Undergraduate schools for theoretical/mathematical physics

In summary, the conversation revolves around finding the best schools for studying theoretical or mathematical physics. The speaker is a senior in high school currently in the process of applying to colleges and is seeking input on schools with the best education and/or research opportunities in this field. They also mention wanting to do undergraduate research and be a part of a strong theory group. However, the expert summarizer advises that the most important factor is finding a school that is the right fit for the individual, and not just focusing on rankings or specific programs. They also mention the possibility of trying both experimental and theoretical physics before making a decision.
  • #1
connorb1542
17
0
Hi, I am a senior in high school and I am in the process of applying to colleges. I want to major in theoretical or mathematical physics, and I want to know which schools are the best for this field of study.

By "the best", I don't simply mean those schools that U.S. News ranks as top ten. I want to know which schools A.) provide the best education in the field and/or B.) have the most promising research going down.

Thanks for your input!
 
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  • #2
US institutes offer BS degrees in physics. Not theoretical or mathematical physics, just plain physics. At the undergraduate level, what matters is the match between the student and the school, not just the school.
 
  • #3
I know there may not be a specific degree called mathematical physics but some schools do offer concentrations within the physics major in theoretical or mathematical. Take, for instance, Brown University. They offer a bachelor of science degree in physics, and also give three specific tracks to which a student may choose to specialize in (biological physics, astrophysics, and mathematical physics). http://www.physics.brown.edu/undergrad/detail.asp?id=1

I agree that what matters is the match, but first I want to narrow my range to schools that are strong in what I want to study.
 
  • #4
Bio physics means taking extra courses in biology and biophysics itself. Astrophysics means taking extra courses in astronomy. Mathematical physics means taking extra math courses. But they do not have a concentration in theoretical physics because you can't take courses in theory - theory is a way of approaching physics, not a type of physics. Pretty much all of your classes are theory, but theoretical physics is a type of research you do in some field, not a field itself.
 
  • #5
What a department is doing in research has no bearing on how your undergraduate physics courses are taught. Almost every school is going to have a very similar undergrad physics curriculum. The only difference may be in the undergrad research opportunities available at your school, but that's what REUs are for, so don't worry about it. Just pick the school that you like best/offers you the most money.
 
  • #6
Yes, and I intend to do undergraduate research. I want to go to a school that has a strong theory group that I can be a part of. For example, Rice University deals quite strictly with experimental physics, so there would be no theory group for me to do research with at that university.
 
  • #7
And how much better educated will you be by getting a "concentration" as opposed to taking the same courses elsewhere?

I am trying to tell you that the "best school" (whatever that means) makes virtually no difference as to the quality of undergrad education: MIT, Harvard, Washington, Illinois, Harvey Mudd: all excellent, and all very different in how they approach undergraduate education. It is far, far, far more important that the student's learning style matches the institutions teaching style than some sort of ranking.
 
  • #8
connorb1542 said:
Yes, and I intend to do undergraduate research. I want to go to a school that has a strong theory group that I can be a part of. For example, Rice University deals quite strictly with experimental physics, so there would be no theory group for me to do research with at that university.
And that's what REUs are for. Plus, how do you have any idea what you want to do at this point? Have you even been in a lab? For all you, you may end up loving experiment and hating theory. You should probably try doing both.
 
  • #9
Thank you Vanadium


capandbells said:
And that's what REUs are for.

What are REUs?
 
  • #10
connorb1542 said:
Thank you Vanadium




What are REUs?
Research Experience for Undergrads. It's an program that allows students to get research experience at schools other than the one they're attending. Plenty of prestigious schools host them.
 
  • #11
connorb1542 said:
Rice University deals quite strictly with experimental physics

Theorists at Rice:
  • Matthew Baring
  • Adilet Imambekov
  • Edison Liang
  • Peter Nordlander
  • Han Pu
  • Qimiao Si
  • Paul Stevenson

Probably more.
 
  • #12
Hello connorb1542. I am also a senior interested in theoretical and mathematical physics. If you found what you were looking for, could you give me some advice?
I have been thinking about Sweet Briar because it is the closest college to me that offers that kind of degree. However, I don't know if Sweet Briar has a good program or not. If you know about a good college in the US with a theoretical and mathetical physics degree, please let me know.
 
Last edited:
  • #13
connorb1542 said:
Hi, I am a senior in high school and I am in the process of applying to colleges. I want to major in theoretical or mathematical physics, and I want to know which schools are the best for this field of study.

The most important thing is to go to a school where you fit in, and that tends to be an individual decision. It doesn't matter how well a school ranks if you don't finish the undergraduate physics degree, and if you don't fit into the school, you aren't going to get the degree.
 
