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Triple major: physics, math, EE?

  1. Jul 2, 2014 #1
    Hello! I just joined your forum after reading responses to another poster suggesting triple majoring was not a good idea.

    That is the plan of our son who just graduated from high school. His scenario is not like the other poster, so I was wondering if the advice is universal across the board or was it individual specific.

    Our son is very advanced in math and physics. He graduated from high school with a 4.0 in dual enrolled classes with credit for cal 1-3, linear alg, diffEQ, cal physics 1&2, modern, and mechanics 1&2. He also has AP credit for chem 1&2.

    He will be attending U Alabama in the fall on full scholarship. He was accepted into their CBHP program which guarantees him research. http://honors.ua.edu/computer-based-honors-program/ The CBH program has Hollings, Truman, Mitchell, Goldwater scholars, so he is hopeful that the program will offer him the challenge he is seeking.

    His goals are physics research. He loves physics and he loves math.

    Since his goals are research, he wants to make sure he is a desireable grad school applicant. He thinks graduating early from undergrad would be to his disadvantage bc he wouldn't be able to take full advantage of CBHP's research opportunities.

    Physics and math are a given. He can't imagine not immersing himself in both. He loves them both and he spends hours developing mathematical models. EE.....he has no idea. It was a suggestion made to him by a couple of deans at different schools we visited. The suggestion was made bc he was so far into the physics track and it would give him another view. His father and brother are both engineers (though not EEs) and engineering is not a career goal (at least from his perspective at this point. However, he does not have a realistic view of EE like he does for physics.)

    What is the opinion of the experienced physicists here? Would tripling be a bad idea? Should he drop EE?

    Your insights would be greatly appreciated. Thank you.
    Last edited: Jul 2, 2014
  2. jcsd
  3. Jul 2, 2014 #2


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    From what I remember of my undergraduate course catalog, the Engineering syllabi were all packed with essentially mandatory classes that accounted for most of one's full time credit hours. Physics and math students had much more leeway in their choices. Also, where I went to school, Engineering was housed in a different college of the university than physics or math. This meant that the college's electives were different (for example, engineers took a second technical writing class while physics and math took more humanities). I double majored in Math and Physics and the amount of overlap was significant. This made for enough time to devote to research year round. I think adding EE to either physics OR math would have been very difficult due to the lack of overlap. To me, or most mortals I know, triple majoring in all would have been sure suicide.

    A large state school like UA will offer a plethora of math and physics classes. I doubt your son will run out of options. Further, the less time he spends on classes, the more time he will have to do original research, a pursuit that will not only look good on a grad school application but will enrich his experience far more than additional classes. There's also a chance that even a fairly advanced student like your son will be crippled by such an intense workload. Even if he only has one poor semester or year before he adjusts, it could be enough to ruin an otherwise stellar undergraduate GPA. Finally, there's much more to life (and college life in particular) than school. Additional free time could be spent socializing, exercising, or developing non-academic hobbies.

    EDIT: I should add that I am hardly and "experienced physicist." As a lowly PhD student, you should take all of my post with a grain of salt. Most of the responses you will get here will be from fellow graduate students or even from undergraduates themselves. There are a few established faculty members here, but you should be aware that most of the responders are certainly not.
    Last edited: Jul 2, 2014
  4. Jul 2, 2014 #3
    I agree with ZombieFeynman. Double majoring in physics and mathematics is not a bad idea, but a triple major is very difficult. It will leave your son with very little free time as he will be studying most of the time. He might end up with a severe burn out or just mediocre grades. Furthermore, he will have no time for undergrad research which I think is an essential part of a physics degree (not only for applying for grad school but also just to see whether you would like grad school).
  5. Jul 2, 2014 #4
    Thank you for your response. I am very unfamiliar with this site and stumbled on it by accident. Responses by anyone having gone through grad school applications will be appreciated.

    UA has a physics/EE double and EE/math double paths. The overlap is significant and would only require 15-16 hrs/ semester. But, taking a wider range of physics courses, particularly in astronomy, would definitely have higher appeal. He took 3 yrs of independent astronomy studies in high school and loves the theoretical.

