what do grad schools think about double majors?

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monocles
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what do grad schools think about double majors?

Postby monocles » Thu May 08, 2008 6:10 pm

I'm a 1st year undergrad right now and I'm torn between double majoring in Physics and Applied Math or doing just Physics with a minor in Math. I want to get into the best graduate school I can of course, I just don't know if I will be able to handle the quantity of classes I will need to take to graduate with a double major, even though I plan on taking 5 years to graduate. My first year of undergrad I didn't take very many classes (and so really enjoyed my year) and I wasn't a Physics major until partway through my second semester, so I took classes that weren't working towards it. I don't want to be crushed under a pile of work and kill my social life. What would grad schools think about spending 6 years as an undergrad? Would taking that long be balanced out by the fact that I'd have about 5 years of research experience and several grad classes? Oh, and if it affects the answer at all, right now what I'm most interested in is plasma physics and fusion (unsure whether I'd rather do theory or experiment).

Also, I have a question to people that have taken the Physics GRE. For the past few months I've been kinda cocky about it, even though its years away for me, and I just realized that maybe I shouldn't be so cocky about it. The reason I was cocky is because I seem to have a knack for getting perfect scores on tests - perfect SATs, perfect midterms and finals, etc. Will this translate into a good chance at getting a perfect score (as in a 990, not necessarily every question correct) on the Physics GRE, or are there those among you that enjoyed similar success on tests your whole life and then didn't get a perfect score on the Physics GRE? I'm sorry if this sounds like bragging, I just don't want to spend 4 years thinking I'm going to get a perfect score on the Physics GRE and then come back with a 700 or something.

Thanks.

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butsurigakusha
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Re: what do grad schools think about double majors?

Postby butsurigakusha » Thu May 08, 2008 8:42 pm

I haven't seen anything to indicate that having a double major helps very much. Obviously, it won't hurt, and may be the difference between you and a comparable candidate. I wouldn't do a double major at the expense of having a social life, and certainly not at the expense of doing good research. But I know people who did math/physics double major and still graduated in 4 years. So, it may not be that hard. As for a math minor, I don't think it means much for a physics major. I got a math minor and I didn't take a single math class outside of what was required for my major.

As for the GRE, don't be cocky yet. Getting a perfect score on the SAT does not mean you will get a perfect score on the PGRE. And wait until you have taken some upper-level physics courses before you start patting yourself on the back for your midterm scores. If you are a first year student, I wouldn't even worry about the GRE yet. The only thing that you should care about right now is that might help with the GRE is to make sure you actually learn the material in your physics classes, not just cram for the tests and then forget it. Most of the material for the PGRE is covered in the first two years of undergraduate classes.

tnoviell
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Re: what do grad schools think about double majors?

Postby tnoviell » Thu May 08, 2008 8:48 pm

I'm not sure about what they think, but if you can manage to double major, I would recommend it. I say this only because things can change between now and the future (i.e., you may decide against graduate school), and sometimes having that additional piece of paper can help you out. I double majored in physics & math, and I surely don't regret it.

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dlenmn
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Re: what do grad schools think about double majors?

Postby dlenmn » Thu May 08, 2008 9:03 pm

I did a physics math double, and it can be difficult to find the time to take a lot in both (I'll have taken 2 non physics or math course in the last two years -- and one was in engs. I don't mind it though.). That said, planning to take 6 years strikes me as crazy. I think that admissions committees realize that double majors won't have quite the same depth within each major, but that the double makes up for it (I had to cram at the end because I killed by distribs early and because I spent a while planning to be an econ major... neither of my majors were all the deep). It's shouldn't be necessary to take every class that a department offers.

As for the PGRE...

Well, at least you're thinking about the test in advance... I've gotten my fair share of top scores on standardized tests, but I ended up with "a 700 or something" (for the record, a score in the 700s is not the end of the world). There's probably a bunch of reasons for that. For one thing, it had been a while since I'd taken a standardized test, but I also think that the PGRE was more difficult than other standardized test I'd taken. I've posted my opinions on preparing for the test elsewhere. In hind sight, my theory (and of course, this is just a theory -- if I scored better then I could share what worked for me) is that I spent too much time reviewing material, and not enough time practicing test taking. Tricks like order of magnitude estimation, dimensional analysis, etc. are definitely useful. If methods like those are already second nature, you're probably in a good spot. Otherwise, it's something worth learning (along with reviewing the material).

