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What difference will dropping a Physics major make?

  1. Aug 28, 2011 #1
    I was strongly considering getting a BS in Physics along with a BA in Math until right now when I'm starting to consider dropping the Physics major. By "dropping" I don't mean leave Physics altogether but instead of getting a BS in it, I'll just be taking a lot of courses in it (such as quantum mechanics, classical mechanics, E&M, GR and maybe a few others, basically a whole BS minus labs and the specific math courses for Physics majors). The reason for this is that second year Physics majors start taking labs and if I drop the major, I won't have to do them and this would allow me to take more math and get started on Quantum as well. Having done some "real" Physics and math courses this year (my second), I'd be able to decide much better and earlier which field I wanna go to for graduate school: Theoretical Physics or Math. If I decide to go into math, obviously dropping the Physics major will only benefit me as I'd be able to take more math classes. However, if I decide to take the Theoretical Physics path, I wanna know how much not having an official degree in Physics and not doing lab courses will hurt me. I'll still have a lot of theoretical classes (maybe even some graduate courses) and I'm starting research with a Physics professor this year as well. So how do you think Physics graduate schools would view that?
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 28, 2011 #2
    I'm just an undergrad myself, so take this with a grain of salt. But if you want to go to physics grad school, even for strictly theoretical physics, you absolutely MUST still take (and excel) in the labs. Furthermore, you should probably, scratch that, DEFINITELY get a physics BS...and likewise for maths. I sift through these forums often, trying to research similar questions, and what I've gathered is that the whole "gung-ho, whoohoo, look at me, I'm majoring in physics AND math" approach is completely unnecessary, and likely outright inhibiting to one's academic career. Physics grad schools want to see dedication to PHYSICS. Mathematics grad schools want to see dedication to MATHEMATICS. While the subjects are closely related, and their histories are deeply intertwined, serious research in mathematics is sooooooooooo different from that in physics (i would attempt to elaborate but hopefully some professionals will chime in).

    While I hope you are still keeping my first sentence in mind, from my observations it seems as though spending the necessary time to complete both degrees only serves to hold the student back from delving as deeply as possible into the best fit for him or her. If your destiny is physics, there is no need to essentially waste time developing the mathematical maturity needed to write great proofs, while you could be sharpening your physical intuition, and vice-versa.

    I struggled with the same decision. I decided that while physics is the more interesting subject, I actually enjoy doing mathematics more. Thus I should pursue a career in mathematics while working on problems motivated by physical situations, and that I should also likely lean at least halfway towards applied mathematics. If you choose physics, I can't offer advice on how to reconcile with your love of mathematics, beyond the obvious theory route. However I can say with basically full confidence, that theory or not, if you want to go to a decent graduate program in physics, a deep grounding in experimental physics is mandatory.
  4. Aug 28, 2011 #3
    Well you see, my first year basically consisted of introductory courses (Physics I and II, Calc II and III, Diff Eq and LA) and I couldn't really decide which field to go in based of that. However I have a better chance to get exposure to upper division courses this year. For math I'm going to be taking Advanced LA, Differential Geometry, Abstract Algebra and maybe some Number Theory this year. As for Physics, if I am to follow the plan laid out by the department, I'd be taking elementary lab this semester. However, this seems to be a very time consuming course and I don't want to do it if I'm not absolutely sure that I want to go in Physics. If I decide to do math, these will end up being completely useless. However taking Quantum and Classical Mechanics instead might still be somewhat useful if I go into, say, Mathematical Physics or Applied Math, and secondly they'd help me decide the Math vs Physics thing better than the lab course I feel. If I decide to go into Physics, I'd still have enough time to take those labs in my third and fourth year.
  5. Aug 28, 2011 #4
    Frank Wilczek has a B.Sc in math and won the Nobel Prize for QCD. If your going to do purely theoretical work then I don't really think you need the labs just try to get some research.
  6. Aug 28, 2011 #5
    yeah, but he didn't ask whether he could still become a successful physicist, he asked how it would affect his image to graduate schools ;)
  7. Aug 28, 2011 #6
    OP: Yeah, I completely understand your situation, I could have (and might even have) posted the exact same topic not even a year ago. I realized that I was miserable in the labs, so that made switching to math even easier for me. I can not stand error analysis.

    One thing I would suggest is to take Analysis as soon as possible (some schools call the first course in Analysis by the name Advanced Calculus). I think this course will help you decide if you should pursue math, especially if you're leaning towards mathematical physics. Surely Abstract Algebra would also be a nice introduction into serious mathematics, but if you're interested in physical problems, Analysis is much more fundamental. But be careful that you don't get discouraged and mistake struggling with Analysis for distaste with mathematics. That almost happened to me. Analysis is supposed to be a struggle for even the best students, and while the process is painful, your maturity grows in leaps and bounds without you even realizing it because you're so focused on how stupid you now feel.... ;) haha but i guess maybe that's just me.

    Also, what Kevin said is certainly valid. I know it sounds like I was disagreeing with him, but only because you specifically mentioned graduate school. From my observations on here and on the physicsgre.com/mathematicsgre.com grad admission forums, it seems that double majoring offers no specific advantage to either math or physics grad programs. But I'm far from an expert on the topic, I'm just someone with the same dilemma.

