So here is my situation.

I'm an undergraduate physics major right now (second-year) at a moderately-good university. I've experienced a bit of analysis and algebra (and almost nothing in topology, which I should change), and I like it (I do study maths on my own time - I like [complex] analysis best). However, my style and preference gears me more towards physics than anything. I've experienced working under an experimental nuclear physics group for some time now, and I love it, but it has shown me that I'm probably better suited with theoretical physics. I'm not saying that because I've proven to some people to be a genius at mathematical physics [maybe I could become one :-) ], but rather because that's where my interests seem to lie.

But I've noticed something. A lot of smart students here and theoretical physics professors at various universities come from a double math & physics backgrounds (a few just from math), and I was wondering whether I should go down that same path. I've avoided it so far because I felt that with the topics I've learned on my own, I've gone more in depth and personal as compared with my classmates, and so I feel that it is in my best interest to continue to do so with my math courses. Also, I feel that getting the math degree will only take up time and my full-attention from my normally planned physics track.

On the other hand, I feel that I could probably learn quite a few things from my math classes that I wouldn't learn otherwise. Professors already know the material they're teaching, so they typically know what to teach you. On top of that, if I wanted to enter a theoretical physics program for graduate school, I might have more of a chance of being considered with that extra degree.

Does getting a double degree in mathematics and physics better increase your chances of being admitted to a graduate program in theoretical/mathematical physics?

  • 1
    How about combining formal lectures and self-study together and then you get the best of the both worlds? If you are already capable of learning higher mathematics on your own then taking a course will probably not add any considerable extra workload for you.
    – Drecate
    Commented Dec 3, 2014 at 23:31
  • 1
    If you get a 2nd degree in math, you'd probably have to do research for a thesis and perhaps that's where your self studying skills could really show so yeah I would say with and undergrad mathdegree, you would have demonstrated ability to do basic research. I'd like to believe math research is different from physics research. Disclaimer: math grad student here with no research experience in undergrad
    – BCLC
    Commented Dec 6, 2014 at 16:57
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    Then again if your undergrad thesis is on theoretical/mathematical physics, what's really the point of getting a 2nd degree? You'll learn the math you need in physics BS or MS. Maybe a few extra courses will help but a 2nd degree seems kind of over doing. However, if you are passionate about math as you are physics,want a 2nd degree and can handle the work load and it doesn't conflict with your passion for physics, go ahead!
    – BCLC
    Commented Dec 6, 2014 at 17:02
  • The quesiton asks about a double major. In the US, this is not a second degree. Commented Dec 7, 2014 at 4:49
  • As an experimentalist, I have not found the analysis I studied as an undergraduate very useful. Group theory is useful. It seems to me that theoretical physics and nuclear physics are not well funded in the US compared to other branches of physics. Commented Dec 7, 2014 at 5:05

2 Answers 2


Obtaining a double major is helpful but not necessary. In making your decision, consider what you would do instead of obtaining the double major. Research experience will count for more than a double major.

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    As a current PhD student in theoretical physics, I find that the concepts from upper-level math courses are often helpful, the theorems sometimes helpful, and the tools almost never helpful. For example, when working on research-level quantum mechanics one should have a good handle on what a Hilbert Space is. Sometimes theorems about Hilbert spaces are helpful, but it is rare. The methods use to prove such theorems basically never come up. Commented Oct 14, 2015 at 5:42
  • There is one additional small advantage to doing a double major in math or physics (or double bachelor degree in some countries). If you want to continue in academics you will quite likely find out you will want to continue in mathematics instead and will be able to do so. (This happens to be personal experience where none of the many double bachelor students I knew chose to continue in physics in the end. Some did in maths.) Also Math seems to have way better career opportunities in academia. (At least compared to theoretical physics.)
    – Kvothe
    Commented Feb 11, 2021 at 19:24

Yeah, you probably need to know a lot of serious math to succeed in theoretical physics.

I wouldn't belabor the question of completing the major. If you know the stuff and complete the coursework it doesn't matter if you get the major or not.

I'd suggest talking with your physics advisors about what math they think you should take and know, and combine this with what you can learn from math professors about the curriculum. You will probably want to be in the most challenging math courses (e.g. if there's an honors class or track, or a graduate version of an undergraduate course, you probably want the more advanced one.) But your physics advisor might suggest you take a subset of the rigorous math courses needed for a major, and whether you'd be better off completing the major or taking more physics courses is up to you.

If there's a thesis requirement for a math major, that is probably less valuable to you than more research in physics.

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