chemical engineering B.S. to physics Ph.D.

monkeyman
Posts: 3
Joined: Fri Nov 16, 2012 8:25 pm

chemical engineering B.S. to physics Ph.D.

Postby monkeyman » Fri Nov 16, 2012 8:54 pm

I recently graduated from a respected university with a B.S. in chemical engineering (nanoscience concentration, 3.50 GPA). I am currently working in industry, and plan on doing so for about 2 years. My goal is to begin a Ph.D. program in Physics after working for 2 years.

I have two questions: do I have a realistic chance of being accepted to graduate school for physics with a B.S. in chemical engineering, and if so, what are some steps I should take to prepare myself? I know that there are many books I could read to improve my knowledge; do you guys have any suggestions on specific books I should devote my time to working through?

I still live very close to the university I graduated from. One thought I had was reaching out to some professors in the physics department at my alma mater to see if I could do some type of work in their labs (weekday evenings and weekends are the only possibility, as I work full-time). Of course I would not request pay; the work would be done in exchange for any knowledge and experience gained.

I have always had a great interest in physics and science in general. I have spent a significant amount of time thinking very hard about what I want to devote my life to, and come to the conclusion that the only pursuit that will bring me satisfaction is the investigation of the workings of nature at the deepest and most fundamental level. I'm not in it for the money; my current job has taught me that no amount of money can make up for doing something you are not passionate about. I understand that pursuing a graduate degree in physics is not an easy undertaking, and I thank you for any advice you are willing to give.

Best regards,
GB

bfollinprm
Posts: 1197
Joined: Sat Nov 07, 2009 11:44 am

Re: chemical engineering B.S. to physics Ph.D.

Postby bfollinprm » Sun Nov 18, 2012 2:06 am

monkeyman wrote:I recently graduated from a respected university with a B.S. in chemical engineering (nanoscience concentration, 3.50 GPA). I am currently working in industry, and plan on doing so for about 2 years. My goal is to begin a Ph.D. program in Physics after working for 2 years.

I have two questions: do I have a realistic chance of being accepted to graduate school for physics with a B.S. in chemical engineering, and if so, what are some steps I should take to prepare myself?

I have next to no idea what a chemical engineer learns in a B.S., but it's certainly possible to get into a PhD program (most don't have physics bachelor's as a hard-fast prerequisite). As for chances, I don't know, because it will depend on things I haven't been told. As for what to do to prepare, see below.


I know that there are many books I could read to improve my knowledge; do you guys have any suggestions on specific books I should devote my time to working through?


As far as physics, Griffith's quantum is key. Make sure you can also get through his E&M book, but that might be easier coming from your background. Lagrangian dynamics is essential, but I don't have any good recommendations on where to learn that (Goldstein, maybe? It might be a little too high level for a first pass introduction, I don't know your math level). Depending on the math you had to take, you might need to brush up on/learn vector calculus (Div, Grad, Curl, and all That), linear algebra (Poole), and partial differential equations (Haberman), or in a pinch a book on Advanced Engineering Mathematics, which should cover the basics of everything you need. If any of that is weak, do that first before tackling the physics. Presumably you also own a first-year physics text like Halliday and Resnick, it goes without saying that you should be comfortable with that book from cover to cover.

I still live very close to the university I graduated from. One thought I had was reaching out to some professors in the physics department at my alma mater to see if I could do some type of work in their labs (weekday evenings and weekends are the only possibility, as I work full-time). Of course I would not request pay; the work would be done in exchange for any knowledge and experience gained.

Do that, if you find the time (which sounds like it will be hard). But make sure you have the time, asking then flaking is bad.

monkeyman
Posts: 3
Joined: Fri Nov 16, 2012 8:25 pm

Re: chemical engineering B.S. to physics Ph.D.

Postby monkeyman » Sun Nov 18, 2012 10:22 am

Thanks so much, that is some very helpful information. As a reference, here are some of the classes I took as an undergrad that may be relevant:

3 levels of calculus (differential, integral, and multivariable)
differential equations
classical mechanics
electricity and magnetism
quantum mechanics
2 levels of thermodynamics
fluid mechanics
lots of chemistry

My differential and integral calculus are pretty strong, but multivariable not so much (didn't use that much after I took it), so I would probably need to re-learn that.

After the math, it seems that the main topics to master are classical mechanics, E&M, and quantum mechanics. What about special relativity and statistical mechanics? I think the area I ultimately want to study is nuclear physics, if that makes a difference.

When the time comes, any suggestions on what tier of schools I ought to apply to (top 20, top 50, etc.)? Just a rough estimate here, since my PGRE score is still an unknown at this point. Being that I didn't study physics exclusively as an undergrad and that I have no relevant research experience, I realize places like Harvard, MIT, Caltech, Berkeley are not realistic.

Again, thank you very much, your advice has been very helpful.

hooverbm
Posts: 19
Joined: Tue Aug 28, 2012 7:32 pm

Re: chemical engineering B.S. to physics Ph.D.