  • #14
connorb1542 said:
Yes, and I intend to do undergraduate research. I want to go to a school that has a strong theory group that I can be a part of. For example, Rice University deals quite strictly with experimental physics, so there would be no theory group for me to do research with at that university.

As an undergraduate, there is very little for you to do for a theorist's group. Generally, you will be completely deficient in the mathematics and physics to do any real work on the problems, especially in your first and second years. So if you are in a theory group, it is likely you will end up doing coding projects of some sort which do not seem to you to be much like physics -- whether or not this is OK to you is obviously your call, but just know that it's not like you'll be cracking problems in quantum gravity or theoretical condensed matter. This is why basically all undergraduate research is data analysis or experimental, because there are well-defined tasks that undergraduates can accomplish given their limited time and education.

If you truly want to be a theorist, here is my suggestion (the same one my advisor, a string theorist, gives to me): study hard in all your physics classes and really understand what's going on. Do not be content to be able to solve quantum mechanics problems, but really understand the theoretical underpinnings of the theory. Do research in data analysis or experimental, simply to see if you like it and to get some experience under your belt. Getting jobs as a physicist is difficult enough, but being a theoretician is harder still. While it all seems nice and sexy while reading books by Brain Greene, perhaps you'll find that you actually like tinkering with particle accelerators. At any rate, do not become a student with no experimental background, since it is likely you will not end up with a theoretical job.
 
  • #15
Sorry, I know I'm a little late on posting to this thread and you're probably in college off studying somewhere (congrats!), but I'm posting anyway because I think so many of these comments are very misleading.

It absolutely does matter the standing of your school's physics department when you're applying. Part of finding a school that's "a good match" is making sure they offer classes that you will love and are interested in, or you will struggle significantly more than you would at a "worse/easier" school that only offers you classes you think are boring.

I made the mistake of picking a school based on many factors, but not taking into account the physics curriculum. I'm really interested in theoretical/ mathematical as well, and there are very very limited courses in this area, and they are only available for upperclassmen (which is why I'm transferring)

To answer the original question posted: in terms of small liberal arts schools (what I'm familiar with) Oberlin has a very reputable physics department, Grinnell has great sciences because Robert Noyce just donates tons of money to buy the science department cool toys, and Kenyon's sciences aren't great, but the physics department has twice the budget as all of the other science departments (again, because of donations specifically to them)

If this doesn't help you, I recommend casting a really wide net for schools you like, and reading course catalogs to see if the subjects appeal to you (also, in terms of research, profs USUALLY research something to do with what electives they're teaching, because it interests them, but you can always email and ask. At large universities, research may be bigger/ more interesting, at small colleges it will be easier to be a part of it)

Also, be sure to read the course catalog for subjects outside your major, because you want to make sure that filling your core recs will be bearable :)

Hope this helps
 

1. What is the difference between theoretical and mathematical physics?

Theoretical physics is a branch of physics that seeks to explain natural phenomena through mathematical models and equations, while mathematical physics is a branch that uses mathematical tools and techniques to study and solve problems in physics. While there is some overlap between the two, theoretical physics is more focused on developing theories and concepts, while mathematical physics is more concerned with the mathematical foundations of physics.

2. What qualities should I look for in an undergraduate school for theoretical/mathematical physics?

Some important factors to consider when choosing an undergraduate school for theoretical/mathematical physics include the strength and reputation of the physics department, the availability of research opportunities and advanced coursework, the qualifications and expertise of the faculty, and the resources and facilities available for studying and conducting experiments in physics.

3. What are some potential career paths for graduates with a degree in theoretical/mathematical physics?

Graduates with a degree in theoretical/mathematical physics can pursue various career paths, including research positions in academia or industry, teaching at the secondary or post-secondary level, and roles in fields such as data science, finance, and engineering. Many also go on to pursue advanced degrees in physics or related fields.

4. Are there any specific undergraduate schools that are well-known for their programs in theoretical/mathematical physics?

Yes, there are several undergraduate schools that have strong programs in theoretical/mathematical physics, including Princeton University, California Institute of Technology, University of Chicago, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

5. Is it necessary to have a strong background in mathematics to study theoretical/mathematical physics?

While a strong foundation in mathematics is important for studying theoretical/mathematical physics, it is not necessarily required to have advanced knowledge before starting an undergraduate program. Many undergraduate programs in physics offer courses in mathematics specifically designed for physics students, and students can also gain a deeper understanding of mathematical concepts through their physics coursework.

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