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monocles
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Re: what do grad schools think about double majors?

Postby monocles » Thu May 08, 2008 9:22 pm

Thanks for the advice. For whatever reason I was in a brief panic mode when I made that post (thus the thought of taking 6 years), and was thinking of ways to get around having to take more than 4 classes per semester (which is what the slacker in me wants). I think I'll test the water and take an extra class on top of what I was planning this Fall to see if I can handle the courseload and then figure out from there if I'll be able to handle a double major. I hope I didn't give the wrong impression that I would only be double majoring for grad school prospects - I am genuinely very passionate about both subjects (physics definitely wins overall though).

I especially like this line:
I double majored in physics & math, and I surely don't regret it.

I don't like having regrets, and I'd hate to go through college and then think, "Oh fiddlesticks I should have double majored, now I'm never going to learn all those cool MAFFS that I thought were so cool." Equally powerful a regret though is, "Oh fiddlesticks I shouldn't have taken so many classes and killed my social life." I think I'm going to have to slack less if I want to accomplish both!

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Re: what do grad schools think about double majors?

Postby excel » Thu May 08, 2008 9:35 pm

butsurigakusha wrote:...certainly not at the expense of doing good research.


I think this is the key. Several profs at my university discourage their advisees from doing a double major and ask them to focus on their research instead. And, I personally agree that doing research should have a higher priority than taking extra courses.

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Re: what do grad schools think about double majors?

Postby Helio » Thu May 08, 2008 9:39 pm

i am doing physics and mathematical economics at the moment as a double. i entered as a math and then was a math/phys double, but i dropped that since the math department and its faculty more then turned me off. i had a really bad experience in both my calc III and ODE class that I was just turned off by it. I took the PDE class and was pleasantly surprised, but that as then destroyed by taken probability theory (what a waste of my time) and hearing about how awful other math classes were, i.e. topology, abstract algebra and real analysis. basically i would make it depended on how the faculty is. if they want to teach or not. there are math professors out there that will make your life a living hell because they do things like they want to. take a couple classes, esp. Calc III and PDE, and see what you think. you can always first fulfill your general requirements and from there.

My current combo is just weird I know, but i live by stupid rules and a even stupider departments.

and a word of wisdom.... I had to get 50% in the finals of two of my intro physics classes to still get an A and am still spending my evenings pondering my homework in upper-division. and btw SAT is a bullshit test made my a bunch of loonies sitting in an office... all hail to ETS for screwing us over

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Re: what do grad schools think about double majors?

Postby tnoviell » Thu May 08, 2008 9:43 pm

I don't know... I double majored in physics & math, did research for my entire undergrad (during the semesters and summers), and had a pretty good social life. You just need to sacrifice a little sleep.

And monocles, I said that line for a specific reason, mainly that I was going to graduate school and left. I had a lot more job opportunities with my math degree than my physics degree. Just trying to offer my experience to you whilst you're a young man.

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Re: what do grad schools think about double majors?

Postby christopher3.14 » Thu May 08, 2008 10:08 pm

I double majored in math and physics and had enough time left over to add a minor in classical greek literature (took 5 years). And I never had a bad social life, either. Only once did I have to take 5 classes in one quarter (3 upper div math/phys, 1 upper div classics, 1 lower-div GE) -- and only because certain classes are offered at certain times, so it was a perfect storm that I couldn't avoid.

That said, I would agree with butsurigakusha that I don't think it adds very much, unless you decide to do theory, which is very math-heavy. So it might be a personal choice. I enjoyed the math major -- it was fun -- but I don't think all those epsilon-delta and algebraic proofs really helped me in physics.

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monocles
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Re: what do grad schools think about double majors?

Postby monocles » Thu May 08, 2008 10:14 pm

tnoviell wrote:I don't know... I double majored in physics & math, did research for my entire undergrad (during the semesters and summers), and had a pretty good social life. You just need to sacrifice a little sleep.

And monocles, I said that line for a specific reason, mainly that I was going to graduate school and left. I had a lot more job opportunities with my math degree than my physics degree. Just trying to offer my experience to you whilst you're a young man.

