former philosophy student applying to physics grad school

meno
Posts: 12
Joined: Sat Dec 20, 2008 1:13 am

former philosophy student applying to physics grad school

Postby meno » Sat Dec 20, 2008 1:31 am

So, I have a sort of complicated story, but I really need help, and I am hoping someone here can give me some advice.

I recently got my B.A. from a really intense, entirely discussion-based humanities program that required all its students to take four years of math and science courses. Since my school was (and remains) crazy, taking math and science meant reading Euclid, Newton, Einstein, Schrodinger, Minkowski, etc., and I fell in love with physics there. I read a lot of math/physics texts on my own, but I knew I wasn't ready for grad school yet. So I enrolled as an undergrad at a big state school with an excellent reputation in physics (in the top 15, I'm told). I plan on getting my B.S. as a physics major in two years, which means I'll be applying to grad school a year from now.

So here's the problem: I've based my whole college career around writing and have won a lot of awards for that, but none for science or math. I worked at the Naval Observatory last summer and did a few presentations, and I'm currently involved in two research projects--one in experimental particle astrophysics and another in quantum field theory (my true love :) ). Hopefully the theoretical research will result in a publication, but I'm really worried I'm not getting the same exposure to research that some other people on this forum are. You guys seem so serious and advanced, and I still feel like I don't really know what I'm doing.

The other major problem is that I'll have to take the physics GRE next fall when I've only had the equivalent of the first two years of physics courses. I've started studying already, but I worry that I can't expect to teach myself that much material in any reliable way. Hopefully the fact that I'm female will give me some leeway on the GRE, but I'm still terrified.

What do you guys think--has my humanities background screwed me over? What else should I be trying to accomplish in terms of research experience? And finally, any advice on studying for the PGRE for someone who's still pretty new to the field? Thanks so much for your help!

tmc
Posts: 112
Joined: Sun Nov 02, 2008 1:40 pm

Re: former philosophy student applying to physics grad school

Postby tmc » Sat Dec 20, 2008 1:55 pm

You're doing research in quantum field theory before having even an intro course in quantum mechanics?

cato88
Posts: 420
Joined: Wed Sep 03, 2008 12:46 am

Re: former philosophy student applying to physics grad school

Postby cato88 » Sat Dec 20, 2008 3:04 pm

tmc wrote:You're doing research in quantum field theory before having even an intro course in quantum mechanics?

I didnt realize that. I thought you would need to have taken undergrad and graduate QM before a quantum field theory course.

meno
Posts: 12
Joined: Sat Dec 20, 2008 1:13 am

Re: former philosophy student applying to physics grad school

Postby meno » Sat Dec 20, 2008 4:41 pm

tmc wrote:You're doing research in quantum field theory before having even an intro course in quantum mechanics?


Yes, it's a little strange, isn't it? I learned a little quantum mechanics at my old school, and the professor I'm working with has been teaching me various things related to the Dirac equation. However, our project is based on calculating CPT transformations in various combinations, which really just requires me to be familiar with Dirac and know some basic linear algebra. Of course, there is a lot I don't understand, but the calculations so far have been manageable for me. I'm hoping that by the time I get to grad school I will have a better conceptual grasp on the things I'm working on right now!

User avatar
Andromeda
Posts: 127
Joined: Wed Dec 10, 2008 3:17 pm

Re: former philosophy student applying to physics grad school

Postby Andromeda » Sun Dec 21, 2008 3:01 pm

Perhaps it's because I'm coming from a semi-similar situation (was essentially a double major with history, lots of writing I've gotten great recognition for) but I don't see why your humanities background would be a detriment once you finish your physics degree. In fact I'd see it as an asset- turns out most people who apply for physics grad school are not amongst the most articulate, particularly in writing, so it's something that makes you stand out. As a professor explained it to me once, great research only goes so far if you can't explain it well.

Plus yeah, your PGRE will likely not as good as it could be, but you have a really good reason to explain why and while some grad schools won't like it, some will. This worrying is perhaps a bit premature though. :wink:

Another final thought- have you done any science writing by chance? I'm sure you're busy with a hectic schedule but it might be good to see if you could write a few articles on science topics just to show you're capable of adapting your humanities background to science (I've done this, and such writing really can go a long way even in the physics world). Your best bets are probably seeing if a local campus publication could use a few articles on research going on on campus (ie school paper perhaps), or Google The Journal of Young Investigators and see if they have an opening that might interest you. Good luck! :D

swepi
Posts: 33
Joined: Fri Nov 21, 2008 5:15 pm

Re: former philosophy student applying to physics grad school

Postby swepi » Tue Dec 23, 2008 3:35 am

Your humanities background did not screw you over. In fact, being articulate would only help you, as long as you understand the physics. My usual rule of thumb is, if I don't understand what someone is talking about, then they probably don't understand what they are talking about. Of course, the only way this rule is useful is if I apply it to myself.

