Getting an advanced degree in a different subject than your undergrad?
July 17, 2013 7:56 PM   Subscribe

What are the options available to me for getting an advanced degree in physics when I have an undergraduate degree in a completely different field?

As the questions states, I would like to achieve a graduate degree in physics, but my undergraduate degree is in Anthropology. My degree involved a lot of biological science courses like genetics, organic chemistry (didn't do so hot in that however), calculus I-III and Biology.

I am now a Physical Sciences teacher for 8th graders. I have a good enough understanding of physics to be able to teach it in depth to 8th graders. Teaching this subject has really interested me in taking it further. I am currently taking part in a laboratory experience working with a group that does a lot of things with lasers. This experience has made me even more interested in the subject, and while I find a lot of the concepts to be over my head, my knowledge growth during this experience has increased by leaps and bounds than what it was before.

I have never took physics in High School. In college, I took a non-required physics for health majors class during one quarter (a lot of the hard science and math courses I took in college were non-required for my major), which apparently I got an A in but I can't for the life of me remember anything we did in that class... (I don't even remember taking it.)

Being a teacher, my pay scale will rise significantly if I get a masters degree however I feel like an education degree would be next to worthless to me having remembered how pointless a lot of my teaching credential courses were. I am good enough at improving my teaching practice on my own anyway and do not need a masters degree for this purpose.

But I think a degree in my course subject will help me to deepen my understanding of the subject and may possibly be an alternate career and skill set for me if for some reason teaching doesn't work out.

Let me note my situation thus far.

- I have a B.S. in Anthropology, which does include a life sciences coursework background
- Unfortunately, I graduated with a 3.2, which isn't the best of GPAs, had a rough quarter, was just mentally not mature during my undergrad (I did get a 4.0 in my credential later on), and found nothing wrong with being mediocre.
- Am now teaching physical science, and I do have a very strong foundational understanding of physical science concepts
- Completing a laboratory experience in a physics lab

My guess so far is that I can either get a second bachelor's, which I've heard is a horrible move from a lot of people, though their reasoning why wasn't clear, or I can do continuing education classes at the community college and maybe the university.

I guess for additional questions, if I were to go for a second bachelor's degree, is it more difficult to be accepted into a program since I have a bachelor's degree already and I didn't get a hot GPA in it? Would my chances be better if I took pre-reqs at the community college and did well in them?

If I just take the continuing education classes, would my graduate application suffer much? All of the pre-reqs aren't offered at the community college so I will have to take some at the nearby university. Do I have to be accepted into a University program to take these courses like I would for getting a second bachelors?

Has anyone tried this and had it work out? There seems to be a lot of unnecessary red tape for non-traditional college students who are interested in growing their skill set, or perhaps didn't excel the first time around, that would seem to serve the purpose of getting people stuck in what they're doing...
posted by Peregrin5 to Education (22 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Get an MA! If you want to keep on teaching, why focus on research? Lots of universities offer this, and I can't imagine anyone more qualified to get an advanced teaching degree in physics than a person currently teaching physics classes. Contact professors and google around.
posted by oceanjesse at 8:07 PM on July 17, 2013

Response by poster: OceanJesse: My issue is that I don't have the prerequisites for an MA. Also I don't really want an advanced 'teaching' degree in physics. I want an advanced degree in physics.
posted by Peregrin5 at 8:20 PM on July 17, 2013

It seems you have asked a very similar question before

It seems that teaching eighth grade physics and what my friends in physics grad school do are so far apart that I'm not sure there really is a comparison. Maybe that isn't fair.

One approach that you could take to get much better idea of what is going on in physics and what would be involved in going to a research-oriented grad program would be to take a year to do a lab-heavy Masters in Physics Education program, like this one. (I have no idea if that one is actually good, I just googled. Don't do an online program- you want to be taking classes with real professors who you can ask questions of, in person)
posted by rockindata at 8:22 PM on July 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

I would suggest a 2nd bachelors degree. Many universities will allow you to get a 2nd bachelors degree by only taking the required courses in the major. Based on previous courses taken and testing out, you may be able to get a BS in physics by taking only 30 - 36 credits. Then, you would be qualified to get into any physics grad program.
posted by hworth at 8:23 PM on July 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

Here's the gist: to get into graduate physics, you need to have completed the undergraduate physics curriculum. That means honest-to-goodness calculus-based courses in mechanics, electrodynamics, optics, waves, and a good helping of advanced topics like relativity, thermodynamics, and nuclear physics. A lot of this stuff involves an intuitive grasp of concept knowledge, but a ton of it is just being able to do the math. I'm afraid teaching middle-school science exposes you to the key concepts just a little, and to the math not at all.