Thats good to know. I know I'm fairly certain that I want to go to grad school now, but for all I know I could be tired of school by the time I graduate and think, "There is no way I'm spending 6 more years in school."

Thanks again for the advice so far.

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Helio
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Re: what do grad schools think about double majors?

Postby Helio » Thu May 08, 2008 10:16 pm

you could technically also use the free time to take some grad courses, but that is up to you

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Re: what do grad schools think about double majors?

Postby megatron » Thu May 08, 2008 11:14 pm

monocles wrote: I don't want to be crushed under a pile of work and kill my social life.


Then quit physics now. Do something easy, like business. I'm serious.

Edit: I want to qualify this by saying that I'm talking long-term, assuming you would pursue grad school and a career in physics. Undergrad leaves enough time for a social life.

monocles wrote:Also, I have a question to people that have taken the Physics GRE. For the past few months I've been kinda cocky about it, even though its years away for me, and I just realized that maybe I shouldn't be so cocky about it. The reason I was cocky is because I seem to have a knack for getting perfect scores on tests - perfect SATs, perfect midterms and finals, etc. Will this translate into a good chance at getting a perfect score (as in a 990, not necessarily every question correct) on the Physics GRE, or are there those among you that enjoyed similar success on tests your whole life and then didn't get a perfect score on the Physics GRE?


The GRE is a completely different beast from the SAT. You're also a freshman. Don't expect that you will get perfect exam scores all through college. Your high school days of sailing through every class (like every single other physics major did) are going to come to a close eventually. For some that's in their sophomore year when they take mathematical methods. For others it's later. But it will happen, so get used to the idea.

Some think the GRE is easy. Others think it is hard. What all agree on is that you need to study for the GRE, regardless of how confident you feel. If the questions are easy, as most are, you may still have to work on your answering methods. You get less than 2 minutes per question if you try to answer them all.

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monocles
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Re: what do grad schools think about double majors?

Postby monocles » Fri May 09, 2008 1:38 am

megatron wrote:
monocles wrote: I don't want to be crushed under a pile of work and kill my social life.


Then quit physics now. Do something easy, like business. I'm serious.

Edit: I want to qualify this by saying that I'm talking long-term, assuming you would pursue grad school and a career in physics. Undergrad leaves enough time for a social life.



Perhaps I should quantify this - do physicists work 100 hours per week? In high school I worked what essentially amounted to 100 hour weeks*, between school, homework, my job, swimming, and extracurriculars, and it exhausted me. I had time for nothing else. Thats what I would consider "crushed under a pile of work." 80 hours or so a week isn't that bad to me, in comparison. I am fully aware that grad school is a ton of work, and I'm prepared for that reality, but I do want to enjoy being an undergrad.

*I know this might sound unrealistic, but trust me.

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monocles
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Re: what do grad schools think about double majors?

Postby monocles » Fri May 09, 2008 1:52 am

How much time does a typical campus research job take (while taking classes)? Or is that something that would probably be proportional to how much "free" time one has?

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Helio
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Re: what do grad schools think about double majors?

Postby Helio » Fri May 09, 2008 1:56 am

Depends on the research... theory is at your own pace.... experiment depends on the lab... computational... depends on the server cluster

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Re: what do grad schools think about double majors?

Postby marten » Fri May 09, 2008 9:42 am

megatron wrote:Your high school days of sailing through every class (like every single other physics major did) are going to come to a close eventually. For some that's in their sophomore year when they take mathematical methods.


Heh, that is exactly when it happened to me. I sailed through high school and the first year of physics classes. They were a breeze and I never learned how to study. Then suddenly I was hit with Sadri Hassani Mathematical Physics and it was a sudden awakening.

Marten

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monocles
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Re: what do grad schools think about double majors?

Postby monocles » Fri May 09, 2008 10:15 am

Thanks for letting me know - if that happens to me I won't feel so defeated then :)

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Re: what do grad schools think about double majors?

Postby admissionprof » Fri May 09, 2008 11:46 am

As someone who has looked at thousands of physics graduate school applications:

A double major means nothing (as long as one major is in physics). We care much more about courses taken. If a student didn't quite finish a math part of a double major because they didn't take advanced abstract algebra, who cares? A few extra math courses beyond the usual (lin alg, ODE, multivariable) are extremely helpful, certainly, but the formal double major means nothing.