    A small thing that helped sway my decision to math was that our math department requires 4 courses in the natural sciences (outside of math and above basic 1st year physics) to earn the BS. So I could still take a good amount of physics and use it for my degree.
    Last edited: Aug 28, 2011
  8. Mar 16, 2012 #7
    So at this point I'm still undecided. I made another thread but it got locked since I had already asked a question of a similar nature in this thread. Like diligence mentioned above, there's no point in trying your hardest at both math and physics, since one simply does not have enough time to take multiple graduate courses, and do research in both departments. So I rephrase my question: The time has come to start focusing and showing more dedication to one area. Which one should it be if I want to go to graduate school in theoretical or mathematical physics? More specifically, which schedule for next year would be better suited for such a person:

    If I go math-heavy, I'll be taking:

    Fall 2012: Topology, Real Analysis, Graduate Algebra I, Graduate Quantum Mechanics I

    Spring 2013: Graduate Algebra II, (possibly graduate) Complex Analysis, Algebraic Topology, Graduate QM II, Introductory General Relativity

    If I go physics-heavy:

    Fall 2012: Elementary Lab I, Statistical Mechanics, E&M II, either Analysis or Topology, Graduate QM I

    Spring 2013: Elementary Lab II, Graduate QM II, General Relativity, (maybe graduate) Complex Analysis, (+Computational Physics maybe).

    I should also mention that i have no desire to do labs and personally the first option seems a bit more exciting (second one is also cool minus labs) but that would mean leaving out a lot of Physics.
  9. Mar 16, 2012 #8
    Wow old thread, but I understand your dilemma since I'm also still somewhat unsure of my path. I think the issue is that you and I have assumed theoretical physics and mathematical physics are the exact same thing. It's not easy to see the difference, especially because both areas are pretty small slices of the physics/math communities, but I've come to believe they are distinct topics.

    Take the following as an example: I'm in a graduate ODE/Applied Dynamics course that really feels like mathematical physics. Sometimes we study the Hamiltonian, H = T + U, T = kinetic energy, U = potential. But instead of writing kinetic energy as T = (mv^2)/2 as a physicist would, we simply write T = (v^2)/2 by assuming m = 1. We do this sort of thing with just about any constant because constants are often irrelevant to mathematicians; the only thing that matters is if it's zero, non-zero, positive or negative. We can understand the general mathematical structure by assuming non-zero constants equal 1. But a physicist HAS to use the constant, since physics deals with structures that are specific to our universe... It's basically his job to determine these constants.

    So my point is that while they seem like the same thing, mathematical physics is more concerned with general structures, while theoretical physics is concerned with the exact structure of our universe. Basically, physicists care about constants but mathematicians don't, so you (and me) just have to decide which one we care about more, reality or generality.
  10. Mar 16, 2012 #9
    You really should do a couple labs as an undergraduate even if you want to do theory.
  11. Mar 19, 2012 #10
    I think every one of my profs that's a theorist did their undergrad in math, and a couple did math/phys.

    One of my profs regularly ribs us 'just' physics majors because he's of the opinion that the proper way to learn physics is to do a math degree in undergrad and then worry about learning the physics in grad school.
  12. Mar 19, 2012 #11
    I've realized that I don't have the best "physical intuition". When I'm trying to digest a physics concept or do a problem most of my reasoning is mathematical rather than physical, nor do physical arguments convince me very much. I don't know what that implies though (whether that's a good or bad thing for a prospective theorist). I do however believe that thinking of everything physically and relying on physical arguments cannot get you very far in physics since we're already well outside of classical mechanics and E&M.

    But then how does one get into a good grad school for physics?


    Another thing that bugs me around these forums is people say that one must absolutely take labs in order to be a good theorist. I don't quite buy that since if I look at even the best programs in theoretical physics in the UK such as Cambridge and Imperial, it is perfectly possible to get a PhD in a theoretical field without ever having taken a lab. I'm pretty sure that these places produce damn good theorists... What I'm trying to say is that while it is probably a good idea for prospective theorists to have some experience with experimental physics, the usual requirements for a physics BS in the US such as 3 semesters of lab with heavy lab reports due every week will probably be a waste of time. We could be learning more math and deeper physics instead.
  13. Mar 19, 2012 #12
    The second one sounds much better. Those are standard courses that people who are going into theoretical physics should take. I'm not saying it is impossible to go into theoretical physics if you choose the first schedule. It's just that the second one is more like standard.

    I was going to be a physics and math double major until sophomore labs came up. I then dropped physics and now I'm a dedicated math major. :approve:
  14. Mar 19, 2012 #13
    Sounds a lot like what I want to do. The problem is that I still want to go to grad school in something physics-related. I've enjoyed my pure math classes but the idea of solely researching pure math isn't too appealing to me.

    I guess the simplest way of asking my question is this: If one wants to pursue theoretical or mathematical physics, should he dedicate his time and energy during his undergrad years more to physics (labs, research, classes) or to math (upper/grad level pure math classes)?
  15. Mar 19, 2012 #14
    I kind of agree with this.
    Maybe not to the extent of a math degree though but a certain level of maths should be learned before you even touch upon physics imo.

    Labs though.. :yuck:
    I don't think anyone enjoys doing labs (nor do they learn anything from them)
  16. Mar 19, 2012 #15
    Does your school have a math and applied science major? I did that and basically just took everything I wanted.
  17. Mar 19, 2012 #16
    You need a good combination of both. The second schedule you were proposing does have such a combination.
    Mathematical muscles can get you pretty far in theoretical physics(at least it got me pretty far), but probably not as far as you want. So you do need to start building up physical intuitions.
    I confess that the sophomore lab was the only physics class that I did not get an A in, but it was not horrible. I didn't like it, but I wasn't appalled by it..
  18. Mar 19, 2012 #17


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    I misunderstood the title of the thread.

    My answer was:

    "Well, he'd go splat." :biggrin:
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