Postby hooverbm » Sun Nov 18, 2012 11:31 am

I think you have a realistic chance of getting accepted to a program, but I believe that will also depend on what exactly you want to do. For example, there are a number of excellent interdisciplinary programs, such as applied physics, that encourage students in the physical sciences to apply. Such programs even allow you to take a subject GRE in the field you are comfortable with, so you don't necessarily have to come from a physics background, or take a physics GRE. In particular, your background in nanoscience and real world experience would make for a strong case for an applied physics program.

Now if you want to just do a physics program, that will be more difficult. You will have to take a physics GRE and be able to convince graduate schools why you feel you are a good candidate for physics. Basically you need to answer the question, "why physics?" particularly if the research path you want to take is very different from your background. Additionally, if you want to take an alternate path from your background, the best way to increase your chances is to do research in your prospective field of interest. So if you wanted to do high-energy particle physics, be prepared to demonstrate depth in your decision to pursue a Ph.D in that concentration by working in a high-energy particle physics lab.

As of right now, I'm not sure what you're thinking about in terms of physics programs, but if you're thinking about combining your current background with physics, an applied physics program sounds like a great fit. You would have already done most of the work, won't have to take a physics GRE, and appear to be a competitive applicant with previous/current real-world experience.

But again, if you want to do something different than your background be prepared to demonstrate some level of maturity in your decision. I think if you can connect what you currently do with a research topic that interests you in a physics program, that will ease the transition and make you a convincing applicant.

As for supplementary study materials, I think that will again depend on what exactly you want to do. If you're more interested in an applied physics program, I wouldn't worry too much about learning a physics undergraduate curriculum. Anything you need to know/learn can be left for graduate courses. However, if you want to do straight up physics, then I would encourage you to explore a physics undergraduate curriculum. Let me know which one interests you the most, so I can give you some suggestions.

bfollinprm
Posts: 1197
Joined: Sat Nov 07, 2009 11:44 am

Re: chemical engineering B.S. to physics Ph.D.

Postby bfollinprm » Sun Nov 18, 2012 12:31 pm

monkeyman wrote:Thanks so much, that is some very helpful information. As a reference, here are some of the classes I took as an undergrad that may be relevant:

3 levels of calculus (differential, integral, and multivariable)
differential equations
classical mechanics
electricity and magnetism
quantum mechanics
2 levels of thermodynamics
fluid mechanics
lots of chemistry

My differential and integral calculus are pretty strong, but multivariable not so much (didn't use that much after I took it), so I would probably need to re-learn that.

After the math, it seems that the main topics to master are classical mechanics, E&M, and quantum mechanics. What about special relativity and statistical mechanics? I think the area I ultimately want to study is nuclear physics, if that makes a difference.

When the time comes, any suggestions on what tier of schools I ought to apply to (top 20, top 50, etc.)? Just a rough estimate here, since my PGRE score is still an unknown at this point. Being that I didn't study physics exclusively as an undergrad and that I have no relevant research experience, I realize places like Harvard, MIT, Caltech, Berkeley are not realistic.

Again, thank you very much, your advice has been very helpful.



Can't say much from a list of courses without the texts involved. Stat mech (especially) and special relativity (actually contained in Griffith's E&M and Goldstein's Classical Mechanics) are important, but if you don't know them, you'll probably have a chance to cover them in grad school, and they're easy to pick up if you have the core quantum, classical, and E&M down. Thermo is also important, but it sounds like you're good on that front.

My experience with engineers is their understanding of vector (and Hilbert) spaces is poor compared to people coming from a physics background. If that's true for you, rectify it, especially before working through quantum.

As for the schools to which you should apply, that will entirely depend on your PGRE score, since you're coming from outside of the discipline. A high score, as evidence of your devotion to teaching yourself the undergraduate curriculum, can probably take you pretty far, though the top 10 schools are extremely competitive for everyone, because there just aren't a lot of spots.

hooverbm
Posts: 19
Joined: Tue Aug 28, 2012 7:32 pm

Re: chemical engineering B.S. to physics Ph.D.

Postby hooverbm » Sun Nov 18, 2012 12:50 pm

I didn't realize someone had replied (I responded to the thread in another area of the website).

I wouldn't necessarily discourage you from applying to top programs, but I would certainly add a cushion of safety schools due to your lack of research experience in nuclear physics.

Graduate programs are generally looking for you to perform to a certain standard on exams. I think if you were to do very well on the PGRE, say 900+, that would put you in a competitive position even for top programs, particularly because any preparation for the PGRE would be completely self-taught. Moreover, any research experience is valuable. Any program is attempting to evaluate your aptitude by several different measures (scores, letters of rec, GPA, and research experience), so if you have strong references and quality research experience, other parts of your application can be overlooked, such as the lack of a background in physics. So long, of course, that your statement of purpose is also well substantiated.

