I've got a question for anyone that cares and knows how to help. I'm a third year physics student, currently enrolled in the "regular", straight-up physics stream. However, since I've realized I don't want to go into the experimental side of physics, I am trying to avoid having to take a lab course. This isn't possible while staying in the stream I'm in right now, but due to my elective and other choices in regards to the mathematics courses I took thus far, I am still eligible to switch into Mathematical Physics. I've looked at the requirements and the courses I'd now need to take when compared to the ones I'd need to take if I stayed in the regular stream are basically the ones I would use up my electives on anyway. Thus, the only qualitative change arising from switching the programs would be that I would be able to avoid that final lab course, and could take another course, say, biophysics or a maths course, instead.

My concern, however, is what impact would this have in regards to my going to grad school or looking for jobs? As far as grad school is concerned, I would assume it wouldn't have much of an impact due to the importance of actual classes I took and not the name on my degree, but what about jobs if an academic career doesn't pan out? Does "Physics" look better than "Mathematical Physics" in certain cases? If so, when would that be? In other words, is mathematical physics looked down upon as being esoteric?

Any other advice in regards to this switch would also be appreciated.

  • 10
    If you want to stay in academic physics, you are shooting yourself in the foot avoiding all labs! Every good theorist needs to understand data, and that will never happen if you've never dealt with it directly. You can always read a book or some journals to get more theory, but without even a single lab course under your belt you are better described as a symbol manipulator rather than a physicist. Note I say this as a theorist who studied a good deal of pure math.
    – user4512
    Jan 6, 2013 at 22:09
  • @ChrisWhite Oh, no, I'm not avoiding all labs. In our first year, we had two courses with labs already, and in the second year I took two courses, consisting entirely of labs. So I would only be avoiding the final lab course. I also have two summers of research under my belt, where I was involved with an experimental group, so my work there also consisted mostly of nanofabrication and experimentation. Granted, this was in condensed matter physics, so data analysis wasn't as rigorous, though (hah!). With that extra background info, do you still have the same position as before? Thanks!
    – Ryker
    Jan 7, 2013 at 2:25
  • Ok, that's a lot better. Your post made it seem like yet another person who liked the abstract symbol manipulation you find in undergrad theory courses and wanted to do physics without understanding how theorists and experimentalists have to work with each other's results. But now I agree more labs will have diminishing returns for you.
    – user4512
    Jan 7, 2013 at 2:50
  • @ChrisWhite Yes, diminishing returns is what I'm afraid of, and I've already got one extra lab course under my belt MaPh and Astrophysics majors don't have to do. There are only so many courses left, and I don't want to waste another one on this, as I feel at this point I'd gain more from others for what I want to go into (chaos theory/dynamical systems/fluid dynamics). But your reaction was exactly what I feared, people seeing Mathematical Physics and thinking what you thought. Given a chance to explain, I can always do that, but could there be occasions where I won't be given such a chance?
    – Ryker
    Jan 7, 2013 at 3:46
  • I'll let others speak to applying for jobs outside core academia, but for applying to grad school you'll definitely have the chance to elaborate. You can mention your breadth of experience in your essay(s), which are ultimately all about showing off how you stand apart from your peers.
    – user4512
    Jan 7, 2013 at 3:55

1 Answer 1


Switch to Math Phys. It won't hurt your job prospects at all, since you don't want to be an experimentalist or phenomenologist. Math Phys covers any decent theoretical physics ground anyway. You'll be doing yourself a big favor and it will even help you focus more on one area of research, and put you into a healthier social environment.

  • 4
    I actually switched to straight up Mathematics :)
    – Ryker
    Jan 19, 2014 at 21:40

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