester with a 3.3 or 3.0 and you never see them again the second semester. Of course there are exceptions. I know several physics majors who have done well in advanced-level math classes. But in general, I get this feeling that physics majors in my college are not as good as math majors intellectually. (Again, this is just my personal opinion. Please don't be upset or offended by this.)

    I first thought this difference was restricted to my school until the time of applying to REUs came. I know several physics majors with GPAs around 3.4(3.3 is the average) got into REUs. I also heard that plenty of math majors with GPAs around 3.8 did not get into anywhere. I know recommendations might be a problem but as far as I know they were great students and should have received very complimentary recommendations. I don't know about physics REUs, but I feel that math REUs are getting unreasonably competitive. The SMALL REU received over 400 applications for 21 positions, half of which were filled by Williams students....

    So is this true in general? The field of math is more competitive than the field of physics?
  2. jcsd
  3. Jul 14, 2011 #2

    I like Serena

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    I think it's more a matter of interest and affinity.

    People into physics are more into applied math than fundamental math.
    People into math that show an interest in advanced physics seem to prefer applied math.

    See the connection?

    The fact that you're doing a double major in math and physics suggests you prefer applied math as well. Do you? And how much do you like doing proofs in abstract algebra?
  4. Jul 14, 2011 #3
    :rofl: I am actually more into pure math and abstract algebra happens to be my FAVORITE class in college. It is definitely the most challenging class I have ever had. I never had a weekend the past school year because of the class. 'It's alright because I like the way it hurts.'. But yeah I see what you mean. We have very few applied math classes in my school so that might be why that physics majors don't get to show their mathematical skills.
    Last edited: Jul 14, 2011
  5. Jul 14, 2011 #4
    I agree with ILS. It's a matter of what you like. Many people I know (including me) love abstract and pure mathematics, but are pretty useless when it comes to applications and applying the knowledge. If you have an affinity with pure mathematics, then you like details and proofs. If you don't like details (like most physicists), you will not do good in pure mathematics. But that doesn't mean you're intellectually less then a pure mathematician, quite the contrary! I always feel that physicists are much smarter than mathematicians, because they can combine the intuition with mathematical skills.

    All I want to say: put a physicist in a pure math class, and he will not do well. Put a mathematician in a lab, and he will also not do well. The real smart people are the ones that do well in both cases.
  6. Jul 14, 2011 #5

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    Hey proof-guy! :smile:

    I was just thinking of you, and how I tend to leave the mathematical proof threads more and more to you!
  7. Jul 14, 2011 #6
    But... why would you do that?? Proofs are the most fun :biggrin:
  8. Jul 14, 2011 #7
    Yeah I agree with the intuition part. The more I study both subjects, the more different I find mathematical intuition and physical intuition are. I barely have any physical intuitions. I use mathematical muscles to solve problems.
  9. Jul 14, 2011 #8
    But still..anyone wants to answer the question about competitiveness? Maybe I should restrict the comparison to the field of pure math and experimental physics?
  10. Jul 14, 2011 #9
    Who really cares. They're both definitely really hard. They both help their own field grow and they're both intellectually stimulating.
  11. Jul 14, 2011 #10
    Well, as I mentioned, it is kind of hard to get into a math REU. So if physics REUs are in a more reasonable situation, I might apply to physics REUs since I am interested in both math and physics. Or I might choose to be a physicist instead of a mathematician. So if you ask me, then yes, I do care.
  12. Jul 14, 2011 #11
    Why not just apply to the one you're interested in the most? Wait a better idea is why not apply to both for grad school? You like both alot (assume) and they're both respectable. If you get accepted into both, choose the one you like the most.
  13. Jul 14, 2011 #12
    I was actually seriously thinking about applying to both for grad school. But that means taking two GREs which sounds pretty unpleasant. Also I think that might make me seem unfocused. So I don't know...:uhh:
  14. Jul 14, 2011 #13
    Not to mention applying to generally double the amount of grad schools, which almost doubles the work involved. It's more "concentrate on one" than "do both, decide later." The latter strategy only seems to apply for maybe the first few years of undergrad. Later on, if you keep splitting your time equally, you'd have the jack-of-all-trades/master-of-none issue.
  15. Jul 14, 2011 #14
    Sorry for going against your wishes, but... :biggrin:

    To add to what others have said, I think one of the reasons for your observation - if it matches reality, that is - might also be that some physics courses, even at an advanced level, are more accessible in terms of them being tough, but self-consistent. That is, you need great reasoning skills, but most or all of the material is given within the context of the course. On the other hand, depending on the lower-level courses those physics majors have taken, there might be too big of a jump from those to advanced courses. For example, if they haven't been exposed to proofs and/or lack "mathematical maturity" (whatever that means) they could find it harder doing well in a course that is really hard in and of itself, but also requires the prerequisite knowledge they don't have.