You also mentioned that you come from a philosophy background. My initial thought was that you were into elementary particle physics or quantum field theory, and you are. You seem to have a genuine interest in physics though, so I will make the following recommendations which you can do with as you please.

First, don't think about physics in philosophical terms. At the end of the day it is, and will always be, an experimental science. Theory and experiment have the following relationship: if a theory makes a prediction that disagrees with experiment, then the theory is wrong. I would not mention this point if I didn't find so many people not getting it. In general, don't get hung up on the philosophy of science, because it is irrelevant. The best antidote, as Steven Weinberg puts it, is to learn something about the history of science, or at least the history of physics. In other words, keep any of Newton's works if you still have them.

Second, try to develop physical intuition. As an undergraduate I got by most of my physics classes by simply being good at symbol manipulation. It was horrible, because I could barely understand what was going on, but I could do the tests. After college, I became interested in physics again and worked on the intuition. Richard Feynman talks a little about this in "Feynman's Tips on Physics". You may also want to look into the "Character of Physical Law" as Feynman describes the character of physical law in them.

Third, I have nothing useful to say about research since I haven't done any.

monstergroup
Posts: 4
Joined: Sat Jan 17, 2009 2:16 am

Re: former philosophy student applying to physics grad school

Postby monstergroup » Sat Jan 17, 2009 3:06 am

I really don't have much to contribute except to guess that the "crazy" school you mentioned is somewhere in Maryland? My impression is that that particular school have some quite nice reputation - just not necessarily for physics grad school - and it can be a plus to have someone with that kind of exposure (it gotta be fun to learn calculus from Newton) as long as your basic physics are up to bar with typical physics majors. Of course if I guessed wrong just ignore me ;)

mhazelm
Posts: 193
Joined: Sat Sep 06, 2008 3:33 pm

Re: former philosophy student applying to physics grad school

Postby mhazelm » Sat Jan 17, 2009 12:39 pm

I have two things to say:

First of all, I think a humanities background is anything but a detriment. Why? Because in real life, scientists aren't writing new laws of the universe all the time - most of the time we are writing proposals and papers. So, having the skills of a writer is important. Also, philosophy and theory are interesting when you put them together, and I think the philosophy is a good starting background for theoretical physics (exploring the roots of logic, sort of, isn't it?). As for the GRE, study intro physics like crazy and modern physics. There are some more advanced topics on the test, but it is my feeling that if you know the basics REALLY well (inside and out) you can score decently without answering the advanced topics. (my mistake was to study my upper level materials - I never reviewed freshman physics, to my detriment).

Second - have you considered applying for the Rhodes scholarship? You have a well-rounded background, especially if you have other extracurriculars and high (>3.7) GPA. I applied for it this year and got quite far (to the district interviews) and was originally a physics and political science major until I found math (then that became major #2 and poli sci became the minor) - so a similar mix of humanities and physics. It would send you to Oxford, and they have both programs in theoretical physics and math, but also a really neat program specifically in the philosophy of physics. I thought it sounded wonderful. Anyway, you should apply for it - don't be deterred by thinking that you're not good enough to get it - you'll never know unless you try. It is probably the most prestigious scholarship in the world - trust me, that would help your career immensely. Send me a private message if you want more info about it.

User avatar
zxcv
Posts: 402
Joined: Mon Dec 17, 2007 11:08 pm

Re: former philosophy student applying to physics grad school

Postby zxcv » Sat Jan 17, 2009 4:13 pm

I'll think you'll do fine. If you're actually interested in the philosophy of physics (though it looks like this is only a suggestion by somebody else) then keep in mind you'd probably have an easier time fitting into a philosophy department and doing physics than the other way around. This was the thought of one of my classmates who is currently in a top philosophy of physics program.




Return to “Transitioning to Physics from a non-physics field”

Who is online

Users browsing this forum: No registered users and 1 guest