Math - to major or not to major?

pseudoscalar
Posts: 6
Joined: Sat Apr 06, 2013 9:30 pm

Math - to major or not to major?

Postby pseudoscalar » Mon Apr 08, 2013 12:28 am

Hi all,
I'm currently a sophomore majoring in physics, looking to do a PhD someday. I am doing OK in both physics classes and research. Lately I have been taking upper level math classes such as abstract algebra. Since the math major requirements at my school have a good overlap with physics, it won't be difficult to declare a math major as well. My concern, however, is that I'm not doing as well in math as I am in physics. So far I've been able to maintain a ~3.9+ GPA in physics, but looking from the grades to my math exam, I will probably average a ~3.7 in math if I keep taking more math classes, because the curve is simply more difficult in math. Will this look bad to prospective grad schools? In other words it better to try and get less than stellar results, or not try at all? I'm more interested in experimental atomic physics, so at first I shook off this concern, but since the competitive GPA level to get into a top grad school seems to be rising over the years, this started to trouble me.

I could probably fill up my time with easy non-scientific classes which give me easy As, but math is just more interesting (in its own right), even though it's harder.

Kinbote
Posts: 24
Joined: Tue Feb 12, 2013 7:30 pm

Re: Math - to major or not to major?

Postby Kinbote » Mon Apr 08, 2013 1:55 am

The major is not as essential as the courses - schools don't care if you have a math degree, but they do care that you have enough math background to pursue a Ph.D. So take the relevant coursework, but don't worry too much about having a math major as well.

It is certainly better to try, any day. It demonstrates a willingness to take risks and a desire to learn. Plus, this is what you'll be doing in grad. school anyway - trying to pick up concepts and methods that help you in your research, and more often than not this won't be straightforward.

Since your interests are experimental, this shouldn't affect you negatively as long as you do well in PDE's, Linear Algebra etc. Group theory, analysis, topology, diff. geometry are added bonuses. I know someone in my school who got into experimental AMO (Boulder, Yale, UIUC, Berkeley) without a math major (or too strong a math bacground), an 860 PGRE, and solid research.

blighter
Posts: 256
Joined: Thu Jan 26, 2012 6:30 pm

Re: Math - to major or not to major?

Postby blighter » Mon Apr 08, 2013 3:21 am

Kinbote wrote:I know someone in my school who got into experimental AMO (Boulder, Yale, UIUC, Berkeley) without a math major (or too strong a math bacground), an 860 PGRE, and solid research.


Is that really surprising? A majority of people on this website haven't majored in math.

TakeruK
Posts: 816
Joined: Mon Jan 02, 2012 3:05 pm

Re: Math - to major or not to major?

Postby TakeruK » Mon Apr 08, 2013 11:40 am

I don't think having an official math major will make a huge difference unless you are going into a topic that is very mathematical. Like others said, you only need to take math courses that either interest you or is useful to your research. For me, I just took the minimum math requirements except for one extra math elective (numerical applications of linear algebra).

As for the grades, I don't think getting A's in easy non-scientific classes will help you in grad school applications. In Canada, the grad schools only look at your 3rd and 4th year GPA in your major (i.e. math, physics, and astro courses, usually). They will still want to see your full transcript though. In the US, they usually ask for a cumulative GPA. Ocassionally, the application form will ask for you to state your major and/or upper level GPA separately. However, profs have posted here on these forums that they will look more carefully at the physics/math and/or upper level courses than unrelated courses.

I feel that in terms of getting into grad school, unrelated courses can only hurt -- doing well in them won't be super impressive, but doing poorly is harmful. However, getting into grad school should not be the sole purpose of your undergrad experience! Undergrad is for learning, exploring and figuring out what you want to do. If you avoid courses because you are afraid they will harm your GPA, then you might risk railroading yourself into a certain path that might not be right for you. It is okay to try and challenge yourself and not do as well. If you want to think in practical terms, a 3.7 GPA in math is more helpful to grad school than a 4.0 in unrelated non-scientific courses. In addition, a 3.7 is a really strong GPA -- if you were saying that you were struggling to make 3.0's in the math courses then things might be a bit different!

pseudoscalar
Posts: 6
Joined: Sat Apr 06, 2013 9:30 pm

Re: Math - to major or not to major?

Postby pseudoscalar » Fri Apr 12, 2013 2:19 am

Thanks for the helpful replies, everyone.

If you want to think in practical terms, a 3.7 GPA in math is more helpful to grad school than a 4.0 in unrelated non-scientific courses.

As I am coming from a liberal arts college, it is natural for any student to be encouraged to take a lot of unrelated courses. I was thinking if I did very well on my physics courses without doing many math courses, the unrelated courses wouldn't count against me, and neither would the lack of math courses. My potential as a mathematician would remain a mystery. On the other hand, I was worried that if I took many math courses and didn't do as well in them, then admissions committees would clearly know that I am only a good mathematician, not an excellent one.

TakeruK
Posts: 816
Joined: Mon Jan 02, 2012 3:05 pm

Re: Math - to major or not to major?

Postby TakeruK » Fri Apr 12, 2013 11:08 am

pseudoscalar wrote:Thanks for the helpful replies, everyone.

If you want to think in practical terms, a 3.7 GPA in math is more helpful to grad school than a 4.0 in unrelated non-scientific courses.

As I am coming from a liberal arts college, it is natural for any student to be encouraged to take a lot of unrelated courses. I was thinking if I did very well on my physics courses without doing many math courses, the unrelated courses wouldn't count against me, and neither would the lack of math courses. My potential as a mathematician would remain a mystery. On the other hand, I was worried that if I took many math courses and didn't do as well in them, then admissions committees would clearly know that I am only a good mathematician, not an excellent one.


This is just my opinion: I don't think they will "relax" their math course expectations of you because you are from a liberal arts college. Similarly, they don't relax their expectations from applicants applying from countries that have 3 year programs. Most schools will have certain expectations for students entering certain fields (probably based on previous experience) and they would probably like their students to have a certain background. If you are planning on going into a math intensive field, then they probably would expect/like to see certain math courses. But if you are going into other subfields that might not be so mathematical, then the standard math background for a physics major is probably enough.

Overall, I would actually say that a committee would prefer to see that you are a "good mathematician" rather than take the risk and choose a student with "mysterious math potential".

However, all that said, you are talking about physics major (which already has a ton of important math courses) vs. double major in physics and math (which is probably overkill in the amount of math you would need), so the math you are already taking in your physics program is probably enough! Most students I know don't go the double major route but they might take a couple more math courses beyond the physics minimum if there are interesting and/or useful for their research.




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