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Weeding out Physics Elective Classes, but which?

  1. Aug 19, 2010 #1
    I'm here looking for some peer guidance on what electives are more appropriate for a sound (and full-range) background in a physics undergraduate program. My hopes are to attend Graduate school in about two academic years. As of now I'm a junior and just getting into the upper level electro, quantum, thermo, etc, courses. My technical/physics electives as of now include: Solid State Physics, Atomic Physics, Electronics 1 (+ lab), Nuclear/Particle Physics, Complex Analysis, PDE, and a research sequence which includes 3 units of 3 credit hours each (spanning 3 semesters). At this rate in my academic career, these are all the electives I can include but was thinking about switching some; basically this is where I need some advice. The other courses I was thinking about would be Classical Mechanics II (Lagrangian & Hamiltonian Mechanics) and Stellar Astrophysics.

    I know graduate school should be a research-topic based choice for me but well I don't want to be generally unprepared by not having learned something like basic astrophysical principles or lagrangian mechanics and the like. I've always been interested in astrophysics but can't seem to choose this Stellar Astrophysics junior class over the Atomic Physics senior class or the other ones aforementioned. At this point I can still switch my elective pics but would like to have an idea on what to take. Help? Thanks!

    Quick Course Descriptions for extra information:
    • Stellar Astrophysics
      Develops a working knowledge of stellar and extra-stellar galactic astronomy. Includes stellar structure, nucleosynthesis, stellar evolution, and degenerate objects
    • Atomic Physics
      Course provides an introduction to the fundamentals of atomic physics, the structure of atoms, and their interaction with static and radiation fields.
    • Nuclei,Particles&Fields
      An introduction to nuclear and subnuclear systems. Topics include nuclear models, radioactive decay, nuclear reactions, quarks, accelerators, reactors, and stellar nucleosynthesis.
    • Classical Mechanics II
      A continuation of PHYS 3201. Topics include Lagrangians and Hamiltonian techniques, and many body mechanics.
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 19, 2010 #2
    Well, I guess it all really depends on what you want to aim for in graduate school. Do you want to focus on astrophysics? If not then don't take the class and pick something your more interested in.

    From what I have gathered it is really important to get your mechanics, E&M, and quantum down pat. With this being said Classical Mechanics II would probably be a good idea, and atomic and/or nuclear physics would work as well. Again, it depends on where you think you want to go with your interests, but having a solid background in the above listed core topics is what you really should aim for in undergraduate.
  4. Aug 19, 2010 #3
    At this point I'm not sure what I want to do in graduate school but I'm leaning towards nuclear/particle physics. Astrophysics is more of a hobby of mine and I hoped to take at least one astro class when studying physics. I guess my main concern is: should I switch Atomic Physics for Stellar Astrophysics? Which course would be more appropriate to prepare for graduate level rigor and or general understanding of physics? And, is it imperative that I learn Hamiltonian/Lagrangian mechanics or is this included in a graduate-level mechanics class?
  5. Aug 19, 2010 #4
    Have you talked to other majors who might have taken these classes? Are there any thoughts about who is teaching the particular course, how the content is organized, and what text(s) are used? Sometimes those factors can make a huge difference in what you get out of a class too. I also always took course numbers into account and just took the HARDEST courses I could based on that. Always take the courses that are thought to be taught by someone who is hard and has high expectations, but is thought to be a good instructor that cares about students. It served me well (I was one of the best prepared students in my core courses in grad school).

    Aside from that: Yes, both Hamiltonian and Lagrangian mechanics are typically in a Classical Mechanics graduate course (and you'll be more successful in that course if you've seen the material before)... After all, if you get a Ph.D. and enter academia, you might have to teach Classical Mechanics II to undergrads. (Of course you might have to teach some astronomy or astrophysics too... I've been asked to do so in the past; and I've only ever taken one simple survey course... part of getting a Ph.D. if you're looking to enter academia is also learning "how to learn" and being able to integrate your knowledge well enough to teach something new).

    Now SOME graduate schools are redoing their core courses to have some different "tracks", and I know of at least one school that was considering having a "track" where a student did not take classical mechanics at the graduate level. So if you later choose one of these programs, you might want to be sure you study Hamiltonian/Lagrangian stuff at SOME point, because it is considered "classical" material after all...

    What I can also suggest is that you examine the web-pages of graduate programs you are interested in, and see if they have any recommended preparation (list of courses you should have taken in undergraduate).
  6. Aug 20, 2010 #5
    One thing that matters a great deal is how well the class is taught, and a lot of decision making about electives should be influenced by who is teaching the class.

    Second, go for the class with the most math. For example a class in stellar astrophysics may or may not be a class in numerical analysis partial differential equation and the mathematics of radiation transfer, or not. If it is, then it's going to be useful to you outside of astrophysics.

    Personally, I think the class that would be most useful is the classical mechanics one send that seems to be the one that gives you the most mathematical background. The reason that seems to be that most important is that classical mechanics concepts are the basis field theory which will be useful for you in a lot of different graduate areas.
  7. Aug 21, 2010 #6
    Thank you for your responses, I will certainly keep an eye out for the professors teaching the courses.

    As of now, and to be clear, I am taking an upper-level Classical Mechanics course (number 1 of 2) that is required for all physics major at my institution. This first course is sort of the intro to more rigorous physics that the department recommends taking after the intro courses 1 and 2. The second mechanics course is an optional elective but includes both Lagrangian and Hamiltonian mechanics as their base. Unfortunately, I can only take so many electives because of the research-based program I am on which takes up 3 semesters. Would anyone here recommend switching out any of the aforementioned electives in my original post for Classical Mechanics II? If so, why?
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