But why nuclear physics? You need to be prepared to answer that, and I feel you may be placed at a disadvantage if you claim you want to pursue a concentration in that field without prior/current experience to back it up. I feel there is some leniency in regard to graduate programs of not knowing exactly what you want to do, but you can make a much more powerful argument for yourself if you can connect current work or previous experience to nuclear physics.

monkeyman
Posts: 3
Joined: Fri Nov 16, 2012 8:25 pm

Re: chemical engineering B.S. to physics Ph.D.

Postby monkeyman » Sun Nov 18, 2012 3:13 pm

But why nuclear physics? You need to be prepared to answer that, and I feel you may be placed at a disadvantage if you claim you want to pursue a concentration in that field without prior/current experience to back it up. I feel there is some leniency in regard to graduate programs of not knowing exactly what you want to do, but you can make a much more powerful argument for yourself if you can connect current work or previous experience to nuclear physics.


I have always had an interest in renewable energy. When looking at the options we have for providing energy for the future of human society, I think without a doubt nuclear will be the foundation. However, not just from uranium-235, which exists in the Earth's crust in a relatively low concentration, and is difficult and costly to produce (my senior design project was based on using microorganisms to leach uranium from uranium ore to produce yellow cake). I believe the key lies in figuring out how to extract energy from the nuclei of more abundant elements. They way I understand it (please correct me if I am wrong here) is that iron is the lowest-energy nucleus, which is why a star begins to die once it has converted all of its matter into iron. The heavier elements are created in supernovae. So energy is released by fusing atoms that are smaller than iron and splitting atoms that are heavier than iron.

We seem to be on the verge of an energy boom in natural gas. However, the energy source I envision is orders of magnitude cheaper and more abundant than any type of fossil fuel (and does not release carbon dioxide, even though nat. gas is better in this regard than coal or oil). Massively cheap, abundant energy (that doesn't adversely affect the Earth's ecosystem in a significant way) is the key to spurring the next era of technological innovation, as well as lifting the poorest 2 billion people out of poverty. Advanced, cost-prohibitive materials become economical to mass-produce, energy-intensive processes for breaking down and re-using manufactured goods become practical, transportation becomes faster and cheaper, etc. Energy is the single most important commodity in any economy, so greatly decreasing its cost (by increasing its supply) initiates a chain reaction in which the price of all goods begin to fall.

Chemical engineering sparked my interest obtaining energy from chemical reactions and from the sun's radiation. However, I think the ultimate energy source of the future comes from delving deeper into matter, into the nucleus and the elementary particles. Not to mention the unimaginable advances that will be made in countless other areas by advancing our knowledge of nature at the most fundamental levels.

Sorry for the rant, but if I am way off base with these ideas, hopefully someone on this website more knowledgable than myself can point it out. Also, I do not intend to pigeonhole myself into any one area, especially considering I do not have any research experience in physics. I am absolutely open to other areas and applications. From a purely selfish perspective, I think that investigating the mysteries of nature and truly understanding how the universe works at the deepest level is the most interesting thing I can imagine. Like I said previously, I have always had a great interest in physics, so why not make a career out of something I would study and learn about independently anyway?

hooverbm
Posts: 19
Joined: Tue Aug 28, 2012 7:32 pm

Re: chemical engineering B.S. to physics Ph.D.

Postby hooverbm » Sun Nov 18, 2012 5:50 pm

I think the most valuable component to your statement here is how chemical engineering has sparked your interest in renewable energy. No doubt with your work experience and background in nanoscience, I think you could make a strong a case for a graduate program in that sort of field.

I'm not sure I see much for nuclear physics here, unless you are very specific about what a nuclear physics program offers at university x, y, or z and what sort of research you are interested in from faculty within the department. I think you want to avoid general knowledge about a field, and be more specific with examples from your work experience/academic background that motivates your interest. So instead of being more general and saying you wish to study nuclear physics in order to understand more about the mysteries of the Universe, focus more on personal examples (chemical engineering/work experience) and recent developments within a sub-field that you want to contribute to (research interests).

I have a strong suspicion that graduate programs tend to avoid applicants that use "flowery" language. It is already evident that you want to understand more about how nature works at a more fundamental level, otherwise you wouldn't be applying. And I think the statement that you want to investigate fundamental mysteries is analogous to a Biology/Bio-physics student saying they want to investigate the cure for cancer. It just comes across as vague, poorly defining your research interests, and having unrealistic research expectations. That's ok though. You have plenty of time to really research topics. I would begin with graduate program websites, learn about some of the faculty and see what sort of research they're doing. Then do a bit of investigative work yourself by reading papers in the fields you're interested in. Trust me, the more you do there, the better off you will be later on.

By the end of it all, instead of saying, "I want to do nuclear physics because it explores fundamental questions about nature," you'll be able to say, "I want to do nuclear physics because the work involving blah blah blah shares a personal connection with my previous work experience in blah and research interests in blah blah blah."

Hope that helps.




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