Holding off on core physics classes until final spring semester?

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Joined: Thu Feb 25, 2016 4:31 pm

Holding off on core physics classes until final spring semester?

Postby Avitus » Thu Feb 25, 2016 5:11 pm

Hello all,

I'm wondering if anyone has any insight or experience with my situation. I switched from engineering to physics in the middle of my 3rd year, so I will be taking an extra year. Currently, the way my 5-year plan works out is that I will take stat mech (Schroeder) and classical mech (Taylor) my final semester here. Of course, this means that I will not have taken two of the four "foundational" subjects in the undergrad curriculum until after I've applied to grad school!

Now, I do have some leeway with getting these classes slightly earlier, but at a price -- either dropping some electives or overloading some semesters. Stat mech is easier to fit in, as I can switch it with a math elective (abstract algebra, which I want to take, but don't have to by any means!). On the other hand, by taking classical mechanics before the spring, I give up a taking this undergraduate intro to QFT course. Since it requires a full year of quantum mechanics, plus the school only offers it on certain semesters, I have absolutely no leeway with moving the QFT course around. Again, I want to take it because I am interested, and perhaps it will prime me for grad QFT, but not because I have to. However, I wonder if it might seem better or worse than I haven't taken Lagrangian/Hamiltonian mechanics at the time of my application because of this elective? I go to a big state school in the US, somewhere in the top 20 for physics I believe, so I would hope that there's no doubt that I will have to take classical and stat mech in order to graduate, but I'm not sure if it will look strange that, at a rough glance at my transcript, I do not have those classes listed anywhere. Perhaps I should have at least one, but not necessarily the other?

P.S. With regards to not having exposure to the Hamiltonian formalism before taking QM/QFT, I do a lot of self-studying and I've done the first few chapters of Griffiths independently over the winter, so at this level I am confident that I at least understand enough -- and if I don't, I've already ordered Taylor's book, as well as Lanczos's as supplement, which I hope to peruse over the summer. My school also does not have classical mechanics as a requirement for QM (but I believe that is the case for most programs anyway).

Thanks for reading, sorry this went on a bit long.

Edit: I plan to apply for theory (tentatively cosmology), if you think that makes any difference.

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Joined: Mon Jan 02, 2012 3:05 pm

Re: Holding off on core physics classes until final spring semester?

Postby TakeruK » Thu Feb 25, 2016 5:35 pm

As you probably notice by now, most schools have a lot Physics major course requirements so it's actually pretty common for students to be taking important 4th year/senior year physics courses in their final semester. So, I don't think you will be abnormal here, and many applications will ask you what courses you plan to take in the Spring semester.

But, since it does sound like you have a little bit of choice between which courses to take this year vs. next year, it does make sense to think about your options. I would highly recommend that you talk to an advisor or other faculty member in your current program and let them know your grad school plans. They can help you determine which courses are most useful to you.

Here's also my opinion:
1. I would choose to take Stat Mech now and the math elective in your final year spring semester, since I think the former is much more useful to you than the latter. Also, if you have not yet taken the Physics GRE, the former will be more helpful!

2. I think it's a tossup between QFT and classical mechanics. QFT is not a standard physics requirement and many people enter grad school without it (I did not take QFT in undergrad---or grad school for that matter). However, if you are interested in it, then by all means take it. If you want to take QFT, then I am not sure if moving classical mechanics to this year is worth missing out on QFT completely. But if you don't want to take QFT, then I think you would be much better off taking classical mechanics sooner rather than later.

Ultimately, since you will have all of the courses before graduation, it's not going to be a big deal. In my opinion, it makes more sense to take classical mechanics this year instead of waiting, because you can use that knowledge on the Physics GRE and classical mechanics is typically taken in one's 2nd or 3rd year. But, since you do have a plan to take everything and you have to give up QFT for classical mechanics to happen this year, it's not clear that it's the best choice.

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Joined: Fri Jan 22, 2016 1:28 am

Re: Holding off on core physics classes until final spring semester?

Postby vjade » Thu Feb 25, 2016 6:02 pm

I was in a similar situation this year. I am graduating in three years so I had to rearrange my schedule to make it work. Consequently, I am taking statmech in my final semester and I had no quantum grades on my transcript at the time of application since I'm taking quantum 1 and 2 this year. I was nervous about this when I applied, but thus far my results have been good, and I was awarded a JQI Fellowship despite the lack of quantum grades (keep in mind I'm an experimentalist). So depending on your background, this can certainly turn out well for you and may even be seen as a strength if you present it well. Hope this helps.

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Joined: Thu Feb 25, 2016 4:31 pm

Re: Holding off on core physics classes until final spring semester?

Postby Avitus » Thu Feb 25, 2016 6:09 pm

Thanks for the responses! I will be meeting with my adviser soon, so I will certainly bring this up as a main talking point. At any rate, it puts me a lot more at ease knowing that admissions committees will at least be used to seeing such a transcript. It's great to hear from someone who's had success in a similar situation as well!

Taking stat mech now does seem like the better option, especially considering the topics on the PGRE, so I'm certainly leaning in favor of it. As for the classical mechanics, my heart is favoring QFT, but I think I will have to see what my adviser says -- and potentially the professors teaching each course.

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