For reference, I also have an undergraduate degree in anthropology with an unremarkable GPA. Not long ago, I was applying to graduate programs in math. But before that, I actually took three years of college-level math part-time while working for a university.
posted by Nomyte at 8:24 PM on July 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: You'd need the functional equivalent of an undergraduate education in physics in order to understand the course material in the first year.

Advanced E&M relies on vector calc, differential equations, and undergrad E&M. Along with a grad level mathematical methods for physicists course.

It is doable, if you line up the undergrad courses first.

Go for it!
posted by sebastienbailard at 8:24 PM on July 17, 2013

Response by poster: @RockinData: Perfectly fair comparison. I never stated that teaching 8th grade physics is any real preparation for a physics grad degree, which is why I quantified that I also need to take physics pre-reqs, and I also have physics lab research experience (and I intend to get more; it's great really being a teacher, they offer these paid research experiences!)
posted by Peregrin5 at 8:29 PM on July 17, 2013

Best answer: I am a physics professor. I am not you physics professor.

Take a look at the physics GRE. It's by no means a perfect exam (far from it), but if you want to get a graduate degree in Physics, you have to do well on the exam. Take the practice exam offered by ETS (note that it's important to really take it and not look at the answers ahead of time).

The scores change year to year, but I would think you need at least a 650 (and probably significantly higher) to seriously consider grad school in physics.

Given your background, aceing the physics GRE (800+) is probably your best/only shot of getting into physics grad school right now. If you went back to school and took the required courses, you could get by with a lower score, but probably not much lower.
posted by Betelgeuse at 8:32 PM on July 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: @Sebastian: Thanks for the tips. One major question I have is would it be better to get the functional equivalent of an undergrad education, or should I throw in and just get a second bachelors?

From looking around at the universities in the area, both seem difficult to achieve because of some bureaucratic red tape.
posted by Peregrin5 at 8:33 PM on July 17, 2013

Response by poster: @Betelgeuse: Thanks! I intend on preparing well for the physics GRE, but before I take it, I do want to take a few if not all of the physics prereqs.
posted by Peregrin5 at 8:35 PM on July 17, 2013

Mod note: Peregrin5, please don't threadsit. Let the answers come in and give updates when needed. Thanks.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 8:36 PM on July 17, 2013

Best answer: One of my colleagues has served on the admission committees for two of the top physics graduate programs in the US. I once asked him what they required for admission. Course-wise, he told me:

1. The 1-year intro sequence (with calc.)
2. Two semesters of E&M
3. One semester of quantum.

Other courses aren't strictly required, but it's not a good idea to be missing thermo or advanced mechanics (ie Lagrangians). Other good things to have include a second semester of QM and maybe relativity. Of course, to get into the places where he was on the committee, you also needed a 3.7+ GPA, an 800+ GRE, and at least one great letter from a top researcher, but you shouldn't let that discourage you, since very few people get into places like this. (I didn't).
posted by Betelgeuse at 8:47 PM on July 17, 2013

or should I throw in and just get a second bachelors?

I would throw in and get the second bachelors, if it is possible, but do it by initially racking up classes as a special student at one of the universities in the area.

But I think a degree in my course subject will help me to deepen my understanding of the subject and may possibly be an alternate career and skill set for me if for some reason teaching doesn't work out.

The bachelors in physics would help with this, job-wise.

If you're aiming at a grad program and can't get into an undergrad program / scattered courses because of bureaucracy, scheduling, or such like, then self-teach.