Also, a physics-English double major, while interesting, doesn't mean much. Perhaps a physics-compsci or physics-chemistry double might have some advantages, but we really just look at the transcript and courses

Actually, even a bachelor's in physics wouldn't matter to us, as long as the basic courses were there, except that the graduate school requires it.

And I agree with others that you shouldn't get cocky about future courses. The transition from lower division to upper division courses is quite intense, and I've know many students with A's in high school and the first year of college who hit the upper division courses and go rapidly downhill.

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Re: what do grad schools think about double majors?

Postby twistor » Fri May 09, 2008 12:30 pm

I don't want to be crushed under a pile of work and kill my social life.


Then you should seriously consider not becoming a science major, let alone having a double major.

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monocles
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Re: what do grad schools think about double majors?

Postby monocles » Fri May 09, 2008 1:23 pm

Thanks very much for the advice thus far - I will consider your words carefully.

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Re: what do grad schools think about double majors?

Postby tnoviell » Fri May 09, 2008 2:48 pm

You don't even have to make a decision to double major yet - I don't think I added my second major on until my junior year. But I would recommend you do research first just to figure out whether or not you think you'd want to do that. That way you'll know whether or not you want to go to grad school. I know someone who just recently graduated with a 4.0 and good research experience, and decided he couldn't tolerate doing research anymore and went into industry. I came to a similar conclusion myself while in graduate school. I suppose the point is, try it out and see if you like it. That's what college is all about.

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monocles
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Re: what do grad schools think about double majors?

Postby monocles » Fri May 09, 2008 3:03 pm

Alright, I'll look to see if I can start doing research this fall.

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Re: what do grad schools think about double majors?

Postby quizivex » Fri May 09, 2008 11:27 pm

The appropriateness of getting a second major in math is a very important and relevant topic for debate. I'd have to vote in favor of getting the second major. I'll post a detailed explanation later on, but now after seeing a disappointing hockey game I realize I have two finals on Tuesday and I haven't kept up with either course since late Feb... I gotta catch up really fast... at first I didn't care what happened this semester, but I don't want to end on such a bad note, lol.

Until Tuesday,
quizivex

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Re: what do grad schools think about double majors?

Postby grae313 » Sat May 10, 2008 1:19 am

I got a double major in chemistry and although I cannot know for sure, I suspect it was a factor in the success I had (accepted to 8/9). My area of interest is nanophysics/condensed matter and I've already begun to see how my chemistry knowledge gives me a bit of a leg up. So if you are getting extra knowledge related to your future field of study, of course it is good. However, I agree with admissionprof that it is the knowledge gained through challenging coursework, not the piece of paper, that matters.

On the six years matter, I don't think grad schools will care as long as those years were spent productively. By productively I mean take full loads of challenging courses and get good research experience. I took as many 18-unit semesters as I could early on while the classes were still easy, I worked in a research lab, I tutored, and I graded. I also had a social life, but then again, I did not have to work hard to best my peers at my unknown undergraduate institution. But here is the bottom line: if you are aiming for a top five or top ten institution, you should know that you are competing with people who are as bright or brighter than yourself, but who are also willing to commit all of their time and energy to academics and research and work very, very hard. You must distinguish yourself amongst your peers (to quote Harvard's website).

As for the GRE, I agree with others that the only thing you can really do now is focus on learning your lower division physics cold. Once you have some upper division classes, just take one of the old exams available online and see how you do. Simple and effective. Keep in mind that the physics GRE is different in form from a physics midterm, and you will apply different skills. For many, these skills still need to be practiced under the pressure of time, regardless of how well you know your physics. It sounds like you will be fine.

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monocles
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Re: what do grad schools think about double majors?

Postby monocles » Sat May 10, 2008 12:01 pm

Well, I sent off an email yesterday asking if I could do research with one of my professors starting this Fall and he said certainly, so yay I got a research position :) Thanks again for the advice so far. I'll give myself the summer to decide whether or not to double major, instead of trying to figure everything out right now.

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Re: what do grad schools think about double majors?