    Note that I haven't taken any advanced physics or math courses yet, but I could see this being one of the reasons. There's a chance this stab in the dark is a miss, though :smile:

    edit: To take another stab in the dark, perhaps math REUs seem more competitive due to higher value being placed on GPA. Perhaps in physics, it's perceived that someone can have a lower GPA, but still be a great physicist due to, say, quality research work or other stuff that person has done. On the other hand, with maths I'd assume that it's seen that if you can't do well in your courses then you aren't the greatest at maths. There's just no "oh, I'm just not the greatest at theory, but I can come up with ingenious experiments" there. Not to my knowledge, at least. So in that sense, math REUs aren't more competitive, it's just that more emphasis is put on GPA, which is a factor that you - as an outsider to the selection process - most readily observe.
    Last edited: Jul 14, 2011
  16. Jul 15, 2011 #15
    There are some fields in physics/math/computer science that require knowledge of all three. I'm working on applications of Bose-Einstein condensate theory (you could call it condensed matter theory or quantum optics theory) to quantum computing. Probably in graduate school I'd like to focus on the more theoretical aspects of it (so that would probably fall under quantum information theory), but this requires knowledge of a lot of subjects in computer science and math (though mostly the former), though the physics also pretty important (and is sometimes necessary). Things like quantum algorithms requires knowledge of algorithms in terms of CS but also how a quantum computer is supposed to work from a physics perspective, or cryptography requires some knowledge of set/number theory for quantum encryption. For this reason, I'll probably apply to both physics and computer science grad schools (though since I'm doing physics research, physics departments will probably be easier to get into for me).

    I think quantum computing is one of the more obvious inter-disciplinary subjects, but it really depends on the sub-field too. Everyone knows that particle theory can require a thorough knowledge of abstract algebra, but in some cases, while doing string theory, knowing the fundamentals of physics is much more important than a highly esoteric type of mathematics.
  17. Jul 15, 2011 #16
    In general the closer you get to applications the less competition there is since there are more willing to pay you for it. I'd guess that the REU's you are talking about are mostly associated with applied physics or (if theoretical) solid state physics.
  18. Jul 16, 2011 #17
    I think this varies hugely - I've heard the exact opposite being common for a different reason. I believe physics at the undergrad level requires more raw intuition and problem solving than does mathematics, which can require fewer leaps of intuition, and more can be achieved by just working systematically and following basic rules, learning the important theorems, etc.

    I would say the reason for the phenomenon you observe might be the following - I think the kind of reasoning required in the undergraduate math major is very different from what is expected of almost any other semi-mathematical discipline (engineering, physics, etc). There is a raw barrier, which is getting past writing proofs and learning how to think very theoretically. Physics students never learned that, at least not typically. Whereas I think what subjects like engineering and physics require at the undergrad level is less mystical, less strange to the entering college student - it's hard, it's intimidating in terms of the intellectual commitment it requires, but it's more familiar territory. You're still down to earth to an extent - it makes sense that you're writing down equations to describe something physical. Whereas in math, I think undergrads get caught up not understanding why they're even studying what they are studying.

    I would say on average, for someone with basic competency in both math and physics, the undergrad physics major is more taxing. But it's simply less common to have basic competency at math, I think, because of the nature of the subject.
  19. Jul 16, 2011 #18
    I second this. Along with what someone else said. The more experimental, the more open people are to letting you in without a perfect GPA. The more theoretical, the less of a chance you have to do "other things" to bolster your academic reputation.
  20. Jul 17, 2011 #19
    My experience has been the exact opposite. I've taken quite a few math classes and have never received less than an A- in any of them; however, in the one introductory physics course I took, I was lucky to scrape by with a C+. I think physics requires some knowledge about how things work in addition to purely abstract mathematical knowledge; moreover, some physics problems are Putnam-like, in that they require a clever insight, whereas a brute force approach works for many mathematical proofs. Also, quantitatively speaking, physics graduate students have a higher GRE score, on average, than math graduate students.
  21. Jul 19, 2011 #20
    Yep. That is consistent with my observation. The students who stand out in an advanced physics class are usually math students who are interested in physics and physics students who have good mathematical sophistication.

    I really love the theoretical aspects of QIP. I am starting a small project on quantum linear optics. :)

    I believe that is true. I worked a while for a professor who does experimental physics. I felt that I could have done the research without taking any college physics or math classes. It was mostly assembling apparatus taking measurements.
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