Important to cover standard physics material as undergrad?

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excel
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Important to cover standard physics material as undergrad?

Postby excel » Thu Aug 20, 2009 9:55 pm

Of late, there have been several posts on changing majors from undergraduate to graduate school. A couple of these posts have pointed out that non-physics undergraduates have not covered the spectrum of topics we typically cover as physics undergraduates.

Do you think non-physics undergraduates (but whose undergraduate research has strong elements of physics) are really less suited to graduate study in physics than typical physics majors?

I will open the discussion with a quote from Dr. Wieman's nobel autobiography:

"Of course I was considerably weaker in the formal solving of problems, and I still have not learned much of the standard material of the undergraduate curriculum. However, when I needed to know some material, I was completely comfortable with going out and learning it myself in a way that I discovered was not typical for my classmates. My undergraduate experience has always left me deeply suspicious of the claims of those who say a student cannot become a physicist without being required to take courses covering a whole list of specific topics."

-Dr. Carl Wieman, Nobel Autobiography

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grae313
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Re: Important to cover standard physics material as undergrad?

Postby grae313 » Thu Aug 20, 2009 10:36 pm

Well if someone is a future Nobel laureate, then they are the exception not the rule and they'll probably have no trouble getting into a physics PhD program regardless of their major. It's just very unlikely that any of the posters here are that person... just from a statistics point of view. Most people could not do well in physics graduate courses or physics research without understanding basic physics. However one gains this knowledge is pretty much irrelevant, except that it helps admissions committees to see a transcript with a standard curriculum and good grades and to get letters of recommendation from physics professors. If someone can do a good enough job of showing an admissions committee that they are qualified to study graduate physics without any physics classes, then I'm sure they'll be fine. However, the tiny percentage of people who are actually this smart and this qualified are not the people that come to this forum asking whether taking the physics GRE will get them into a physics PhD program. The people asking this question are the other 99.9%, and the easiest way for them to be prepared and to show that they are prepared is probably to take some classes.

"Do you think non-physics undergraduates (but whose undergraduate research has strong elements of physics) are really less suited to graduate study in physics than typical physics majors?"

In the vast majority of cases, yes. I don't mean to say that you have to take classes to learn physics. This would be preposterous. I'm just saying a good amount of knowledge is necessary to succeed in graduate school and beyond. You need to have it, and you need a way to show you have it, along with discipline, work ethic, and a passion for physics.

nathan12343
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Re: Important to cover standard physics material as undergrad?

Postby nathan12343 » Fri Aug 21, 2009 12:51 pm

I actually had Carl Weiman for a class at the University of Colorado. That man is amazingly smart and has a way of seeing through to the core of a physics problem that few others can. I think he may have been being a little bit humble in that biography.

excel
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Re: Important to cover standard physics material as undergrad?

Postby excel » Fri Aug 21, 2009 10:41 pm

grae, I agree with most of what you said. That is the current situation at any rate. I do think though it would be better if the system encouraged students to find/ develop their own perspective of the subject rather than just go through a standard set of courses. Students can do that by actively designing more individualised undergraduate degree. To give a concrete example, instead of statistical mechanics (or maybe in addition to it), students can consider taking molecular modeling courses from theoretical chemistry or from chemical engineering. Maybe, they should consider electrical engineering courses and learn important concepts like convolution. Maybe, they should consider control theory courses.

My point is: there is a rich world of topics important to physics outside of conventional undergraduate physics, and students can set themselves apart by trying to gain from that world. I fancy that this would work in their favor during admissions and afterwards. Instead, it seems to me that almost all physics majors take the standard set of physics and math, and then add a couple of graduate physics courses to strengthen their chances.

excel
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Re: Important to cover standard physics material as undergrad?

Postby excel » Fri Aug 21, 2009 10:45 pm

nathan, you are lucky to have taken a course from Dr. Wieman. I can readily imagine that he has his unique way of getting to the heart of problems. :) In fact, I am trying to say that maybe more students should try to develop their own unique (and effective) way of approaching problems.

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grae313
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Re: Important to cover standard physics material as undergrad?

Postby grae313 » Fri Aug 21, 2009 11:44 pm

excel wrote:nathan, you are lucky to have taken a course from Dr. Wieman. I can readily imagine that he has his unique way of getting to the heart of problems. :) In fact, I am trying to say that maybe more students should try to develop their own unique (and effective) way of approaching problems.


I think this point is entirely different from the questions brought up in your original post. I think few would disagree with this.

excel
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Re: Important to cover standard physics material as undergrad?

Postby excel » Sat Aug 22, 2009 12:16 am

The essence of my position is this: I think serious non-physics students whose research and undergraduate preparation have strong elements of physics may bring to the table a unique and useful perspective due to their different but relevant background, which would work to their advantage in graduate school physics research and maybe during admissions if they can sell their application well. By the same principle, I think physics undergraduates should try to move out of the typical standard physics undergraduate education.

Just to be clear, I am not really talking about the majority of people who just want to apply to a different major on a whim, but rather the students who have a reasonable strategy on how to use their different set of tools and/ or perspective in a particular area of physics.

Actually, I think we have been agreeing all along, but just reading the question differently. I did not realize that my question was ill-posed. My bad!




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