For the physics profs on the committee selecting that year's intake of grad students, showing them you have some As in advanced undergrad physics courses will help them evaluate you, as opposed to evaluating you with only pure self-teaching.
posted by sebastienbailard at 8:49 PM on July 17, 2013

Look, I'm hearing a disconnect in your question. Let's try it this way:

- Grad degree in physics: sing Monty Python's "Spam" song but substitute "math" each time instead.

- Teaching 8th grade physics: "egg, bacon, sausage, & spam."

See the difference? It's at least that extreme. More importantly, you're dealing with the kind of situation that *good* science ed grad programs are designed to address. Note that I emphasized good; just as there some crappy physics grad programs, so decent ed schools do exist, depending on your location. Anyway, if it's middle school science teaching, an undergrad degree in physics with a good science ed masters would seem to serve your needs.
posted by 5Q7 at 9:19 PM on July 17, 2013

At my institution, you can get a second bachelors degree by taking on the order of 24 credits, or, basically the required courses for the major. Its totally straightforward to get a second degree, as far as i can tell from advising students here who have fone so. That sounds like the right move for you right now, if you are committed to a credential. Try your local land-grant university.

(I'm in math, not physics, but I have a hard time imagining you'd succeed in my program with an undergraduate anthropology degree and just the calculus sequence. And the calculus sequence ---also required for a physics degree---would put you a lot closer to completing a math major than a physics major. Your "physics for biologists" would not count towards the undergraduate degree. )
posted by leahwrenn at 10:11 PM on July 17, 2013

Best answer: My sample size is one; I'm no longer in academia. so this advice is based on the PhD program that I went through. I don't have an opinion about whether you are better off getting a second BS or not. I can tell you what is required to succeed in a graduate level physics program. Physics is like peeling an onion; at the undergrad and grad level it isn't so much that you are learning something new as you are understanding that what you thought you knew was an approximation and here is some new mathematical tools to get a better understanding. The next big step up after what you are teaching today is calculus-based physics, and then the next step after that is doing it with a lot of approximations and special functions. The core curricula at the graduate level is classical mechanics, quantum mechanics, and electromagnetism. For each of these you'll need one or two semesters or the equivalent at the upper undergrad level. For classical mechanics and electromagnetism, you can also expect to see a lot of special functions, so you will also need one to two semesters of what is sometimes called engineering mathematics or mathematical physics. For emag, you'll be swimming around continuously in vector calculus. For quantum mechanics, you'll primarily be using Lie algebras which you would pick up the rudiments of in an upper undergrad level quantum course. I can't emphasize enough how much math there is; you'll need to have a rock solid understanding of calculus, like a good enough understanding that you could walk into a classroom and teach any college intro calculus class off the top of your head. If you were to choose to do a second undergrad in physics, what these pre-reqs would all translate into is about 60 semester hours of physics classes and 20 hours of math classes. I say that based on looking at current degree requirements for a B.S. in physics from my undergrad alma mater.
posted by kovacs at 10:23 PM on July 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Having a bachelors' degree in a different field, even with a non-perfect GPA is not insurmountable -- I work with someone with a liberal arts BS and MS, then they realized it wasn't for them so they went back to school, got a science BS and are now working on a PhD. My boyfriend had dubious grades in a discipline unrelated to his current graduate studies, but he took time off to work as a lab tech, and he's now in a top PhD program in $newfield. It absolutely can be done, although it might take a while. Admissions at many grad programs (at least on the PhD level) are often weighed by whether specific professors in the department want you and you can sometimes compensate for application deficiencies by convincing a professor that he really, really wants you. Another possibility might be self-study, then testing out of the really basic courses in order to save time & money (although I would advise against this, since the really basic courses are also often foundational). Either way, I would get the BS.

I have two undergraduate degrees. One is in the biosciences, the other is in a different (non-science) field. I knew going in that I was going to study the biosciences and grad school and the second degree wouldn't mean anything in the rest of my life, but I did it anyway because I love the field and wanted to learn about it in a structured, rigorous way, so I do get where you're coming from.

That said, it's not clear what your endgoal is. If you want a terminal bachelors' degree, I would say to go for it just because it sounds like something personally important to you, but from your previous question it seems you have interest in an applied physics PhD. I assume most PhD programs have a major experimental component and the research requirements for a MS are program dependent, but in both cases you will need a strong math background. I was good at the entire calculus sequence and differential equations, and I took enough physics in undergrad that I now successfully work parttime as a high school physics & math tutor, but I would not at all be qualified for a grad level physics program. You need to be really, really good in math, as other commenters have said, and physics grad school just generally sucks unless you're quite talented.

