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Hey.

After I've completed my studies (I'm currently in year 12), I hope to work in the field of theoretical physics - most probably in HEP/GR/QFT - in some shape or form. I have been told that a Mathematics degree would be the best preparation for this, however, I am reluctant to do this for several reasons:

(i) Whilst I enjoy mathematics, I am not one who can study it all the time for its own sake. I have been told that physics-based courses in Maths degrees are just the mathematics of the physics, and not the actual physics itself. I could quite happily study plenty of mathematics if I knew that it was being developed within the context of an application, but I don't get thrills doing it for its own sake.

(ii) I am much stronger at applied mathematics (like mechanics) and pure mathematics that is pertinent to physics i.e. calculus, trigonometry and so on, but I struggle (relatively) with the more abstract and formal concepts. I also find them less interesting.

Despite this, I am considering applying for a joint-honours Mathematics and Physics course so that I get the best of both worlds. However, the questions I'd like to ask are pertinent to both this and the whole process of becoming a theoretical physicist in general:

1. How much more useful would a Mathematics degree be, as opposed to a Physics degree, in pursuing a career in theoretical physics? Is it still possible to make a career out of theoretical physics with a Physics degree?

2. For postgraduate courses in theoretical physics, how receptive are universities with regard to admitting Physics students onto the course, as opposed to Mathematics graduates?

3. Having looked at the course structure for a joint-honours course, I notice that Analysis seems to be a recurring topic that is compulsory. I've heard that this is very abstract and can be very confusing initially. I know this is hard to answer but, generally speaking, how manageable is Analysis? Here's a better way of putting it: what is challenging about Analysis?

4. Are there any other areas in mathematics which you think are very abstract but very useful for theoretical physics? I've heard that differential geometry and topology are the two beasts. Could I manage with only a Physics-degree level knowledge of them?

5. Should I even be considering a career in theoretical physics if I'm not warm to certain areas of mathematics? I have a passion for it, I'm just doubting whether I have the ability. (I know someone who came top six in the Physics Olympiad, got a First in E & T Physics at Cambridge, but then got rejected from reading the CASM because he 'hadn't done enough maths'. And I'm nowhere near that level, not even in the slightest).

I apologise for the essay and general digressions, it's just that this is something I'm quite passionate about and I'm a bit concerned at the moment.

Thanks in advance for your advice.

After I've completed my studies (I'm currently in year 12), I hope to work in the field of theoretical physics - most probably in HEP/GR/QFT - in some shape or form. I have been told that a Mathematics degree would be the best preparation for this, however, I am reluctant to do this for several reasons:

(i) Whilst I enjoy mathematics, I am not one who can study it all the time for its own sake. I have been told that physics-based courses in Maths degrees are just the mathematics of the physics, and not the actual physics itself. I could quite happily study plenty of mathematics if I knew that it was being developed within the context of an application, but I don't get thrills doing it for its own sake.

(ii) I am much stronger at applied mathematics (like mechanics) and pure mathematics that is pertinent to physics i.e. calculus, trigonometry and so on, but I struggle (relatively) with the more abstract and formal concepts. I also find them less interesting.

Despite this, I am considering applying for a joint-honours Mathematics and Physics course so that I get the best of both worlds. However, the questions I'd like to ask are pertinent to both this and the whole process of becoming a theoretical physicist in general:

1. How much more useful would a Mathematics degree be, as opposed to a Physics degree, in pursuing a career in theoretical physics? Is it still possible to make a career out of theoretical physics with a Physics degree?

2. For postgraduate courses in theoretical physics, how receptive are universities with regard to admitting Physics students onto the course, as opposed to Mathematics graduates?

3. Having looked at the course structure for a joint-honours course, I notice that Analysis seems to be a recurring topic that is compulsory. I've heard that this is very abstract and can be very confusing initially. I know this is hard to answer but, generally speaking, how manageable is Analysis? Here's a better way of putting it: what is challenging about Analysis?

4. Are there any other areas in mathematics which you think are very abstract but very useful for theoretical physics? I've heard that differential geometry and topology are the two beasts. Could I manage with only a Physics-degree level knowledge of them?