Postby Helio » Sat May 10, 2008 12:43 pm

Why not start this summer or at least half the summer? That is what I did... have been with the group since... it depends if you want the "diverse" background or the "focused" background. I took focused because most of the other research at my Uni did not appeal to me, HEP and Plasma theory is not what i call undergrad friendly

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monocles
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Re: what do grad schools think about double majors?

Postby monocles » Sat May 10, 2008 2:12 pm

I'm studying abroad this summer, otherwise I would :)

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Helio
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Re: what do grad schools think about double majors?

Postby Helio » Sat May 10, 2008 2:39 pm

and where are you heading?

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monocles
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Re: what do grad schools think about double majors?

Postby monocles » Sat May 10, 2008 3:32 pm

Shanghai Jiao Tong University. I'll be leaving next week! I'm looking forward greatly to it.

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Re: what do grad schools think about double majors?

Postby quizivex » Wed May 14, 2008 2:30 am

I think getting the math major is a definite plus. It looks good on your record and will provide backup opportuninties if physics doesn't work out. I think most admissions people would look favorably upon the math major, as long as it didn't compromise your physics studies (aka as long as your grades in both majors are strong). Someone with an extra strong mathematical background may have more potential to succeed than someone else. Especially if you come from a small program like mine, which has only like 14 upper level physics courses, if you want to build a strong record of coursework, you'll need to branch out in math since your opportunities in physics are capped.

Some would say getting a whole major is impractical and not helpful. I agree it can be a hassle to fit in all the classes with physics... my math major was practically thwarted by scheduling conflicts several times. But even if you're not getting the major, it's still extremely useful to take as many math classes as you can... as admisionprof said, profs look more at the classes you took than whether or not you got the major. Seeing stuff like PDE, Complex Vars, Modern Algebra will look much better than if Calc 3 is the highlight of your math background.

Most physics programs only require upto Calc 3, ODEs' and linear algebra. However, it seems the intermediate physics classes like to throw in fourier transforms, variational calculus, PDE's and complex functions out of nowhere without explanation. The point is, these extra math classes may be critical to your progress unless your physics department has a spectacular "mathematical physics" class. Even the math major classes that don't directly apply to physics can be fun and helpful. My real analysis classed helped me understand calculus much better. Number theory is just neat. After being turned off so many times by some of my physics instructors and textbooks, the serious math classes were a great relief to keep me going in science.

Finally, taking extra courses isn't always harder, since the more classes you take, the more concepts tend to overlap, and that'll help you absorb material better and improve your GPA, all while developing a stronger transcript. Incidentally, I advise against staying in undergrad for 6 years. Five years can be acceptable depending on the reason, but 6 is starting to get ridiculous. And as for the GRE, it's certainly possible to cream that test just like any other standardized test, but it's a very different test compared to things like the SAT. I got a mediocre SAT score because I never read much and didn't know silly vocab words like curmudgeon, but I did very well on the physics GRE cuz I knew the basics of physics very well.

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Helio
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Re: what do grad schools think about double majors?

Postby Helio » Wed May 14, 2008 3:23 am

quizivex wrote:I think getting the math major is a definite plus. It looks good on your record and will provide backup opportuninties if physics doesn't work out. I think most admissions people would look favorably upon the math major, as long as it didn't compromise your physics studies (aka as long as your grades in both majors are strong). Someone with an extra strong mathematical background may have more potential to succeed than someone else. Especially if you come from a small program like mine, which has only like 14 upper level physics courses, if you want to build a strong record of coursework, you'll need to branch out in math since your opportunities in physics are capped.

Some would say getting a whole major is impractical and not helpful. I agree it can be a hassle to fit in all the classes with physics... my math major was practically thwarted by scheduling conflicts several times. But even if you're not getting the major, it's still extremely useful to take as many math classes as you can... as admisionprof said, profs look more at the classes you took than whether or not you got the major. Seeing stuff like PDE, Complex Vars, Modern Algebra will look much better than if Calc 3 is the highlight of your math background.

Most physics programs only require upto Calc 3, ODEs' and linear algebra. However, it seems the intermediate physics classes like to throw in fourier transforms, variational calculus, PDE's and complex functions out of nowhere without explanation. The point is, these extra math classes may be critical to your progress unless your physics department has a spectacular "mathematical physics" class. Even the math major classes that don't directly apply to physics can be fun and helpful. My real analysis classed helped me understand calculus much better. Number theory is just neat. After being turned off so many times by some of my physics instructors and textbooks, the serious math classes were a great relief to keep me going in science.

