Take de Broglie

De Broglie had intended a career in humanities, and received his first degree in history. Afterwards, though, he turned his attention toward mathematics and physics and received a degree in physics

And Edward Witten,a very famous theoretical physicist

Witten attended the Park School of Baltimore (class of '68), and received his Bachelor of Arts with a major in history and minor in linguistics from Brandeis University in 1971. He published articles in The New Republic and The Nation. In 1968 Witten published an article in The Nation arguing that the New Left had no strategy.[citation needed] He worked briefly for George McGovern's presidential campaign. McGovern lost the 1972 election in a landslide to Richard Nixon.
Witten attended the University of Wisconsin–Madison for one semester as an economics graduate student before dropping out.[citation needed] He returned to academia, enrolling in applied mathematics at Princeton University[citation needed] then shifting departments and receiving a Ph.D. in physics in 1976 under David Gross, the 2004 Nobel laureate in Physics.

In china,student major in history or literature won't study mathematics at all,and almost everyone think it's impossible for someone receive BA then turn to science,so how did someone receive BA and then become a scientist?

  • 2
    Probably this very famous string theorist. Commented Apr 8, 2013 at 13:35
  • @Willie Wong You are right,sir. Commented Apr 8, 2013 at 13:39
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    Also, that very famous string theorist went to Brandeis, which in proud US liberal arts tradition requires every student to enroll in at least one science class; though what they define as Science and Quantitative Reasoning is quite broad. Commented Apr 8, 2013 at 13:42
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    In china,student major in history or literature won't study mathematics at all <-- I personally happen to know several counter examples.
    – Nobody
    Commented Apr 11, 2013 at 4:12
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    In some countries "Bachelor of Arts" means you took extra arts/humanities courses (usually language). For example, in the U.S., you can have a BA in Engineering.
    – Ben Norris
    Commented May 10, 2013 at 21:40

4 Answers 4


It's not impossible if you try hard (and a little bit of luck). I did my undergraduate in urban planning (had math), masters in bio-physics and will be getting a doctorate in CS and finally joining a lab modeling and studying arctic ice melts for my post-doc.

  • Was it hard? Yes, absolutely.
  • Did I have to learn (and struggle with) certain concepts much later than those that did their undergrad, masters, doctorate, all in X? Yes
  • Do some people not give my resume a second look because they think I'm a drifter? Yes

In reality, while it is a weird path on paper, I never took something up because it sounded fancy. In all the cases, I was genuinely motivated by something unsolved in the new field. While it was easier to switch fields as a grad student, it's a lot tougher now, as a post-doc and early career scientist, because one needs to cozy up to the funding managers and build a rapport etc., which is not possible if I'm changing, so I probably won't (I'm happy where I am now).

We all have things and topics that interest us in other fields (that we aren't working in), but are constrained by various factors such as funding, inability to relocate, etc. I just happened to get lucky with a couple of internships (where the PI said he chose me because I went to a top school), which gave me the necessary boost to get to the next stage. That, and I performed exceedingly well at them, to get glowing recommendations which then got me the next one, etc.

I must also note that I don't think any of this would've been possible if this were in Europe or Asia (where I did my UG). I have observed that in general, in North America (as far as grad school goes), people are more willing to consider your potential rather than what you've done so far (if you've already done something impressive thus far, then it counts more).


The thing to remember is that an individual is more than their degree classification.

Every person has their own interests, hobbies, skills, and personal projects. While a BA in one field may be an indicator of a person's interests, it does not mean that the person in question knows nothing outside of what was required for that degree.

For example, it is very possible that a person receiving a BA in philosophy may:

  • enjoy a STEM discipline, leading them to take classes in it for their own enjoyment
  • enjoy a STEM discipline or topic and choose to learn about it on their own
  • end up in a job that requires that they learn skills that are applicable to a different discipline
  • apply to graduate school for a STEM discipline and be willing and able to invest the time to catching up on the material
  • be naturally gifted at whatever the STEM discipline is

Most likely, in cases where people change disciplines, it's a combination of several of the above.

Anecdotally, I got a BFA, but continued taking calculus as a free elective in my undergraduate degree. I had to learn programming for work after graduating and ended up in graduate school for Computer Science. I entered graduate school with the knowledge that I would need to work at least twice as hard to catch up on the material and just went ahead and worked at it.

It may be completely different in other countries, but even in those countries, I can't imagine that anyone is completely limited to only knowing things that are required for their degree. There are a lot of situations that can force you to learn new skills, and that's without taking into account that some people have hobbies that are cross-discipline.

Another way of looking at it is: would you be surprised if a famous physicist played the violin well enough to perform? There's no logical reason why someone who plays the violin shouldn't be able to do the same the other way around. Both require a progressive learning of skills and a large time investment, unless you're naturally gifted.


This was supposed to be a comment, but it got just a little long.

Well, in both of your examples, the person did a second undergraduate degree. There's no indication that they necessarily studied any mathematics or science in their first degree. So I don't see that there's anything very surprising going on there.

However, in some countries (such as the US and New Zealand), undergraduate degrees can be fairly broad, so a person who is mainly studying humanities might very well take some science courses as well (in fact, they might even be required to). [My first degree was a BA - however one of my majors ended up being mathematics. I only took two maths courses in my first two years, though, before deciding to change from music to maths.]


Witten's father was a theoretical physicist. I wouldn't be shocked if you dug his biography and found out that he learned all the basic undergraduate physics and mathematics under guidance from his father even before he enrolled in graduate school. This, after all, is a speculation, but the fact that his father is a theoretical cosmologist is very suggestive. ;-

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