5. Should I even be considering a career in theoretical physics if I'm not warm to certain areas of mathematics? I have a passion for it, I'm just doubting whether I have the ability. (I know someone who came top six in the Physics Olympiad, got a First in E & T Physics at Cambridge, but then got rejected from reading the CASM because he 'hadn't done enough maths'. And I'm nowhere near that level, not even in the slightest).

I apologise for the essay and general digressions, it's just that this is something I'm quite passionate about and I'm a bit concerned at the moment.

Thanks in advance for your advice.

Scroll to see replies

Speleo

What do you mean by this?

It seems a reasonable comment - by way of example consider two approaches to Schrodinger's equation in quantum mechanics.

A mathematical approach to this would only minimally describe physical motivations for the equation but rather would be interested in its solution, the eigenfunctions and ties with functional analysis.

A more physical course would probably have more detail on experimental aspects, include real-world examples involving scientific units, highlight contrasts with classical mechanics etc.

RichE

It seems a reasonable comment - by way of example consider two approaches to Schrodinger's equation in quantum mechanics.

A mathematical approach to this would only minimally describe physical motivations for the equation but rather would be interested in its solution, the eigenfunctions and ties with functional analysis.

A more physical course would probably have more detail on experimental aspects, include real-world examples involving scientific units, highlight contrasts with classical mechanics etc.

A mathematical approach to this would only minimally describe physical motivations for the equation but rather would be interested in its solution, the eigenfunctions and ties with functional analysis.

A more physical course would probably have more detail on experimental aspects, include real-world examples involving scientific units, highlight contrasts with classical mechanics etc.

ssmoose

Why not do a theoretical physics degree?

Speleo

That's cool, I was just wondering what would be missed out since I am also interested in the option to go into physics (early days yet, but hey).

Any advice would be much appreciated.

http://www.lancs.ac.uk/depts/physics/physics.htm

they offer loads of quality physics degrees, one of the top departments in the country for physics, and they offer degrees in theoretical, as well as theoretical with maths

they offer loads of quality physics degrees, one of the top departments in the country for physics, and they offer degrees in theoretical, as well as theoretical with maths

Feynstein

If I'm not mistaken, aren't you applying for Maths? If that's the case, then I don't think you would have any problems whatsoever with going into physics (although it would have to be theoretical - you'd probably need to do Physics as a degree to go into experimental physics). I'm not someone who can do Maths for its own sake, so that option is not one for me. Hence, I was wondering whether I can go into theoretical physics with a Physics degree.

Yeah, I want to do both theoretical physics and pure maths, I have no desire whatsoever to do labs etc. so I picked maths

I will let people who know what they're talking about answer your questions.

Benny_b

http://www.lancs.ac.uk/depts/physics/physics.htm

they offer loads of quality physics degrees, one of the top departments in the country for physics, and they offer degrees in theoretical, as well as theoretical with maths

they offer loads of quality physics degrees, one of the top departments in the country for physics, and they offer degrees in theoretical, as well as theoretical with maths

Speleo

Yeah, I want to do both theoretical physics and pure maths, I have no desire whatsoever to do labs etc. so I picked maths

I will let people who know what they're talking about answer your questions.

I will let people who know what they're talking about answer your questions.

ssmoose

What about Nottingham or ICL? There good unis in big cities (I assume that's why you like UCL and not Durham)

_________________________________________________________________

Thanks so far for all your recommendations. To be honest, I would also be quite interested as to whether anyone knew how much more advantageous a Maths degree would be to a Physics degree if I wanted to do theoretical physics.

I have to mention my university, Warwick. I'm on the maths&physics degree and have pretty much the same ambitions as you seem to have.

The 1st year of the Maths&Physics degree gives you ALOT of maths (analysis, differential equations, geometry, linear algebra, probability, number theory), probably more than you'll need for theoretical physics. But studying the maths of a pure maths degree gives you the formal treatment which you'll need in theoretical physics.

Still you are based in the physics department and study all the main physics modules, except from any kind of labs.

