Minimal math, experimental physics

  • This has become our largest and most active forum because the physics GRE is just one aspect of getting accepted into a graduate physics program.
  • There are applications, personal statements, letters of recommendation, visiting schools, anxiety of waiting for acceptances, deciding between schools, finding out where others are going, etc.

Tosh
Posts: 22
Joined: Tue Jul 15, 2008 6:49 am

Minimal math, experimental physics

Postby Tosh » Mon Feb 16, 2009 1:39 am

So, as a prospective physics major, would taking the minimal math that is required of a physics major be bad if one intend to head to grad school?

Also, for experimental physics, are there lots of math? What skills does one need to become a successful experimental physicist?

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

Re: Minimal math, experimental physics

Postby cato88 » Mon Feb 16, 2009 2:05 am

I think that is approximately an excellent plan if you add two courses above the minimum if the minimum is calculus for your major requirements. I would also suggest you use the extra time for research, doing well on your other classes maximize GPA and eventually studying for the PGRE.

User avatar
coreycwgriffin
Posts: 249
Joined: Fri Nov 07, 2008 1:28 am

Re: Minimal math, experimental physics

Postby coreycwgriffin » Mon Feb 16, 2009 2:33 am

cato88 wrote:I think that is approximately an excellent plan if you add two courses above the minimum if the minimum is calculus for your major requirements. I would also suggest you use the extra time for research, doing well on your other classes maximize GPA and eventually studying for the PGRE.


I disagree completely. You're not going to want to take the bare minimum. I suggest taking the full calculus sequence, and at least a course in linear algebra and differential equations. Even intro statistics wouldn't be a bad addition. Any math you can take will only help, not hurt.

And being an experimentalist makes no difference. You still have to take the core graduate courses (or pass the associated placement exams), which I hear are math intensive.

sirius
Posts: 24
Joined: Mon Nov 10, 2008 2:01 am

Re: Minimal math, experimental physics

Postby sirius » Mon Feb 16, 2009 2:48 am

My physics dept requires the full calc sequence (calc 1, calc 2, multivariable calc), and diff eq. I think the minimum is pretty weak. I took linear algebra and complex analysis on top of that. I think that is not too much to ask as far as doing a bit more. linear algebra proved extremely useful in quantum and gave me a leg up on others. i cant say much on complex, since i am taking it now. If you can do more, do so. Stat classes are not too bad, and are pretty helpful especially if you want to do experiment, but not extremely important. I think partial diff eq (or applied math) is an important course which I missed out on.

I would say the minimum is weak. You should take linear algebra at least. Partial diff eq is another important class. After that, take complex or even a geometry course. As far as getting into grad school, if you have good work, and have taken linear, you shouldnt have a ton of trouble. taking the minimum doesnt impress anyone, which is what you need to do.

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

Re: Minimal math, experimental physics

Postby cato88 » Mon Feb 16, 2009 2:52 am

coreycwgriffin wrote:I disagree completely. You're not going to want to take the bare minimum. I suggest taking the full calculus sequence, and at least a course in linear algebra and differential equations..

Thats the same advice I gave, Calc and two classes above that. I only suggested that he not take more math classes to maximize his UGPA and research experience. You have to admit that a better GPA/research experience most likely looks better for an experimentalist than taking real analysis/algebra. As an experimentalist research experience is just more relevant. There is also the fact by spending more time doing physics research your fostering relationships with physics professors that will help when you apply to graduate school. You have to agree relationships with physics professors are more important than those you could gain with math professors. A physics professor recommendation is more relevant than a math professor recommendation. There just isnt a greater relative payoff to taking more math courses other than a few above Calc unless he is possibly entertaining mathematics graduate school. Even for theoretical physics applicants I would only suggest taking a few more math courses because research experience is a positive for them too as well as the relationships they will form with physics professors. Those are the reasons for my previously terse opinion.

The classes I would suggest are linear algebra and another course in math.

fastones3
Posts: 40
Joined: Wed Jan 14, 2009 1:02 am

Re: Minimal math, experimental physics

Postby fastones3 » Mon Feb 16, 2009 3:04 am

Any extra math you take is a big bonus. It may be hard to find the time to take extra math courses, but if you study advanced physics, you'll be grateful you took the extra time to learn group theory, complex analysis, or advanced algebra.

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

Re: Minimal math, experimental physics

Postby cato88 » Mon Feb 16, 2009 3:07 am

I think you should make a distinction between it will help you in graduate school and it will help you get into graduate school. The correlation between the two is far from perfect.

Tosh
Posts: 22
Joined: Tue Jul 15, 2008 6:49 am

Re: Minimal math, experimental physics

Postby Tosh » Mon Feb 16, 2009 10:42 am

the minimal math here is calculus sequence, linear algebra and multivariable calculus.. I guess I'll at least take the first part of real analysis, first part of modern algebra (or abstract algebra) and diffiQ and one stats course.. this should be fine right?