I also don't want to be super negative, but keep in mind that the science you're seeing as an observing teacher is quite different from the other side and you may be stuck in school for a very long time even if you really like research. My lab has junior high teachers working in semester-long-stints for some science enrichment program, and they have a much rosier view of things than the graduate students because they get to work 9-5 for one semester while even the masters' students are stuck here for 80-120 hours a week! It might be useful (and also bolster your grad applications) to work parttime for the BS, then try a 1-2 year stint as a lab tech before going on to the advanced degree. You would also be exposed to different research techniques more interesting and useful than the standard physics teaching lab fare, or the basic experiments labs often throw at part-time helpers.
posted by angst at 12:15 AM on July 18, 2013

For her undergraduate education, my wife double-majored in Linguistics and Celtic Studies. She is now a PhD student in ecology. So this type of transition is totally possible!

But it didn't just come from nowhere. She worked really hard to prepare herself for it. She volunteered at a botanical garden and a community garden. She did a certificate in landscape horticulture at a local community college. She volunteered at the USDA. And once she had that kind of experience she contacted an ecology professor and volunteered in her lab for a semester. After that the lab hired her as a research assistant for another two semesters.

And THEN she applied for grad school. So it was a long road, and it took a lot of dedication on her part. I'd say look around for a specific program you want to get into, contact somebody there, and find out what kind of background you'd need in order to get into the program and succeed. Academics generally love it when people show an interest in their field, so I'm sure you'll find somebody who can help you out with more specific details. Just ask around.
posted by number9dream at 6:27 AM on July 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: @angst: Please assume that nothing from my previous question holds true anymore. I would appreciate it if people would answer my question based on the information in this thread only. I asked that question quite a while ago and have since evolved my thoughts and goals.perhaps that is where people are getting confused.

That said, thanks for the tips! I appreciate everyone trying to warn me off the math, but I honestly don't find math that daunting. Certainly I will need to build a fluency with it necessary for a physics grad degree and I'm getting a good taste of the math required at my lab experiences. But while math seems to scare off most people it doesn't me. I will have to learn it in great depth is all.

I am also smart enough to understand that a summer internship is very different than a full time graduate student-ship (I'm essentially the only teacher here who is completing the same lab experiences as physics undergraduates this summer). I've met the grad students here, talked to them about their work seen the dead look in some of their eyes (haha). Still I find their work fascinating and would be willing to go through 2 to 4 years of research hell to be a part of that world. Anyway I am used to working 80 to 120 hour work weeks as a teacher. (Maybe not starting into a laser or at spectra but still...)

Your advice is definitely sound and I will keep it in mind. Thanks!
posted by Peregrin5 at 6:58 AM on July 18, 2013

I can't tell from your profile where you are, and it might help if I could look at universities in your area.

I'm an academic advisor in a science department at a state school. I also coordinate our graduate program. I talk to people all the time with questions like yours, who have degrees in other areas and want to pursue advanced degrees in my area. A significant portion of our undergraduate population is older students pursuing a second Bachelors.

Have you called physics departments in your area and set up appointments to speak with their undergraduate or graduate advisors? Those are the only people who are going to be able to give you solid advice on your different options for those particular schools.

For instance your question, "I guess for additional questions, if I were to go for a second bachelor's degree, is it more difficult to be accepted into a program since I have a bachelor's degree already and I didn't get a hot GPA in it?"

At my university, you would be considered a transfer student (unless your Anth degree was at the same school). You would have no problem being accepted as a transfer student with a prior 3.2 GPA. However, my school doesn't use your transfer GPA going forward so you would be starting over fresh. You would likely not have to repeat your general education, english comp, or second language classes and could just concentrate on major requirements. You could immediately start the major or pre-major in any science department you wanted once you were admitted. Only a few of our science majors use a pre-major, which requires you to complete beginning level classes at a certain GPA before being admitted to the major. My department and the physics departments here do not use a pre-major.

