I'm applying for undergraduate studies and there is one question that keeps returning to my mind. Lots of novel degree programmes started to emerge within universities (at least where I live). For instance, one started offering a course in "Quantum Engineering", another one in "Nanostructure Engineering". Undoubtedly, a major cause for that is marketing (they sound nice), but when I looked into them, most are just interdisciplinary, specialized degrees in physics with chemistry.

Now, assuming I'm willing to pursue a PhD in an area related to those previously mentioned degrees, how would having one of those degrees affect an application as opposed to having a standard degree in physics?

On one side, I find such degrees more commensurate with my interests and intentions for further study, which would allow me to specialize earlier. Thus, I should be able to find and perform relevant research or internships more easily. But I'm also worried that such novel degrees would spark cynism and distrust that could be disadvantageous to a potential application for a PhD.

Thanks in advance for any response.

  • 2
    I would be wary of specialising too early- your interests may have changed three or four years down the line. An alternative course of action might be to start on an ordinary physics degree and choose to take optional courses in quantum and nanotechnology if possible. Jun 10, 2017 at 22:27

3 Answers 3


Note that I'm answering this from the perspective of an applicant rather than someone on a PhD admissions committee.

"(...) how would having one of those degrees affect an application as opposed to having a standard degree in physics?"

I don't think that the name of the degree itself would affect your application. However, I think it would be a good idea to make sure that you carefully explain the content of your degree (for instance, in your research statement/ statement of interest/ personal statement, or get one of your referees to do this in their letter), so that the admissions committee understands what courses you have taken and how these relate to a more "standard" degree scheme.

From the degree titles that you mention, I'm guessing that these will involve a large amount of normal undergraduate physics and maths, the names of which will also be on your transcript for the admissions people to see.

"I'm also worried that such novel degrees would spark cynicism and distrust that could be disadvantageous to a potential application for a PhD."

The most important component of a successful PhD application is your demonstrated aptitude or ability to perform research. If you can do this, and do it well, then I think the name of your degree will matter less.

I speak from personal experience on this; my undergraduate degree is in Astrophysics, with a lot of specialised astro modules, but for my PhD I'm moving into theoretical cosmology, an area which is more commonly populated by applied mathematicians and theoretical physicists. I just had to make sure I "sold" my degree to the admissions committees by explaining that my degree was sufficiently theoretical. Getting some research experience by writing a dissertation during my fourth (Master's) year undoubtedly helped this.

If you're still worried about people distrusting the value of your degree, I would recommend trying to find out if the degree scheme is accredited in any way; for example, here in the UK, all reputable physics degrees are standardised and accredited by the Institute of Physics. I don't know what country you are in, but something similar may exist there.

Finally, as I mentioned in a comment, it might be best not to specialise too early (although you sound as though you have a pretty good idea of what you want to do). The option in this case would be to enroll on a straight physics degree scheme and specialise later on by taking any optional modules that are available (modules which would probably be mandatory if you were on the Quantum Engineering scheme, for example). The best person to advise you about the possibility of doing this would be the admissions tutor at the university offering these courses. They will be able to tell you what combinations of modules lead to which degree.

  • I have never heard that graduate schools worry whether an applicant has completed an accredited program or not. Some employers do care, but the OP probably doesn't care about this. If it's a new degree program in the U.S., it quite possibly isn't accredited, because the accreditation bureaucracy can take an inordinate amount of time. Jun 12, 2017 at 12:54
  • @Peter The graduate schools might not care, but it may give the OP some peace of mind that the degree is legitimate and follows a standard physics curriculum. Jun 12, 2017 at 13:47

Caveat: I'm a mathematician, and I don't really know how physics (or other disciplines) graduate admissions committees think (although I expect it differs substantially from committee to committee).

If you take nearly all the courses that a standard physics major is expected to take, I don't think a novel name on your undergraduate degree is going to keep you from getting accepted into graduate school in physics. It certainly wouldn't in the math graduate admission processes I've been involved with.

If you don't take all the courses that a standard physics major is expected to take, then this could pose a barrier to being accepted at a physics graduate school, as you wouldn't be able to start taking the standard physics curriculum in graduate school. (But with great recommendations, you should be able to overcome this disadvantage.) Many departments use the GRE as a filter, so it would really help to have enough background to get a reasonably good score on the Physics Subject GRE.


"how would having one of those degrees affect an application as opposed to having a standard degree in physics?"

It would make no difference. In your PhD application, make sure you state what kind of research you are interested in performing. If the things you studied in your Bachelor's are relevant to the research you want to perform, everything is fine. If you only studied quantum engineering and you want to get a PhD in gravitation, then there would be a problem. The problem is not in the name of the degree, but rather in the mismatch of content.

It is good that your university realises that Quantum Engineering and Nano Engineering are becoming their own disciplines (though the latter is still ill-defined).

  • In many physics departments, graduate students are not only expected to do research; they are also expected to take a standard introductory graduate physics curriculum and to be teaching assistants for large undergraduate classes. If you're not qualified for these, you may have difficulty getting admitted, And (this may be related to the above considerations) if you don't know enough to get a good score on the Physics Subject GRE, for many departments in the U.S. you will have a very small chance of admission. Oct 25, 2017 at 17:54
  • @PeterShor In my experience (quite out of date now) the Physics Subject GRE was a test of how fast you can answer freshman-level questions. A nonmajor should be able to get a good score. I doubt admissions committees care much about how students will do in graduate courses or as TAs. They just want students who produce quality publications. The exception would be low-ranked programs; they accept students just to get a source of TAs, then kick them out after qualifying exams. Oct 27, 2017 at 6:38
  • GRE Physics Subject Content: Classical Mechanics, E&M, Waves, Thermodynamics, Quantum Mechanics, Stat. Mech., and a little bit of special relativity and laboratory methods. That sounds to me exactly like the first five semesters of undergraduate physics. If you knew all this as a freshman, kudos to you. And if the OP has the first four or five semesters or so of undergrad physics, physics departments will probably be willing to take him. Oct 27, 2017 at 10:54
  • Princeton Physics PhD Departments Admissions: your coursework must include the core of an undergrad physics program: mechanics, electricity & magnetism, thermal and statistical physics, quantum mechanics, and experimental (lab) work. Slightly less background than required for the GREs, but still a lot more than freshman physics. Oct 28, 2017 at 2:05
  • @PeterShor in my experience the GRE subjects you listed are included in freshman physics textbooks. In second and third year physics the topics are taught again, but at a higher level than in most GRE questions. Oct 30, 2017 at 0:40

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