User avatar
twistor
Posts: 1531
Joined: Thu Apr 13, 2006 2:47 pm

Re: Minimal math, experimental physics

Postby twistor » Mon Feb 16, 2009 11:02 am

At most institutions the minimal math requirements are the full calculus sequence, differential equations, linear algebra, and a course or two on mathematical methods. Depending on the sub-field of physics that you're interested in, additional math would be beneficial.

If you are considering experimental physics then an abstract math course will not be particularly helpful. However, you may want to consider a course on statistics and a course on probability & random variables. These are useful in every area of science, so taking them definitely is not a waste of time.

Courses like real analysis, modern algebra, etc. will not be particularly useful in your physics career unless you plan on studying theory. This is because the focus is mostly on reading and understanding proofs. Though in a course like modern algebra you will meet concepts like groups and rings, you will not think about them like a physicist would. Taking them would serve as a good introduction to the math, but without guidance from a physicist as to where it actually comes up in physics it won't be all that helpful.

I think the advanced math courses appeal to a lot of people because of the resemblance to advanced physics, but don't let that fool you. A course on modern algebra will teach you about groups, with some examples of famous groups, but probably won't teach you to apply that knowledge to real world problems. The mathematicians have a different set of goals than we do.

User avatar
coreycwgriffin
Posts: 249
Joined: Fri Nov 07, 2008 1:28 am

Re: Minimal math, experimental physics

Postby coreycwgriffin » Mon Feb 16, 2009 11:11 am

cato88 wrote:
coreycwgriffin wrote:I disagree completely. You're not going to want to take the bare minimum. I suggest taking the full calculus sequence, and at least a course in linear algebra and differential equations..

Thats the same advice I gave, Calc and two classes above that.


Sorry for the misunderstanding, then. I was thrown off by your suggestion of it being an "excellent plan" to take as little math as possible.

I personally took for math the whole calculus sequence, two semesters of linear algebra (the second more an advanced "applications seminar"), intro statistics, "Bridge to Higher Math" (learn how to do proofs using set theory class), complex analysis, number theory, group theory, Fourier series, differential equations, and our math methods of physics course. And while it may not all have helped my physics career greatly, I still feel like I benefited from it.

I might add that I've gone to a college with a much stronger math department than physics department. I was able to take all these as well as all of the courses we offer in physics (we lack classes in optics and stat mech, unfortunately). I was also able to take a ton of random classes as well, which have been fun.

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

Re: Minimal math, experimental physics

Postby cato88 » Mon Feb 16, 2009 4:29 pm

twistor wrote:I think the advanced math courses appeal to a lot of people because of the resemblance to advanced physics, but don't let that fool you.

I think too may physics major fall into that category who think if they take modern algebra and intro to topology they are set for writing their string theory paper.

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

Re: Minimal math, experimental physics

Postby cato88 » Mon Feb 16, 2009 4:38 pm

coreycwgriffin wrote:Sorry for the misunderstanding, then. I was thrown off by your suggestion of it being an "excellent plan" to take as little math as possible.

I still think it is an excellent plan to take as little math as possible to get into graduate school. However I think as little math as possible is a few courses above calc. It makes sense because we are people without infinite time therefore instead of spending time in math courses fostering relationships with math professors you should be spending that time doing research fostering relationships physics professors. This will pay off when asking for recommendations you will have stronger relationships with physics professors which means stronger letters of recommendations. I fully understand that you have taken loads of math classes (I have too) but by taking more math classes you arent catering to the physics graduate admission process which makes the committee decision easier. I fully realize that when I take abstract algebra I am doing it with the risk of it being a detriment to my application because I could have spent that time in the lab or with physics professors.

PoincareSection
Posts: 110
Joined: Mon Oct 13, 2008 2:00 pm

Re: Minimal math, experimental physics

Postby PoincareSection » Mon Feb 16, 2009 4:53 pm

I'm studying for abstract algebra right now and I hate it.

IMO the most useful math classes to take beyond calculus and DE are linear, complex and real analysis.

User avatar
coreycwgriffin
Posts: 249
Joined: Fri Nov 07, 2008 1:28 am

Re: Minimal math, experimental physics

Postby coreycwgriffin » Mon Feb 16, 2009 4:57 pm

cato88 wrote:
coreycwgriffin wrote:Sorry for the misunderstanding, then. I was thrown off by your suggestion of it being an "excellent plan" to take as little math as possible.

I still think it is an excellent plan to take as little math as possible to get into graduate school. However I think as little math as possible is a few courses above calc. It makes sense because we are people without infinite time therefore instead of spending time in math courses fostering relationships with math professors you should be spending that time doing research fostering relationships physics professors. This will pay off when asking for recommendations you will have stronger relationships with physics professors which means stronger letters of recommendations. I fully understand that you have taken loads of math classes (I have too) but by taking more math classes you arent catering to the physics graduate admission process which makes the committee decision easier. I fully realize that when I take abstract algebra I am doing it with the risk of it being a detriment to my application because I could have spent that time in the lab or with physics professors.


