Grad Physics w/o undergrad 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.

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Grad Physics w/o undergrad physics

Postby spoonluv » Wed Aug 17, 2005 2:18 pm

I will be graduating next year with a M.S. in Applied Mathematics from a top 5 applied math program, after getting undergrad degrees in Math and Computer Science. My work in Applied Mathematics has piqued my interest in physics. I took several undergrad courses in physics but nothing major.

Question is -

Can I just take the physics GRE to get in a graduate physics program?
Or do i have to go back and take the undergrad physics courses, in addition to physics GRE?


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Postby TMFKAN64 » Fri Aug 26, 2005 2:56 am

I'm in roughly the same boat, except computer science rather than applied math. I'm hoping that after extensively preparing for the Physics GRE test, I can do well enough to convince people to ignore my lack of a formal physics background. So I'd like an answer to your question too!

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Postby Mitrovarr » Fri Nov 04, 2005 3:22 am

I'm trying to do the same thing, except I'm trying to go from a Biology major to Astronomy. The university I asked about it expressed some reservations toward my background and told me to take the Physics GRE, so I have to wonder what kind of scores they're going to want. Anyone know what kind of scores are considered decent for an astronomy program?

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Postby Nova » Fri Nov 04, 2005 2:43 pm

I am planning to go to grad school in astronomy, and I've recently spoken to faculty at different schools. One of my particular questions to them was what is a good GRE score and also how much ephasis they put on GRE scores as supposed to grade and letters. There no definite answer for this. But I learned that both UC Berkley and UC Santa Cruz (their astronomy programs are excellent) use GREs (general GRE also, to my surprise) as their first cut in the admission process. Grades and letters come next. In recent years (with a few exception) the students who got accepted had physics GRE scores between 60% and 80%, or even higher. Obviously they want to make sure their applicants have a solid background in physics.

I have also e-mailed other astro programs and asked the same thing. Schools like Univ Maryland, Columbia seem to be more lenient. They look at everything and do not make any cuts based on one particular thing.

I would say if you cannot visit the schools you might be interested in, then you can e-mail the department and talk to a faculty who has been in the admission committee there in recent years. I found this very informative.

Hope this helps!

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Postby Mitrovarr » Fri Nov 04, 2005 6:22 pm

Do you mean 60-80th percentile or 60-80% absolute score? I might be able to sneak into the 60th percentile (my last practice test put me in the 40th, but I'm only half done studying) but a 60/100 score is way out of my league.

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Postby eanzenberg » Sat Nov 05, 2005 8:36 pm

the reason that the GRE is used is because there is some correlation between GRE scores and whether you'll pass their qualifying exams. Unfortunately a lot of bright students don't study for the GRE and get worse grades than they could have.

If you receive a good physics score but majored in something else, it will probably be O.K. in terms of showing them that yes, you can pass their quals. Everything else, like letters and research, is important too.

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Postby Nova » Sat Nov 05, 2005 11:56 pm

percentile score, not actual. that's better, isn't it?

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Postby sciencexgirl » Wed Nov 09, 2005 8:42 pm

A lot of schools may let you in because they like to have variety among their graduate students (the well-rounded, cross-disciplinary thing is really big these days). Many of them may let you in on the condition that you take some of their undergraduate physics courses as a grad student to "cover any gaps" in your knowledge. In fact, I've had several classes as an undergraduate where there were one or more grad students taking the class too. So, as long as you show on the GRE that you've got a good handle on the subject and your GPA is ok, you should go ahead and apply! :)

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Postby scottkc » Thu Dec 08, 2005 10:39 am

i'm new to this forum and this entire process, but i just wanted to share that some schools have specific requirements to be considered. If you have a specific school in mind, you may want to check with them.

I graduated with a computer engineering degree (with a minor in Materials Science) and am now looking into going to grad school for Physics. I'll likely be applying to UC San Diego and they require courses in undergrad mechanics, E&M and upper division thermo, quantum, nuclear physics, and an upper division lab.

now i need to search for some local schools (i'm in kansas city, now) at which i can take quantum and nuclear so that i can even apply.

does anyone have experience with other schools with set course requirements like this?

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Postby satish » Sat Dec 10, 2005 1:13 am

hey nova!!
if u have the list of astrophysics schools,could u pls send me.
i am going crazy :x for it.

Wanna Be Physicist
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Postby Wanna Be Physicist » Fri Dec 30, 2005 4:48 pm

Your applied mathematics background shouldn't be a problem. In fact I think it would be an advantage.