I think the outline is the same at other unis offering maths&physics. However as Warwick is quite good both for maths and physics, you get a very challenging degree.

Sorry for talking bull****. Ask if you have any questions!

The 1st year of the Maths&Physics degree gives you ALOT of maths (analysis, differential equations, geometry, linear algebra, probability, number theory), probably more than you'll need for theoretical physics. But studying the maths of a pure maths degree gives you the formal treatment which you'll need in theoretical physics.

Still you are based in the physics department and study all the main physics modules, except from any kind of labs.

I think the outline is the same at other unis offering maths&physics. However as Warwick is quite good both for maths and physics, you get a very challenging degree.

Sorry for talking bull****. Ask if you have any questions!

I want to do theoretical physics, but I am kinda interested in maths for it's own sake. Should I then take a maths course instead of a maths with physics, woud that be more beneficial?

martika

I have to mention my university, Warwick. I'm on the maths&physics degree and have pretty much the same ambitions as you seem to have.

martika

The 1st year of the Maths&Physics degree gives you ALOT of maths (analysis, differential equations, geometry, linear algebra, probability, number theory), probably more than you'll need for theoretical physics. But studying the maths of a pure maths degree gives you the formal treatment which you'll need in theoretical physics.

martika

Still you are based in the physics department and study all the main physics modules, except from any kind of labs.

martika

I think the outline is the same at other unis offering maths&physics. However as Warwick is quite good both for maths and physics, you get a very challenging degree.

martika

Sorry for talking bull****. Ask if you have any questions!

_________________________________________________________________

MatchDancer

I want to do theoretical physics, but I am kinda interested in maths for it's own sake. Should I then take a maths course instead of a maths with physics, woud that be more beneficial?

Feynstein

You say that there's a lot of maths. But do you enjoy it, or do you find it's just too much? Also, how do you find the more abstract topics like analysis and geometry? Are they 'too pure' for a physicist, or are they manageable?

To be honest, I have found the maths to be ALOT more fun than the physics. But many people in my course, who was expecting more concrete, physics-applicable maths quickly became very fed up with analysis and linear algebra (geometry is an option). They are indeed very 'pure' and there are never any applications to physics. It's basically 100's of theorems and pages of proofs. But don't let this scare you! It IS fun (often) and you develop mathematical thinking which I believe is well advantageous in theoretical physics.

Feynstein

So you do absolutely no labs? I thought with a Maths & Physics degree you do labs for like the first year or two, but as you get more advance you leave labs behind. Is that wrong?...

No labs at all. I've never even seen the labs in the physics department! And I am very glad of this. I'm very glad I don't study straight physics; partly because of the lack of pure/abstract maths and partly because of the 6hours lab sessions!

The course you're thinking of is eg "Theoretical Physics" where you basically study a MPhys but have more maths in the 3rd year. The course I'm on is a MMathPhys, ie a master in mathematics and physics.

Feynstein

but enjoyable at the same time?

Yes, it's very enjoyable in term time. Especially the maths. 1st year physics is basically A-level physics but with more calculus and harder problems.

Now, however, it's exam time and I personally spend about 6h per day revising! I was a bit too ambitious with my module choices...

Hope this helps!

martika

To be honest, I have found the maths to be ALOT more fun than the physics. But many people in my course, who was expecting more concrete, physics-applicable maths quickly became very fed up with analysis and linear algebra (geometry is an option). They are indeed very 'pure' and there are never any applications to physics. It's basically 100's of theorems and pages of proofs. But don't let this scare you! It IS fun (often) and you develop mathematical thinking which I believe is well advantageous in theoretical physics.

I'm a bit scared about the "100's of theorems and pages of proofs". Why do you say "don't let this scare you!". Is it not that bad? Also, in general, how formal is the level of mathematics when it comes to exam. I mean, are you asked to prove most of the time, or show things or what? Also, for the pure maths, is it possible to get good at it through practice?

martika

Yes, it's very enjoyable in term time. Especially the maths. 1st year physics is basically A-level physics but with more calculus and harder problems.

martika

Now, however, it's exam time and I personally spend about 6h per day revising! I was a bit too ambitious with my module choices...

