Hey all, I'm about two years out from graduate school but I just have a quick question.
I found out that I will be unable to get a degree in math (I'll be short one class), and this leaves me the freedom to take some upper-level math classes pass/fail until I graduate with my physics degree. These include graph theory, number theory, abstract algebra, etc.
I am not confident that I could get an A in these classes, and my GPA is currently 4.0 (whether that will be the case when I graduate though, we'll see).
For an admissions officer, would they rather see that I took an advanced class pass/fail or that I took it and it caused my GPA to go down? Thanks
Since you have two more years of school left, I think it is a little bit early to be worrying about grad school at this level of detail. 2 years is still a long time, and your grades in these next 2 years will be likely be more important than your grades in the past 2 years. Here are a few things that I think about this situation:
1. If you are only going to be short one class, is there not some way for you to take this extra class (either overload for one semester or maybe you can take something like an elective in the summer so that you have an extra slot for the extra math class during your regular school year). If you think you might want a math degree as well as a physics one, this might be a good path to keep your options open. I mention this because maybe in 2 years you might not want to go to Physics grad school, or perhaps you might find Math to be your passion instead.
I also bring this up because although most physics programs require a lot of math, it's usually not enough to come this close to a math degree. I know that in my program, I would have needed 3 or 4 more upper level math classes to add a math minor to my degree. I chose not to do this because it would not have helped me, but I am assuming since you would be only one course short, you might have already taken extra math courses, which perhaps means you are interested in math?
To be clear, I am *not* saying that a Math+Physics degree will help you get into Physics grad school. I'm just saying that if you want a math degree for some other reason, don't give up because you're just one course short!
2. But, if you are completely certain that you want to do Physics, I agree with the others that your time is better spent on Physics. This will help you the most in Physics grad school. The above person suggested doing more research and studying for the PGRE. These are great things to do instead of taking a class you don't need. I have a few suggestions, each one of them based on something I believe grad schools are looking for in their applicants:
a) Only take Math classes that directly help you as a physicist. Only take the theory math classes (e.g. number theory, graph theory, abstract algebra) if you are doing theoretical physics that requires this background. Otherwise, these courses won't help you at all. If you want to take more math, I'd recommend applied math courses, such as courses on numerical solutions to differential equations. I took a "applied linear algebra" course where we didn't learn any more math than our intro linear algebra course, but instead we learned how to use those theorems to solve physical problems. We also learned how to solve problems numerically using MATLAB. In my opinion, one skill that all grad schools look for is the ability for students to write code and solve problems numerically.
I hear this directly from professors who are looking for grad students.
b) Take Physics electives instead. Grad schools don't want someone who is only experienced/skilled in their subfield, they want a well rounded physicist. If you study condensed matter, I really think a course in e.g. particle physics or astrophysics would help your application a lot more than a random math class that isn't related to your work.
c) Don't take extra courses and spend the time doing research and/or studying for the PGRE (as advised above).
d) Take the opportunity to take some classes that cover things you are interested in. This is not really something that will directly help your grad school applications, but it will help you. When you start grad school, you are really beginning to specialize and your work and study will take on a very narrow focus. Undergrad is the best time to explore other interests and take courses just for fun. After all, college is about self growth as well as academic training! Honestly, if you take the full physics courseload and do well on them, adding another A grade in another physics or math course isn't really going to do that much more for your application. So, don't be afraid to take something that interests you instead. Maybe you always wanted to learn some French. Or you are interested in that History course. Or that Economics course etc.
I think this is an option you should also seriously consider because I think it will have indirect benefits. First, you expand your horizons as a scholar/academic, which is always good. Second, jumping right into physics grad school after taking a ton of physics courses is a good way to burn out. Cultivating your non-math/physics interests is a good way to ensure you feel like you've explored other interests before becoming a grad student. And finally, having some extra knowledge is a great way to meet new people and to have something interesting to contribute to a conversation when you're at a conference or meeting profs for the first time etc. It might even catch the eye of a prof who has the same interests while they are reading your transcript.
Ultimately, my real advice is to take the courses that you think will help yourself the most--don't base everything on whether or not it will have a small positive effect on grad school admissions.