What to do when req'd classes nearly done

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  • #1
I'm an undergraduate who will be going on to graduate school in physics. I only have two physics classes remaining after this semester, but I have a full year before graduation. Any recommendations for classes to take/things to do in the meantime. I've got a couple ideas myself. What do you think?

*Take one or more graduate classes (eg Nonlinear Dynamics, grad-level QM or relativistic QM)
*Take more traditional undergrad classes (that may be a bit boring) like Thermodynamics.
*Do my own thing under a faculty member (don't know what that would be though).
*Do my own thing completely independently (read up on topology/group theory etc.)
*Retake all the classes that I made mediocre grades in.

I'm interested in ideas that would help me develop my own skills in physics and ideas that would be attractive to grad schools. Thanks!
  • #2
Retaking classes might not be an option; most colleges won't let you retake a course if you got a C or better in it (otherwise people would just hang around until they got an A in every course). Don't do something independently; you don't get credit for that. Do you mean you haven't taken thermodynamics and statistical mechanics? There are a lot of electives which come in very useful for grad school, and that's one of them - you really should take that. How about other electives, like astrophysics, electronics, optics, solid state? A senior research project or thesis would be probably the best option, but under a professor, not on your own. But don't skimp on the undergrad physics electives.
  • #3
I'm a bit concerned that perhaps your undergraduate requirements weren't stringent enough... You should look at a variety of "typical undergraduate preparation" pages from the websites of graduate programs that you are interested in. I recommend this mainly based on your note regarding Thermodynamics (typically it's recommended that the applicant have one semester of thermodynamics with statistical mechanics). I also personally tend to think the recommended coursework is a bit short... often you see one term of classical mechanics and one term of quantum mechanics... but it's really best if you have two terms of each. Furthermore, many undergraduate programs only "require" one term of EM... and you'll definitely want TWO. Committee members look at transcripts and bump down an application if upper-level undergraduate coursework looks weak. They want to know that you can make it through graduate coursework, qualifying exams and comprehensive exams.

If all your coursework looks well according to these standards, then I would encourage you to branch out into upper-level coursework in a complementary field (like math or chemistry)... or graduate coursework. Committee members do tend to bump up applications a bit for these reasons, especially if the research area you are interested in is multidisciplinary, as many research areas are.

Completing independent study under a professor is one of the best things you can do. Preferably this would take the form of a directed research project (typically under the research program of a faculty member, perhaps underneath one of his/her graduate students). Graduate selections committees do ESPECIALLY look for research experience, because they want to know you'll be a productive graduate student. Furthermore, a directed project under a faculty member will hopefully mean you'll have at least one VERY strong recommendation letter... most graduate program want three letters, some even four. You'll also have something to talk about in your personal statement, and better justification to yourself and the committee regarding the field of research that you plan to pursue.

Studying a topic on your own, while perhaps edifying, leaves no trail of progress. If you attempt independent-study on a topic, I suggest you find a faculty member to actually sponsor the coursework... you can register for it, get a grade, and get a possible recommendation from the faculty member. Sometimes nearly-emeritus or emeritus professors are the best for this type of activity. They're older and often not as active in their research programs... and they like to have a young, ambitious student come and discuss topics with them.

I'm also a bit concerned about the statement regarding "retaking all the classes" that you "made mediocre grades in." Hopefully the grades aren't that bad... especially the grades in your field. You may want to look at some forum threads that address the topic of grades and graduate admissions regarding grades. I never replaced a grade in a class via course forgiveness, and I'm not sure how it shows up on a transcript because I'm not sure I ever saw this on any of the applicants in the graduate admissions process that I was involved in.

Hopefully all this helps you better view your options for the next year. Best luck!
  • #4
I don't think that I have shied away from upper-level courses. I have taken Mechanics (only one semester is offered), both semesters of E&M, the highest level of undergrad QM, a class in particle physics, the GR, and a class called physics of the brain. Next year, I will definitely be taking an electronics lab and an advanced lab. So far, all of these have been undergraduate courses.

Retaking courses is an option and I will most likely be retaking either Calculus 3 or ODEs. I received C+'s in these. The reason I would be retaking one or more is that my understanding of the subjects is not reflected by the grade. I would never have survived E&M and Mechanics if I had a C+ understanding of them.

The undergrad Thermo and Stat Mech does not put emphasis on the stat mech part which is why I'm not sold on it. I feel like I could spend my time more effectively.

  • #5
I'm wondering if its not the greatest use of my time to start taking grad courses as an undergrad. I will presumably take them in grad school anyway, so should I consider something different?
  • #6
OOPS! I forgot the most important part of the last post. I WANT to take the grad courses, but is it a good idea or are there better ideas?
  • #7
Yes. It isn't such a bad idea.
If you A the course, you are showing your future grad school that you are capable of doing grad level stuff. On the other hand, if you wouldn't do well...
So the best strategy is to take them during your second semester so that they wouldn't show up on your transcript (at least the grad schools you are going to apply wouldn't know the grade :P) yet showing you are capable of doing grad work?
Although personally, I think spending the time on doing well on GREs, both PGRE and general GRE, and doing research would help more on your application.
  • #8
If you can handle it, take grad courses... either grad-EM or grad-QM... each is usually a 2-course sequence.

If you do well, you may satisfy your future-grad-school requirements...
or at least better-prepare you for those courses at your future-grad-school.

Plan your seventh semester accordingly to show you at your best to an admissions committee.

Is there an REU opportunity that you can do this summer?

If there is sufficient overlap in coursework, could you earn a minor or a second major in, say, math?
  • #9
I worked or a gamma-ray group this summer on a program for telescope alignment. There wasn't much physics, but I learned a lot of computer programming, and my professor says that he will write a very good letter for me. I have half of the summer open during which I plan to study for the GRE but could potentially do something else.

Found out I liked math too late in the game to get a major. Asked about a minor, but I couldn't get one that would fit the more abstract/higher-level math that interests me. I have thought about taking a year or two after undergrad to get a bachelors in math. Then I would go to grad school in physics.

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