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To be or not to be a mathematician or a physicist?

  1. Apr 14, 2015 #1
    Hello! I'm in my final high school year (Bachillerato, as we call it in Spain) and I have to choose between getting a degree in physics or mathematics. Frankly, my uni's approach to physics is far more experimental than theoretical. I do not like that (lol). I love mathematics, and just reading stuff like complex metric spaces, Riemann geometry and such excites me. Nevertheless, I see myself working in something related to physics in the future, like the more mathematically complex subjects such as string theory, theoretical physics, etc...

    So, the question is: should I get my degree on mathematics and then do my masters on physics? Or should I just go with physics all the way?
  2. jcsd
  3. Apr 14, 2015 #2


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    Right now I am working towards a double major here at my university in the United States. Pero porque no los dos? :)

    If you plan on being an experimentalist, I suggest going for pure physics, since not all math can be applied, or will be useful in phsyics. This becomes mroe apparent the higher in math you get. So it would be wise to go for pure physics, but perhaps take as many math classes as you can at the university.
  4. Apr 14, 2015 #3
    Go for pure physics and you will learn much math on the way.
    I always hear the fact that sometimes physicists have to learn more math than mathematicians.
  5. Apr 14, 2015 #4
    Taking into account what you want to pursue, I only think you have 2 choices: Mathematics with Minor in Physics, or Physics with Minor in Mathematics (3rd year option classes get replaced by the other course's classes). Taking just Mathematics means you'll have a severe deficit in Physics when you reach Masters. Taking just Physics is not as bad, but since you're interested in learning very advanced mathematics, you'll want to learn more Mathematics than they teach you at a 3 year Physics degree. I took a degree in Physics with a Minor in Mathematics, and honestly, it's the best I could have chosen for me.

    If you like the really abstract mathematics, even if the subject you're studying has no apparent connections to real applications (abstract algebra, linear algebra, measure theory), I'd say go for Mathematics. It'll give you a more solid background in Mathematics, and prepare you better for theoretical physics IMO; you also get to skip Physics experimental classes, which were the most awful classes that personally I've ever had in my Physics degree and very unproductive in actually learning theoretical Physics. From meeting many people from both courses, I've got to understand that's what separates physicists from mathematicians: mathematicians like learning mathematics just for the sake of it, while physicists most usually only like to learn mathematics that in some way is applied to Physics, and get demotivated easily if it gets too abstract with no connections to the real world.
    It'll be the harder way that's for sure, you'll have to choose the disciplines in the Minor wisely, and get ready to study extra material in order to be prepared for a Masters in Physics. Newton Mechanics, Electromagnetism,Thermodynamics, Waves & Optics, Lagrangian/Hamiltonian Mechanics, Quantum Mechanics and Statistical Mechanics are very important disciplines that you'll have to know to be in a Physics masters; and they won't all fit your Minor, that's for sure.

    If however the abstract mathematics gets you bored very easily and is unappealing, you should go to Physics. You'll learn Mathematics more focused for Physics and you don't have to worry about keeping up with the Physics for a future masters in Physics. By taking a minor in Mathematics, at least where I studied (Lisbon's classical university), I could take disciplines such as Abstract Algebra (important for theoretical physics, namely group theory), Differential Geometry (general relativity), Measure Theory, Functional Analysis and an extra discipline on Ordinary Differential Equations and Partial Differential Equations which was very valuable. I also learned how to make mathematical proofs properly, since in Physics' mathematical disciplines this wasn't really important (it'll depend on the university though).

    In either way, both ways can converge to the same, it's just a matter of choosing what's more comfortable for you.
    Last edited: Apr 14, 2015
  6. Apr 14, 2015 #5
    I'm no expert in the field, however; I have done some digging.

    If you want to go to the academic path for physics, according the Bureau of Labor Statistics on the job outlook for physicists, a PhD is the standard to work in academia. If you're willing to invest several years of your life a long with debt that you can hopefully pay off, you can definitely consider being a physicists as a potential career path. In addition, there are far 6.5x more jobs as a physicist than as a mathematician. Check out University of Toronto's input in the field of physics for more information.

    For math, the typical degree is a masters which will shave off a few years. Then again, most of those researchers have a PhD, something to consider too. Anyways, according to the Bureau, the job outlook is much faster than the national average. However, due to the insignificant amount of jobs out there, again 6.5 times many less than a physicist, it's a much bigger risk. Check out University Toronto's input in the field of math for more information.
    If you were to fail to land a research position. In the meantime, you can try some of these potential careers for MATH (I'm ranking them in terms of median salary, level of education, number of jobs, and job outlook)

    1) Operations Research Analyst - $72,100, Bachelors, 73,200 jobs, 27% (much faster than national average)
    2) Actuaries - $93,680, Bachelors, 24,300 jobs, 26% (much faster than national average)
    3) Statisticians - $75,560, Masters, 27,600 jobs, 27% (much faster than national average)

    I would go for the Operations Research Analyst since it's more in demand and because you don't need a master's degree. However, if you can land a job as an actuarie, the better. Also, a physics major can also do the job for the operations research analyst.

    Not to mention, if you're going to pursue a serious interest in physics, you're also going to do a TONS of math. Generally speaking, it's much easier for a physicist to learn math than for a mathematician to learn physics.

    If you're not going to pursue the academic path, still check out those links I gave you for alternate careers and use the Bureau of Labor for more information about those careers.
    Last edited: Apr 14, 2015
  7. Apr 16, 2015 #6
    I think you should be questioning why you're interested in string theory and what theoretical physics actually means. The parts of theoretical physics with an interest in pure mathematics are a minuscule sliver of theoretical physics proper; people working on glasses, band structure, protein conformational change, or galaxy formation have little interest in pure mathematics from what I can gather. More importantly, those parts that concern themselves with the pure math are very speculative and dubious, such as string theory, which has never made contact with experiment (which pretty much guarantees that it is fictional).
  8. Apr 16, 2015 #7
    Listen to this guy, folks, he really knows what he's talking about.
  9. Apr 17, 2015 #8
    Look at your available undergraduate courses in math and physics. Read the course descriptions and wikipedia summaries of each of those classes. Make a list of the ones you find most interesting. See which classes on your list belong to which major.

    Keep in mind that you will be at a severe disadvantage during graduate school if you do not take physics classes. Solving physics problems is very important. Experimental classes are constructive to your education too.

    Check this page out: http://www.staff.science.uu.nl/~hooft101/theorist.html#qftheory
  10. Apr 17, 2015 #9
    Experimental observations are at the core of theoretical physics. You formulate physical theories based largely upon experimental observations and intuition. I would argue that those experimental classes are the closest thing to practicing theoretical physics you will get as a student.
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