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Postby cells » Sat Apr 08, 2006 5:18 pm

take a look at a standard physics undergrad course, if you are able to do 80% then you should have no problem

basically a physics undergrad degree is about 60% math. 5-10% programing 10-20% labs20% pure physics. most the math is related to physics but is really just math and you should have covered it

so your in a good position to go into grad physics with ur math/computing degree

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some resources I've found helpful; maybe you will too

Postby paradox » Sat Apr 08, 2006 10:13 pm

I'm kind of in a similar situation myself.

Years ago I studied Math and CS. Of course, I spent most of my time studying more CS friendly math. I could 'prove' my away around any physics major. However, my background in applied analysis was a little weak. I'm going back to school and take some undergrad physics courses.

The biggest problem you'll face is doing physics problems. It's not the actual calculations. It's not understanding the physical models. It's just doing the calculations. It's this wierd phenomenon of setting up the calculations using physics knowledge. I've heard it described as 'physical intuition'. Frankly, doing a lot of problems in mechanics has help greatly.

I've found Sears and Zermansky to be kind of lacking for introductory material. It's not bad, just kind of synthesized. I like David Morin's introductory mechanics book instead. His book was designed for a freshman level mechanics course, but it actually introduces the Euler-Lagrange equation and some action physics as well. Very cool. Also, his lecture notes give some great insight into doing physics. I've also found 'Electromagnetic Fields and Waves' by Vladimir Rojansky to be of great help as well. It's a cheap Dover paperback and is designed as a junior-level E&M text (i.e. only requiring a introductory survey knowledge of E&M).

I've also found the video lectures by Walter Lewin (i.e. physics I,II,III at the MIT OCW site) to be very helpful.

Links: [download David Morin's mechanics book; w/ lecture notes and solutions to exercises] [talk a look at his free 'Demystifying Quantum Mechanics' workbook and his related software] [Rojansky's E&M book; the author had quite the reputation as a teacher at Harvey Mudd College]

My advice is go with your strength first. How comfortable do you feel with the Calculus of Variations/Advanced Calculus. Try looking at Morin's book or maybe Kleppner. If you can handle that, try looking at Goldstein. There's a good chance you'll be using that in a advanced ugrad/grad level theoretical mechanics course anyway. If that goes well, take theoretical mechanics. Heck, most physics majors have problems grappling with all the 'applied math' in a mechanics course.

P.S. Incidentally, try talking to some professors in a physics graduate program. Most physics departments respect people with an advanced math background. Also, you'll have to try multiple departments. Some react better than others. Surprisingly, the better departments treated my inquiries more seriously than the 'lesser' departments. Go figure.

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Postby aquabug918 » Sun Apr 09, 2006 12:44 am

Hey everyone, I am in a similiar situation to some of the people here and I could also use some advice. I am currently a sophmore and I am currently majoring in Biochemistry with a minor in Physics. Would it still be possible to go to graduate school in physics with a minor if I do good on the physics gre with a good gpa. Would there be any particular classes that would help me out? For the physics minor I was going to take the following upper level classes...1.Thermal and Statistical Physics 2. Intermediate Mechanics 3. Modern Physics 4. Electromagnetic Theory 5. Introduction to Quantum Mechanics. What would be a good gpa to shoot? Thanks for helping me out!

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the disadvantages of a non-standard background

Postby paradox » Sun Apr 09, 2006 5:27 pm

I hate to ask the obvious, but if you want to go to grad school to study physics, why don't you major in physics? With that said, there certainly are a lot of oportunities for people with your background in chemical and biological physics. Heck, at some departments (especially those biophysics departments that do more work with molecular and computational biology) your background is appreciated. In fact, quite a few PhD students in biophysics have undergrad degrees in chemistry. So, I guess it really depends on what you want to study.

The only other input I could give is that you should study what you want to do in college. For example, I had a friend who wanted to back to school to be an EE. I gave him the following advice. If you want to be an EE but you study math and physics, you can certainly go to grad school and get a MS in EE, but you miss out on a lot of things. You lose out on co-op and undergraduate research. You have to put in a lot of work as an undergraduate to level out your background. You also miss out on being around like minded people in your major, which can be kind of fun. In short, take the non-traditional path is often lonely and painful. So I'm not really trying to discourage you, just tell you from my experience that I wish I had gone a more traditional route myself.

I think you best bet is to talk to your physics professors.

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Postby aquabug918 » Sun Apr 09, 2006 11:37 pm

paradox - Thanks for the advice! I could still major in physics. I have put a lot of thought into it and I need to decide this summer. I am just trying to give myself the most options but I really do understand what you are saying.

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Postby tleilax » Sun Apr 09, 2006 11:44 pm

I agree with paradox...I think majoring in physics would help you out. Late is better than never....I took the first physics class of my life my sophomore year of college, and have had to take a lot pf physics since to catch up, but I think it probably made a difference when I applied to graduate schools that I was a physics major too and not only a chem major.

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