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Undergrad in Mechanical Engineering and Grad in Physics

  1. Nov 17, 2007 #1
    Hi, I am in the final years of mechanical engineering and I am looking to do graduate school. I find myself more interested in the theoretical/fundamental aspects of things rather than the application. So I am leaning towards doing grad school in physics.

    My problem is the fact that my lack of physics undergrad education means I might not have the necessary background knowledge to switch into physics. Do you think its possible to catch up during graduate studies? I am willing to study on my own while prepping for grad school. Do you think this will be enough?

    How much of an admission disadvantage am I in for not having a physics/math/electrical engineering background which physics graduate school seems to prefer?

    Or do you think doing graduate school in mechanical engineering and finding a reserach area that is more theoretical may be sufficient? (I guess I should be answering this question, but reason why I am asking this is to find out the good sides of staying in engineering)

    Has anybody persued a gradschool education in physics with a undergraduate degree that is not physics or math? share some stories!
  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 17, 2007 #2
    It's a harder path than coming out of a physics undergrad program, but there's no reason you couldn't do it. You may have to pick up some extra classes early in your graduate career, or pick them up as a postbac, whatever...I'm assuming they'll want Physics GRE scores still, which would give you a good measuring stick for the things you're expected to know. If you're in the "final years," I'm assuming juniorish...still time to get into 300-level E&M and QM courses on the side. This will expose you to some of the more key material, without giving you the breadth or depth a full physics major would (hope to) pick up.

    What kind of math background do you have in Mech Eng? A year of calculus, yeah...but physics will need some beyond that. Probably at least linear algebra, differential equations, vector calculus, maybe some analysis? Emphasis depending on specialization.
  4. Nov 17, 2007 #3
    You'll have a LOT of catching up to do, but it's not impossible. You'd have to learn E&M, quantum mechanics, thermodynamics (the physics kind, not the class the engineers take), modern physics, and probably some other stuff.

    I don't know how much of this stuff you already know, though.
  5. Nov 17, 2007 #4


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    Some schools that admit you may strongly suggest that you take some undergraduate courses in their school before getting into the graduate courses.
  6. Nov 17, 2007 #5
    To put simply, my curriculem covered Calc I,II,III and physics I,II,III +linear algebra and differential equiations.

    Vector calculus was touched on in Calc III. Although my calculus III was titled "Engineering Analysis" I dont think this is the Analysis course we are talking about.

    as far as physics go, statics+dynamcs+little bit of EM (my courses focused more on circuits)+Vibrations and waves (which I believe is physics III equivalent).

    Above courses were application oriented and thus no where nearly as rigorous as the ones that math and physics majors take, but the topics were covered nonetheless.

    I am looking towards doing graduate school in Canada, I finished 3rd year with a high end B+ average so if i can manage to get at least an A- in my final year, I will be able to have a good chance of going into graduate school. Right now, I am doing an internship for a 15 month period, so I will be going to start my 4th in September 2008. Canadian graduate schools look at the final two years in making admission decisions, so thats one of the reasons why I want to go to a Canadian school.

    My alma mater is University of Toronto, and they seem to have a good solid state physics research so I would like to stay in this School. They indicate that they require "undergraduate degree with a similar rigour such as Engineering Physics, Mathematics, etc" but It is kinda vague. They also dont require a GRE unless you are from a (international) foreign school (reason being that it will give a fair judgement on the academic standards of the said 'foreign school'). I guess by that logic I should take the GRE to communicate my physics academic standards.

    I did take Solid Mechanics I,II, thermodynamics, Heat and mass transfer, but yes even from my judgement they dont seem like the courses that a phyiscs majors would take.

    I definetly would have to learn E&M, QM, Thermo, Modern Physics as you said, but I have not learned them yet. I have the motivation but I am afraid their difficulty might be something I cannot overcome alone.

    I am going to diverge my own topic by asking the following question but I would like to have a career that pays minimum 60K and preferably 70K and how difficult would this be if I were to pursue a career in the physics academia?
  7. Nov 17, 2007 #6
    Thanks for that link, I have read "Elegant Universe" by Greene and he makes references to that person but I didn't know he had a BA in History. But I did some arithmetic and it looks like in the 4 year period after his BA and his obtaining of the Physics PhD he seem to have done some things that make it look like he obtained his PhD in a matter of 2 maybe 3 years. It brings up the question of whether he is somewhat of a genius which may have given him an edge in switching over to physics. Plus there is no indication of whether he has taken courses or studied physics during his BA years.

    You haven't given any oppinions on that matter and I was just curious to see what you think of my oppinions.
  8. Nov 17, 2007 #7

    Ben Niehoff

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    Tyro, I did my undergrad in Computer Engineering and I'm currently preparing to go to grad school in Physics. It helps that I minored in physics, though, so I have had at least some of the background. I also do a lot of reading in my free time, have taught myself some quantum mechanics and general relativity, etc., and I do math as a hobby.

    What I'm doing right now is taking a grad-level classical mechanics course as a non-degree student (many universities allow these sorts of arrangements). It's a way to brush up on one of my biggest weaknesses (the other being statistical mechanics), and also to help get my foot in the door.

    It may or may not be the right solution for you; if you haven't had any advanced classes in E&M (fields, not circuits), QM, Lagrangian mechanics, then it would definitely help to self-study and/or take some undergrad classes. Taking classes has an advantage in that they show up on your transcript and there is documentation of what you have learned and how you are dedicated to your new direction.

    It is certainly possible to switch fields, and it happens all the time. You shouldn't worry too much about it; if you can't get into a program right away, then you can certainly get into a program after a year of preparation. The end goal is to be a physicist, and whether that happens one year later than you originally thought is not such a big deal, so long as you get there.
  9. Nov 17, 2007 #8
    Thanks for your supportive words Ben.
    I guess I should invest in at least some important courses. I hope they consider my engineering courses as acceptable prerequisites.
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