However, all that only applies to my university. You really need to talk to the experts at the universities in your area.
posted by Squeak Attack at 7:35 AM on July 18, 2013

Best answer: I asked that question quite a while ago and have since evolved my thoughts and goals.perhaps that is where people are getting confused.

Your question is not clear enough to give you any but general answers, and it is so undifferentiated from your previous question as to be indistinguishable. Our answers might be different depending on what your motivation and end-goal is, and that's not clear, either.

That said, let me just say that having an M.S. in the scientific field you are teaching is awesome. My calculus teacher in high school had a master's in math that involved a lot of scientific computing. He was fantastic. I wish more teachers were like him. I can only assume you want an M.S. in physics because you want to be like that guy. But you haven't articulated that. There are other questions you need to think about: do you want your M.S. to involve a thesis or not? Do you want to just take classes? How do you think that an M.S. in physics will help you if you leave teaching?

I've taken classes at a university program geared towards working professionals getting graduate degrees, and many of the students didn't necessarily start out with the background necessary to enter the M.S. programs. How it worked it is that they built up pre-requisites as a special student (ie, non-degree student) and then applied for admission to the M.S. program, based on their track record. However, this was for a primarily class-based M.S. program: there was no component in which you were set up with a thesis advisor whom your worked with closely over the course of your degree program. A thesis, if any, was optional and arranged towards the last semester or so of your program. There was always a person in the department whose job it was to advise students on their admissions chances and what requirements they needed to fulfill before they were a competitive applicant at the admissions open houses. Call the department secretary and speak to that person.
posted by deanc at 9:16 AM on July 18, 2013

Response by poster: @deanc: Sorry if my end goals weren't too clear. Let me try to clarify:

As a teacher, a masters degree would raise me on the payscale by quite a bit. In addition, there is simply the inherent knowledge and growth that comes from having a masters degree. I believe that knowledge and growth would be much more useful and effective if I had an actual masters in the content subject I am teaching rather than a masters in education (even if it's a masters in eduction specifically for the subject I am teaching).

So there is that. There is also the benefit of having multiple options available to you and having multiple skill sets. Getting an advanced degree in the content area of physics will open to me the possibility of working in academia or for firms that specialize in physical science research and development. (The people who head the group I am doing my research experience at develop and sell lasers). In addition, I am very interested in the subject and would like to start down the road of becoming an expert in it.

I also feel that if I decided to teach High School physics in the future, (a much more advanced content area than middle school physics), an advanced degree in physics would be helpful if not required (in my opinion it should be).

Let me update my plan here based on the advice I've received so far:

1. I will take the basic physics series at the community college, while also engaging in open courseware from online programs such as MIT OCW to continue to build my knowledge.

2. The nearest university doesn't allow people to enroll in a second bachelors degree program, however they do allow non-degree seeking students to take courses on their campus through enrollment in their extension campus. I will enroll in the upper level undergraduate classes required for a physics baccalaureate through their extension campus.

3. I will talk to people to see if I might be able to transfer that coursework to a bachelors degree program once I have completed some or most of the coursework required. This could either be at that university or another university close-by. (Unfortunately I am very geographically limited because of maintaining my job as a teacher at my school, so I can't drop everything and go to another college far away for fulfilling my pre-reqs. The college nearby is known for its rigor however, which is a plus, even if they don't allow second-baccalaureates.) It's possible that even if they don't officially allow second baccalaureates, it's possible they will still be okay with awarding me a degree or certificate if I've completed all of the requirements for the physics major at their school. If not, at least I have the coursework experience for my application.

4. I will continue to get research experiences during my summers, and see if I can apply for a lab tech position at the university.

5. I will of course prepare for the Physics GRE and put together my applications for an advanced degree.

6. At this point I may be able to geographically relocate if necessary (I'm saving up money to do so and to be able to support myself during this time). I will try to support my tuition by TAing or teaching for whichever school I decide to attend, and perhaps do some tutoring on the side to supplement my savings. (Hoping my teaching experience will come in handy here.)

Let me know if this is a reasonable plan.
posted by Peregrin5 at 10:13 AM on July 18, 2013

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