I find it pretty unbelievable, in any case, that taking more math classes can ever hurt someone. Especially if they come from a college like mine where, like I said, one can easily finish the major taking only one physics course per semester (and that's why just about all physics majors here are math/physics double majors). My physics department has only 6 faculty members, all of whom I've either taken a class with or have TA'd for , and I've even had dinner at 3 of their houses, so not taking math classes just to suck up to professors who already know me incredibly well isn't really beneficial. I still find time to help out with research, as well, though the opportunities are limited.

Finally, just on a personal note, I've only ever taken classes I've found interesting and useful. I'm not catering to anyone, and I don't plan on starting any time soon. If grad schools like me and want me to study there, great. If not, that's their own problem. I know I've taken appropriate courses that will help me in graduate school, but I've also been able to enjoy my time here learning new things outside of the box as well.

Your advice may be good for someone at your school and with your mind set, but don't assume that it's set in stone for everyone.

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

Re: Minimal math, experimental physics

Postby cato88 » Mon Feb 16, 2009 5:17 pm

coreycwgriffin wrote:My physics department has only 6 faculty members, all of whom I've either taken a class with or have TA'd for , and I've even had dinner at 3 of their houses, so not taking math classes just to suck up to professors who already know me incredibly well isn't really beneficial.

Im not suggesting you suck up to someone. Im just suggesting you devote time to physics courses and physics research. This will cause you to spend a whole lot more time with your physics professors. If your a good person spending time with people is good enough, no need to suck up.

coreycwgriffin wrote:I find it pretty unbelievable, in any case, that taking more math classes can ever hurt someone.

Not hurting your application relative to baseline but it is relative to the applicant you would have been have you done more physics research/courses instead of math courses. Not quite as much in your extreme case of 6 physics professors and only a few classes offered.

coreycwgriffin wrote:Finally, just on a personal note, I've only ever taken classes I've found interesting and useful. I'm not catering to anyone, and I don't plan on starting any time soon. If grad schools like me and want me to study there, great. If not, that's their own problem. I know I've taken appropriate courses that will help me in graduate school, but I've also been able to enjoy my time here learning new things outside of the box as well.

Thats perfectly fine for you to do but that attitude doesnt correspond to your being accepted into the best graduate program possible. In the end you have to make that decision (Am I going to cater and get into the best school possible or am I going to to do it my way and hope for the best ) but I think people should be making that decision knowing all the risks associated with it.

Catering is effective. Asian students are known for catering in academic admissions and they are overrepresented relative to their proportion of the population at the top schools in the US.

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

Re: Minimal math, experimental physics

Postby tmc » Mon Feb 16, 2009 5:25 pm

You also have to realize that the people you're catering to just might know what a student needs to know in order to succeed in your field better than you do.

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

Re: Minimal math, experimental physics

Postby mhazelm » Mon Feb 16, 2009 5:32 pm

At the very least, I recommend a linear algebra class (a good proof intensive class, where you'll really remember and learn theorems) because it will help immensely in many classes, and a beginning probability or stats course. This is useful in statistical mechanics, quantum, and also for learning the theory underlying data analysis techniques.

The idea is that you want to supplement your knowledge with math not because you "have to learn useless stuff that an experimentalist won't need" but rather, to help you succeed in your advanced classes (which will definitely be mathematical) and develop a deeper understanding of the physics, which any of us needs.

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

Re: Minimal math, experimental physics

Postby cato88 » Mon Feb 16, 2009 5:53 pm

tmc wrote:You also have to realize that the people you're catering to just might know what a student needs to know in order to succeed in your field better than you do.

Did you read the posts or just last sentence.
Research experience in your field gives you an idea of what you need to succeed in your field more so than an abstract algebra class. What a weird foreign concept working in a field gives you exposure to it. That seems so redundant and obvious that it feels weird writing it but your comment made me type it. Research experience also gives a committee an idea of how well you understand what a decent chunk of your graduate school years will be like when preparing presentations/papers/doing analysis/thesis.

senor_frijole
Posts: 10
Joined: Wed Dec 17, 2008 2:44 am

Re: Minimal math, experimental physics

Postby senor_frijole » Mon Feb 23, 2009 5:50 pm

I would definitely suggest taking a numerical methods course (though that may not necessarily be in the math department).

Also, CS / CS math courses are probably good things to have...

User avatar
coreycwgriffin
Posts: 249
Joined: Fri Nov 07, 2008 1:28 am

Re: Minimal math, experimental physics

Postby coreycwgriffin » Mon Feb 23, 2009 5:51 pm

senor_frijole wrote:Also, CS / CS math courses are probably good things to have...


A must if you plan on doing theory.




Return to “Prospective Physics Graduate Student Topics”

Who is online

Users browsing this forum: No registered users and 4 guests