Finally, taking extra courses isn't always harder, since the more classes you take, the more concepts tend to overlap, and that'll help you absorb material better and improve your GPA, all while developing a stronger transcript. Incidentally, I advise against staying in undergrad for 6 years. Five years can be acceptable depending on the reason, but 6 is starting to get ridiculous. And as for the GRE, it's certainly possible to cream that test just like any other standardized test, but it's a very different test compared to things like the SAT. I got a mediocre SAT score because I never read much and didn't know silly vocab words like curmudgeon, but I did very well on the physics GRE cuz I knew the basics of physics very well.



14 upper divisions.... I barely get 9.... 13 if i count the astro classes... then again there are a whole 4 people in my year.... makes getting grades so much fun... one A, one A-, one B+, two Bs... the joys of a small department

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Re: what do grad schools think about double majors?

Postby marten » Wed May 14, 2008 9:04 am

quizivex wrote:Five years can be acceptable depending on the reason, but 6 is starting to get ridiculous.


Heh, I had 7.5 years.

But I got 2 bachelor's out of it, so that averages to less then 4 per degree...

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Re: what do grad schools think about double majors?

Postby doom » Mon May 19, 2008 4:53 pm

@ admissionprof:

I would think that a math major in addition to the physics major would be more important for students wanting to go into theory, especially HEP theory. You specifically mentioned abstract algebra as not having application to physics, but I think that the group theory I learned will help me in learning particle theory, if the subjects alluded to in the books that I've read are any indication.

Anyway, I'm glad I got the math major for its own sake, but it's kinda disheartening to think it was for naught as far as admission committees are concerned.

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Re: what do grad schools think about double majors?

Postby fermiguy » Mon May 19, 2008 5:25 pm

doom wrote:@ admissionprof:
You specifically mentioned abstract algebra as not having application to physics, but I think that the group theory I learned will help me in learning particle theory, if the subjects alluded to in the books that I've read are any indication.


I was quite annoyed with the amount of crazy math I had to learn to get my major but I was pleasantly surprised to see how useful it became when I took elementary particle physics, classical field theory, and started to touch on quantum field theory.

Regardless of how useless some of the math may appear to be, and how little it may affect graduate decisions I am still happy to know it does come back into play in physics!

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Re: what do grad schools think about double majors?

Postby excel » Mon May 19, 2008 5:48 pm

I strongly believe that upper-level math courses are useful for not just physics but most science and engineering majors. However, one should be selective in taking courses and take only those courses that relate to one's research goals. For example, abstract algebra is not relevant to my goals, so I did not take it whereas a math major would have been required to do so; on the other hand, mathematical modeling is relevant to my goals, and I have loads of upper-level and graduate-level courses on this--my transcript is much stronger in mathematical modeling than that of most math majors.

Of course, one can go ahead and indulge one's wish to do a whole math (double) major; but, one should not expect graduate committees to give any importance to parts of the math major that are not particularly relevant to one's stated graduate school goals.

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Re: what do grad schools think about double majors?

Postby admissionprof » Tue May 20, 2008 9:47 am

fermiguy wrote:
doom wrote:@ admissionprof:
You specifically mentioned abstract algebra as not having application to physics, but I think that the group theory I learned will help me in learning particle theory, if the subjects alluded to in the books that I've read are any indication.


I was quite annoyed with the amount of crazy math I had to learn to get my major but I was pleasantly surprised to see how useful it became when I took elementary particle physics, classical field theory, and started to touch on quantum field theory.

Regardless of how useless some of the math may appear to be, and how little it may affect graduate decisions I am still happy to know it does come back into play in physics!


I guess I wasn't fully clear. I meant that advanced abstract algebra (not intermediate level) is not as useful. Certainly, group theory and topology are very important in quantum field theory, string theory and condensed matter theory, numerical methods are important in practically every area of physics, etc. But actually getting a major isn't that important--taking the courses is. For many, of course, having the structure of a major helps take the right courses, and that's fine....




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