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I finished my B.Sc. in physics 3 years ago, did a year of research, worked a year in tech, and have spent the last year off the grid living in the bush and running away from reality for a while. Now I'm going back for my master's or PhD, but I'm pretty rusty. I'm hoping someone out there might read this and have some good advice on the best way to do this.

My options are basically the following:

  1. to do a master's in a field/at a school/with an advisor that are all not ideal to me, because that's where I have experience and connections

  2. to spend a year or so doing a second degree in math and then going on to do a PhD after that.

My reasoning for the second option is that this will afford me better opportunities for better grad schools in fields I have more interest in. Simply put, I don't believe I have a strong enough application right now to get into the programs/schools/advisors that I want to get in with.

My undergraduate grades are fine (A-/A average), but not extraordinary enough to carry me by their weight alone. I have two publications and a dwindling number of connections who could write me strong recommendations. Maybe one or two at most, with two others who would write generically positive letters. I don't think this is enough to get me where I'd like to be.

Grad school seems like too big of a commitment to go somewhere/work with someone I'm not 100% on board with. Is this "greedy" to think this way? Am I being too picky/asking too much? Should I take what I can get now and not waste my time trying make things "perfect"? Every grad student I speak to has the same advice: "Unless you're 100% sure this is what you want to do, don't do it," so I'm kind of going by that.

Is it worth taking a year or so to pad my application with a second degree in math (new networks, fresh good grades, strong recommendations from professors if I can build relationships with them), so that I can get in where I actually want to go? Or should I just suck it up and do the master's that I don't care about, do it well, and then go where I want from there (keeping in mind that I'd be wanting to switch fields at this point)?

Thank you very much in advance to anyone who takes the time to read/respond!

  • Would math be the field you want to go into? – Anyon Jul 16 '18 at 20:38
  • More specifically mathematical physics/applied math. But my experience and connections are in computational and medical fields of physics. – justadampaul Jul 16 '18 at 20:41
  • If you plan on going a more mathy direction, it does make some sense to pick up more background, and maybe gain a better idea of whether you want to do a PhD in that field. A masters you're not interested in sounds like a bad use of your time, however. – Anyon Jul 16 '18 at 21:01
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    There's no restrictions on when the semesters take place, so I was intending to work straight through the summer semester as well (making it 16 months). While I'm not exactly time-limited, I am already well behind peers my age as far as education goes, so if I do go the undergrad route I'd like to just get it over with as quickly as possible. – justadampaul Jul 16 '18 at 23:23
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    Although math and physics are of course related, they are far from the same subject. The second degree would be in math, and I would be focusing on math that I did not study during my physics degree. The only master's degrees I would be eligible for right now would be in computational physics, not mathematical, as I lack the math background. It's a fair point to wonder if I could just work on my own to get myself prepared for a more challenging master's though... Something to consider. – justadampaul Jul 17 '18 at 3:03
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My reading of your question is that you already know your answer. You don't seem to be time or resource limited (as many others would be) and you express pretty strong preference for a second undergrad degree.

The only caveat I would have is whether you are feeling inadequate when it isn't called for (Imposter Syndrome).

An undergrad math degree (outside the US, at least) might not require you to repeat a lot of things as it is probably focused on just the Maths. So it wouldn't be backing up, really. Actually I don't know how similar the Canadian Educational System is to the US. Down here an UG degree requires a lot of things outside the major (Language, history, ....). Other places an undergrad degree is more specialized on one topic. Doing it in a year or so would depend on the university hosting it. Your original institution might be the best place for that.

Also, rusty is bad. You will want to somehow bring your work process and thinking process back up to speed. Any sort of study can help with that, but a grad program is typically more intense.

  • Thanks for your insight. Re-reading my question, it does seem heavily favourable towards more undergrad. Maybe I am just second-guessing myself and turning to the internet for reassurance. The second degree program is laid out in such a way that I could do it in 1.5 years-ish if I took no breaks in the summer, which is why I say a year or so... I will reflect more on your advice, thanks again! – justadampaul Jul 16 '18 at 21:25
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I'd say do the masters degree. Reasons:

  1. You already have a background in physics. If you've not forgotten all your quantum mechanics, relativity, etc, you should have a relatively easier time applying to grad school in mathematical physics than in mathematics, where you might have to start from zero.
  2. MS studies are more similar to PhD study than undergraduate degrees. The MS degree might give you a better idea whether or not you really want to do PhD study.
  3. If you decide after completing the degree that you don't actually want to do PhD study, you can rejoin the workforce with a higher degree, which is usually more valuable than a second undergraduate degree.

You write that you might be forced to go to a "less desirable" graduate school on a topic you are less interested in. This need not be so. Googling for "masters in mathematical physics" turns up programs such as this one at the University of Edinburgh. You could apply. An A-/A average together with two strong recommendation letters should suffice to be accepted into at least some programs.

  • Thanks for the response! I've actually already been accepted into a specific master's program, which is more what I was referring to in the question. I suppose it's possible that I could try and get into something like what you're recommending here for Fall 2019. I just don't have anything lined up in the interim (job or schooling) between now and then -- basically my choices are between those listed above for this September. I suppose I could always do the math courses for a semester or two and apply for grad schools without needing to finish the second degree... Anyway, thanks again! – justadampaul Jul 17 '18 at 5:45
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I like your idea of getting back in and taking some math courses. This will help you towards a second degree, help you shake off some academic rust, and give you some time to make a more firm decision going forward. My opinion is that those who would review your academic background, would be very impressed with seeing extra levels of math study. If a second degree was not had, anyone seeing your extra math would view such as pure academics. It is always refreshing to see a person take a class in an effort to expand knowledge.

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