Physics and Astronomy Graduate Programs from Applied Math

mathduder86
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Joined: Tue Mar 16, 2010 5:48 pm

Physics and Astronomy Graduate Programs from Applied Math

Postby mathduder86 » Tue Mar 16, 2010 5:56 pm

I am planning on completing a B.Sc. Applied Mathematics.

Initially I probably plan on working in the software industry, hopefully in something with more of a scientific bent.

I fully intend on returning to school with in a decade or so to pursue a graduate degree in Physics or Astronomy.

Granted:
I'll take physics classes on my own time to get my physics skills up to par.
I'll take the GRE and hopefully do quite well.

What are my possibilities for getting into a program, particularly in a field where my mathematics and programming background would be highly valued, ei something that is computationally heavy like Computational Astrophysics or the like.

The main thing I am worried about is having absolutely no undergraduate research experience in physics or otherwise when applying. How will this effect me? Does having significant work experience in a technical field somewhat offset this?

BONUS QUESTION: As an effective independent studier, if I were to study physics up to a sufficient level, Intro QM, Griffith's E&M, Classical Mechanics,etc. And able to do well on the GRE, say as well as an acceptable physics graduate, could I forego shelling out my money on additional university classes.

I know the physics GRE is always needed for physics graduate school but are there many Astronomy programs that don't require it, any that would take on a Math Major directly with me going out and learning more physics on my own? Perhaps even pay for me get up to stuff by taking undergrad physics classes?

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grae313
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Joined: Tue May 29, 2007 8:46 pm

Re: Physics and Astronomy Graduate Programs from Applied Math

Postby grae313 » Tue Mar 16, 2010 6:14 pm

mathduder86 wrote:I am planning on completing a B.Sc. Applied Mathematics.

Initially I probably plan on working in the software industry, hopefully in something with more of a scientific bent.

I fully intend on returning to school with in a decade or so to pursue a graduate degree in Physics or Astronomy.

Granted:
I'll take physics classes on my own time to get my physics skills up to par.
I'll take the GRE and hopefully do quite well.

What are my possibilities for getting into a program, particularly in a field where my mathematics and programming background would be highly valued, ei something that is computationally heavy like Computational Astrophysics or the like.

The main thing I am worried about is having absolutely no undergraduate research experience in physics or otherwise when applying. How will this effect me? Does having significant work experience in a technical field somewhat offset this?

BONUS QUESTION: As an effective independent studier, if I were to study physics up to a sufficient level, Intro QM, Griffith's E&M, Classical Mechanics,etc. And able to do well on the GRE, say as well as an acceptable physics graduate, could I forego shelling out my money on additional university classes.

I know the physics GRE is always needed for physics graduate school but are there many Astronomy programs that don't require it, any that would take on a Math Major directly with me going out and learning more physics on my own? Perhaps even pay for me get up to stuff by taking undergrad physics classes?


Although having work/industry experience is a lot better than nothing, I spoke with my adviser recently when discussing someone in a vaguely similar situation to yourself and my adviser said that letters from professors with whom you did research are valued far more highly than letters of recommendation from industry. I guess the nature of the work you do in either case is quite a bit different, although perhaps less so with software engineering.

However, your plan is not impossible, particularly if you're not aiming for top 10 schools.

You will have to demonstrate to an admissions committee that you have a mastery of undergraduate physics, and doing well on the physics GRE alone is not enough. Taking a few high-level undergraduate physics courses or beginning graduate physics courses and doing well in them will go a long way toward this. You'll most likely have to shell out $$. This will have the added benefit of allowing you to get recommendation letters from a physics professor or two.

If you are only aiming for a masters it becomes a lot easier, I think, and after a decade in industry you ought to be capable of funding yourself.

mathduder86
Posts: 2
Joined: Tue Mar 16, 2010 5:48 pm

Re: Physics and Astronomy Graduate Programs from Applied Math

Postby mathduder86 » Tue Mar 16, 2010 6:37 pm

If I do pursue this route I'd plan on going Ph.D. and would need to be funded in doing so to consider it. Frankly I am at a bit of an impasse were:

A. I can take the next 2 or so years and come out with a dual Physics/Astronomy degree and go right into graduate school
B. finish in one year with an Math degree and go into industry.

The question for me is I guess that I am not sure going to graduate school right after undegrad would be the best course of action for me and my partner both money wise and other reasons. I'm finding it a very difficult decsion and just trying to get all my options figured out. On the one hand I love physics and astronomy and think I'd enjoy the work on the other hand I'd like to become more financially stable and have more options If I find high level physics isn't going to be my life. It seems an Applied Math degree has a broader acceptance in the world of industry as to what they will hire you for than a physics one.

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noojens
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Re: Physics and Astronomy Graduate Programs from Applied Math

Postby noojens » Tue Mar 16, 2010 9:27 pm

A few thoughts:

Having drifted in and out of school a few times, I can tell you that it's not easy to get back into a discipline like physics after taking time off, even if you spend your gap years in a quantitative field. Math is like a language - use it or lose it.

Additionally, it can be tough to accept a big step down in earning power and standard of living. Right now you have no doubt that you'll want to do a PhD eventually, but when you've been earning six figures for a while, the prospect of spending five years working 60+ hour weeks for <$30k/yr may not be as attractive.

Regarding self-study:

I think it's possible to learn a ton on your own, and if you take physics far enough you'll eventually get to the point where your learning will all be self-driven. But in the mean time, there's really no substitute for the academic environment. With a mentor and peers to bounce questions off of, you'll learn much more, much faster, than you'd pick up on your own.

That's not to say that the conventional academic track is the only way to prepare yourself for physics grad school. Quite the contrary - you seem bright and motivated, so I see no reason why you couldn't pick up the requisite physics on your own. But consider that admissions committees will need some way to assess your preparation. If you have no research experience, no physics grades, and no physicist recommenders, how will you demonstrate your skills? As grae said, the PGRE is really not a strong indicator of your conceptual grasp of physics -- it's more an indicator of how willing you are to spend a lot of time and energy studying for a big exam.

So those are the problems I see with your plan. I do think that programming skills are highly sought-after in most disciplines (both theory and experiment), so working in software will give you a leg up in that respect. If you go that route, you might look at national labs as a place to do scientific programming... and they're among the few employers who are actually hiring these days.

Speaking of which, have you actually received a job offer? Kudos if you have, but I know quite a few Ivy-league engineers who've been job hunting for months with no success. It's a good time to be in school. :)

Good luck whatever you decide.




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