Switching fields

  • 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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Switching fields

Post by rohan » Fri Nov 09, 2007 3:16 am

I'm an electrical engineering student, currently doing my BE and I'm keen on studying physics in the future, something in the area of applied physics. Although I havent taken up the advanced physics courses, my university allows us to take two basic physics courses. Also, I've worked with the physics faculty very closely and have done a bulk of my optional course work in physics ( though none of it has been pure physics). And, considering the fact that Im an electrical engineering student, Ive have courses on condensed matter physics and device physics, which is where my main interest lies.
What I want to know is, how much of a handicap would it be for me, considering my limited physics background, if I were to apply for an MS or a Phd in an applied physics department. Would it be advisable for me to apply for an MS in electrical engineering itself and take up more physics related course work during my MS?

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Post by emigre459 » Fri Nov 09, 2007 3:27 am

Hi rohan,

I'm currently a first-year graduate student going for my PhD in physics, specifically condensed matter/spintronics (very applied field). I don't know too much about applied physics departments, but I've heard that they aren't too different in curriculum from the usual physics department, like mine. If this is true, you could probably be able to get an MS in 2-3 years at a reputable school. I know an engineer who came back to school to get his physics masters so he could teach at West Point and he only has to take the senior undergrad-level physics course load as well as the standard first-year grad student course load.

Obviously, this is just my specific school, but who knows? Your best bet is probably to call the departments that you're interested in and see what they say. I would venture a guess that it would take an unrealistic amount of time for you to get your PhD, though. The level of preparedness for a PhD in physics necessitates a degree in physics. But hey, I've been wrong before.

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Post by grae313 » Fri Nov 09, 2007 12:19 pm

Applied Physics programs clearly state on their websites that they accept students from related engineering and pure science degrees. That means you can have a math, chemistry, EE, ME, or whatever degree. You've taken a fair amount of physics, you've done great applied physics research already, I don't see why it would be a problem. Score well on your general GRE quantitative, get good grades and letters of recommendation, and I don't imagine you'll be at a significant disadvantage. You just might have to take a few extra classes, but they wouldn't welcome applications from other degrees if this was a problem.

As an example, go check out the Cornell applied physics phd program, or Harvard's. They tell you their class requirements. Because it is a broad field, the requirements are vague and flexible. You have to take some physics courses, but you pretty much get to pick which ones so you can stick to solid state and what you know for the most part. Further, in an applied physics program, your electives can be in any of the related departments so you can take electives in EE, or biophysics, or nanotech fabrication, or optics, or whatever floats your boat.

I know this because I went out there and started reading webpage after webpage for applied physics programs. This information is not hard to get.

EDIT: oops, I reread your post and it seems you don't mention research explicitly. This is almost essential for getting into a top program, but you may still be ok for applied physics in a lower tier school. However, if you don't have any research experience in applied physics, in my opinion it might be best to stick with EE. Check out the research they are doing, it overlaps significantly with applied physics research.

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Post by KDP » Sat Nov 10, 2007 1:28 am

i think your EE background will actually be seen as your strength if you could show that you can perform well in physics too (either through tough physics coursework or kick-ass GRE physics score)
so don't try to cover up the fact that you're from another field. actually brag about it and make a point that you're bringing a different set of skills and experiences to the department. you just gotta prove to them you can do physics.
and yes, there is lots of research overlap between EE and applied physics so you're in good shape.
good luck

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Post by marten » Tue Nov 13, 2007 8:40 pm

Interesting to read about your post, because I am in a similar situation. I graduated with an electrical engineering degree in 2006 and have been working since then. (Actually an engineering degree with electrical concentration) I am currently applying to a mix of physics and applied physics programs. I would prefer to head in the direction of pure physics, but my background looks like I'm better suited to applied physics.

From what I read about the applied physics programs, I think you've got a good shot (presuming decent scores and letters, etc...) applying directly to PhD Applied Physics programs. Go for it.


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Post by cloudiness » Wed Nov 14, 2007 4:24 am


I got a bachelor's in EE in 2003 and started a MS/PhD program in Applied Physics in 2005. There's no need to get a separate master's first, but it couldn't hurt. When I started my program, I ended up taking a bunch of undergrad applied physics classes, though it wasn't required. All that was required was that I pass the qualifier, but taking the undergrad classes was good prep. for that plus I was pretty rusty in general after a two year hiatus from school. My interests have shifted more toward pure physics, and there is no problem for me to be involved in that as long as I take the relevant course work background.

Don't have any hesitation due to a EE background. Go for it.

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