    I showed him my post (he saw my iPad open to the forum :) ) and your response. He agrees with everything you posted.

    Would it make sense for him to take the intro to EE to find if the overlap in physics and EE is an area of interest or just run with his passion for math and physics?? (My husband and I are completely unfamiliar with the grad school path. Using undergrad as a path to employment is our world.)

    Thank you again for responding.
  6. Jul 2, 2014 #5
    Majoring in physics and math is fairly common. Majoring in physics and any kind of engineering is rare for a reason, I majored in both physics and EE (and did enough math for a minor) and I really wouldn't suggest it. It mostly has to do with the amount of time it takes when you're doing degrees by themselves. The 3 majors only have basic physics I and II sequence, math (calculus, diff equations, and linear algebra) and basic computer programming in common, besides that they branch off into their own things. The skills from each are all useful for the others but I digress, that's alot of classes.

    One thing I would suggest is trying to get into schools where the combination is built into the major, such as engineering physics programs like the University of Michigan.


    There is a program which combines physics, math, and engineering all in one major from the University of Wisconsin:


    These are the programs I'd suggest your son look at if he really can't decide between other majors, if the school he got into has such a major where the combination is built in that'd be great. If his goals are physics research specifically though, than stick with the physics and math and take engineering elective courses depending on the skills needed for his research. Micromass is right, he needs to leave enough time to actually do research while he is an undergrad, this is crucial for grad school (he should also look into programs like McNair which aid in finding undergrad research opportunities like REU's).
    Last edited: Jul 2, 2014
  7. Jul 2, 2014 #6
    Thanks Clope. We cross posted. UA does have doubles and the overlap is significant. The core GE classes are the same. His options for schools are limited bc we have a high EFC but we cannot afford to help pay that amt. He has enough scholarship $$ from UA to attend free.
  8. Jul 2, 2014 #7
    Most people who reply here are either grad students or beyond.

    I see the school has special accomodations for double majors in EE and physics (or math). This might make an EE major feasible. But I would still recommend against a triple major, it's very hard work.

    Some things to consider. Your son has probably never done mathematics before. Sure, he has studied Calculus, LA and Diff Eq, but that is not really what "real mathematics" is about. If he chooses a pure math major, then he will have to do many proof based classes. There is no real indication that he likes these kind of classes. Maybe he will like it, maybe he won't. He can't really know unless he has taken a few classes in it. So instead of majoring in mathematics immediately, why not take a few proof based classes first to see whether he likes it?

    Of course, he can also major in applied mathematics. That would be closer to physics and EE. But instead of majoring in applied mathematics, he could just take the math electives he's interested in. If you're a physics and EE major, then a math degree is not a very useful thing to have. It will not really help during grad school. It might even give the impression that you're unfocused!

    An EE degree will be very helpful for jobs later, much more so than a math degree and physics degree. This is also worth considering. Of course, he could be planning to get a PhD in physics, but nobody really knows whether he will get it. He might not get it for various reasons. Getting a job in academia is even more uncertain. Only about 1 in 10 PhD's get to land a professorship. So you must have a Plan B ready. EE is an excellent Plan B.
  9. Jul 2, 2014 #8
    As someone who went through undergrad and had a roommate freshmen year who was trying to triple major in those 3, let me tell you - I don't think he ever slept. I almost never saw him in the dorm room. Granted he could have just been sleeping elsewhere, I seriously think most of his life was consumed with those classes.

    I wouldn't recommend it. As the others have said, doubling with math is commonplace.

    And honestly, let me just say that I single majored in engineering physics (applied physics), and minored in nuclear engineering. And I did just fine getting into a good grad program. I did have years of research though which I think is more important. I think it would be next to impossible to do 3 majors, and research and still sleep and have some sort of fun in college.

    Tl;dr: I think research experience is more important than a triple major for grad school. Don't kill your sons enthusiasm for science with this. He should try to have fun in college too. You're only an undergrad once.
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