I've heard that in some respects labs are much easier to get high marks in than the maths part of it. Would you know if this is true or not?

What do you mean that you have been too ambitious with your module selection?

martika

Hope this helps!

Don't underestimate the amount of 'pure' maths that you need to know to study theoretical physics at a sufficiently advanced level. Just off the top of my head, you'll want to know about differential geometry, group theory, representation theory and a whole slew of abstract algebra. The study of theoretical physics at the highest levels is very mathematical indeed.

My feeling is that a maths degree would provide the best preparation, but I do know several people currently doing research in theoretical physics who came in via a physics degree.

If you want more applications than a maths degree will provide you with, then you could always read the Feynman lectures as an accompaniment to your course. There's nothing too hard there and they're crammed full of interesting physics.

My feeling is that a maths degree would provide the best preparation, but I do know several people currently doing research in theoretical physics who came in via a physics degree.

If you want more applications than a maths degree will provide you with, then you could always read the Feynman lectures as an accompaniment to your course. There's nothing too hard there and they're crammed full of interesting physics.

Thanks for your input. It is much appreciated.

I have noted your point about the prominence of pure maths in theoretical physics. However, I would be quite interested to know about what I said in one of my earlier posts i.e. "are there still methods within pure maths, or is it all about concepts"?

I agree that pure maths would give the best preparation, but I am relieved to hear that it is still possible to do TP with a physics degree. Is this a signficant proportion or is it just a minority? Also, I have thought about this for a long time, and I simply cannot see myself doing a straight Maths degree - I am not one who can do maths all the time for its own sake. I thought that whilst TP is very mathematical (and very reliant on pure maths), is it not at least set within a physical framework? If so, that's exactly what I like.

Therefore, would you say a Maths & Physics/ Theoretical Physics degree would be a better choice than a Physics degree? Also out of the two, which one would you think is better?

I have noted your point about the prominence of pure maths in theoretical physics. However, I would be quite interested to know about what I said in one of my earlier posts i.e. "are there still methods within pure maths, or is it all about concepts"?

I agree that pure maths would give the best preparation, but I am relieved to hear that it is still possible to do TP with a physics degree. Is this a signficant proportion or is it just a minority? Also, I have thought about this for a long time, and I simply cannot see myself doing a straight Maths degree - I am not one who can do maths all the time for its own sake. I thought that whilst TP is very mathematical (and very reliant on pure maths), is it not at least set within a physical framework? If so, that's exactly what I like.

Therefore, would you say a Maths & Physics/ Theoretical Physics degree would be a better choice than a Physics degree? Also out of the two, which one would you think is better?

I think (which is why I'm doing that degree) that Maths&Physics, as opposed to straight maths or straight physics (including T.P) is the best course for doing T.P. You get to study all the maths needed for theoretical physics at advanced level (topology, differential geometry, geometry, algebra etc) from a pure maths degree perspective (I do exactly the same core maths as the pure maths students here, and will be doing this all 4 years). But, and this is the important part, you can avoid non-physics-applicable modules that are a core part of a pure maths degree (eg number theory) and instead do a bunch of physics modules. If you do pure maths, the physics modules will be extra load for you, whereas in maths&physics degree they're core.

In short, you are at no disadvantage to a pure maths student studying extra physics modules or to a pure physics student!

Also, I dis-encourage you from taking pure physics if you want to do T.P. The amount of maths may be high, but you will only know how to use it, not how or why it works. Pure maths makes you think deeper, learns you to carry out rigorous proofs and connects various parts of maths together, all of which I think is very important when doing T.P!

In short, you are at no disadvantage to a pure maths student studying extra physics modules or to a pure physics student!

Also, I dis-encourage you from taking pure physics if you want to do T.P. The amount of maths may be high, but you will only know how to use it, not how or why it works. Pure maths makes you think deeper, learns you to carry out rigorous proofs and connects various parts of maths together, all of which I think is very important when doing T.P!

martika which uni are you at? And what uni's in general offer Maths&Physics?

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