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Returning to School for a Better Degree? 60

HerbieTMac asks: "I graduated a few years ago (AB '00) from a decent school. Having worked my myself quite nearly to death, I am now the proud owner of two bachelor's degrees in Economics and Public Policy. I also have put in a couple of years working as a Computer Science TA for the masters program. Being older and arguably wiser, I find that I don't really like where I am going and instead want to pursue a PhD in physics. The problem is that most PhD programs require an undergraduate degree in physics first. Or at least a significant amount of classwork in the field. Most of my physics knowledge has come from self-study and bumming class notes from friends. I'd love to go back to school and do the work for the AB but most schools won't accept applications for a second (in my case third) bachelor's degree. Has anyone else decided that they really didn't want to work with the first degree? How did you go about convincing a school that you are a good bet? Or even to let you do some preparatory course work?"
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Returning to School for a Better Degree?

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  • Older and wiser? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by xyzzy ( 10685 ) on Wednesday October 30, 2002 @11:45AM (#4564614) Homepage
    I really hate to say this, but if you are legitimately older and wiser, you'd reconsider the PhD in Physics, unless you are REALLY in love with the field.

    In ~15 years in the computer biz, I have worked with numerous Physics PhDs who have gotten OUT of the field due to lack of jobs (since we stopped doing bombs in the 80s), lack of research funding, and lack of ability to make progress in the field.

    Again, I don't want to disuade you if you are really in love with the field. But remember, a PhD is a 4-8 year commitment, and you better know where you are going before you jump.

    I think the Economics and Public Policy gig, combined with a knowledge of computers (which I am assuming from your /. posting) is a hot combo, personally!
    • I am legitimately older. All guarantees stop there.

      In my short time around, I have worked in industry, sport, education and government. I have seen the limitations of each and now, 7 years after deciding on my original path, I feel confident in where I want to be in the future.

      Economists, policy makers and those that implement the decisions are all limited to the tools at hand. Today, the tools are centralized, expensive and polluting. Research is the first step to changing that.

      Thanks for the advice, though. You sound satisfied with where you are.

      • Heh, I am with you on the older bit.

        It does sound like you've shopped around, so I'd say "go for it". I work with numerous PhDs, although I myself only have a Bachelor's degree. If you want to get into the University research community, I'd suggest that there is no better way than to develop a very close personal association with a faculty member at the institution you want to go to. If you have a prof that wants you as his/her grad student, you are in, no questions asked. If you try to go in through the front door, I would think your lack of credentials will hinder you because you won't get past the resume screener who is paid to say "no".

        I'd also recommend you read Phil Agre's "Advice for Undergraduates Considering Graduate School", a really good writeup about what it means to go for a PhD. It does sound like you've thought through most of the issues, but I'm posting it here for other people's benefit: oo l.html
    • by Chilles ( 79797 ) on Wednesday October 30, 2002 @12:21PM (#4564924)
      Your data set is screwed, all physics PhD's you meet have gotten out of the field already and therefore where not motivated enough or able enough to find a job in the physics field (or they felt the lure of IT money).
      If this guy is in love with the field he should go for it, physics needs motivated people, most physics students I know (myself included) get out of the field because they are unable to continually perform at the high intellectual level physics requires of them. To actually make a meaningfull contribution to physics these days you need to be one intelligent single minded dedicated person, It's just too damn hard for the rest of us.
      I would advice the original poster to honestly test his knowledge of physics and mathematics when compared to that of the physics bachelors/masters he knows. If he can convince his friends (who should be very sceptical if they take their own hard work serious) that he is at least at bachelor level in physics he should be able to convince a university.
      • by rw2 ( 17419 )
        Your data set is screwed, all physics PhD's you meet have gotten out of the field already and therefore where not motivated enough or able enough to find a job in the physics field (or they felt the lure of IT money).

        So how is his dataset screwed. All he said was that people were leaving it. The most plausible reason being one you yourself mention "the lure of IT money"

        The fact of the matter is that there are far more physicists graduating than there are physics jobs. Since he already has an Econ degree, I'll not bother enumerating what the does to physics salaries.

        If you love it, go into it. Be prepared not only for the educational cost, but the fact that you will likely be working for not much money for many years after you get your degree and that many physics positions that are available are as term employees and that even the above average will go through several terms before getting a 'real' job.

        Also be aware that physics is in many respects a government gig, and the government has dropped the physics budget every year for the last decade.

  • What a mess (Score:4, Insightful)

    by ivanandre ( 265129 ) <ivan.tamayo@gmai ... m ['oog' in gap]> on Wednesday October 30, 2002 @11:49AM (#4564659) Journal
    If you want to do a PhD in physics, believe me, you WANT to get an underdraduate title first... after all, physics is hard!
    • If you want to do a PhD in physics, believe me, you WANT to get an underdraduate title first... after all, physics is hard!

      Or at least get some sort of exposer to the math involved in seeking a physics degree. A lot of people with a casual knowledge of physics are shocked by how much physics is really applied mathematics.

  • Try this... (Score:3, Informative)

    by foistboinder ( 99286 ) on Wednesday October 30, 2002 @11:56AM (#4564719) Homepage Journal

    Rather than trying to get an undergraduate degree, just take the physics and math courses that an undergraduate would take. Find out from a graduate program what they think are the most important courses. FWIW, I knew a guy with a BA in English who eventually got a PHD in physics.

    • > FWIW, I knew a guy with a BA in English who
      > eventually got a PHD in physics.

      Heh, I had a roomate once who started out doing a BA English, got bored and transfered into an astrophysics degree, got bored, quit school and got a gig as a C++ developer.

      This was a good 10 years ago. I have no idea whatever happened to him! (Mark, if you're reading this, boo.)

      • What is it about astrophysics? A friend of mine was an Economics major, decided to go for Astrophysics, discovered (as someone else mentioned), that if you want to do work in the hard sciences, a bachelors isn't worth anything except to get into graduate school -- If only there was a job that combined astrophysics and economics.

        Maybe the buying/spending patterns of g-type stars?
  • by jsimon12 ( 207119 ) <tzzhc4@yahoo. c o m> on Wednesday October 30, 2002 @11:56AM (#4564723) Homepage
    My wife went to school wanting to do Anthropology (Primatology to be specific, the whole Jane Goodale thing), well after earning a BA in that she decided it really wasn't for her and she wanted to get a MFA (Masters of Fine Arts, the highest you can get in Art, basically a PhD for artists) so she could teach at the college level. Well they require all sorts of odd prequistes and such to get into those programs without you being a special stupid (stupid stuff like 2D design and art history 101). Well my wife has been an artist on the side for years and is actually ver accomplished, and sells pieces and has been in a couple shows. So in lieu of taking a bunch of classes she doesn't need she went and talked to the Dean of that department and the people in charge of admissions and showed them her work and explained herself and they waved the requirements.

    From what I have seen the best thing you can do is talk to the people in charge, don't talk to the low level consuler types they will simply point at the rules book. If you can prove yourself and prove you know what you are doing and that you have direction and drive and are willing to work hard most of the people in charge will let you wave stupid things. So in other words talk to people.
    • Wouldn't 2D design and Art History 101 be appropriate required courses for an MFA?
      • if you'd been working for ten years doing network/system administration, was knowledgable in more OS's than the CS prof could name, and basically really knew what you were doing when it came to IT, would you want to take a beginners compsci class, "intro to MS Office" before you could start on your way to a different degree?
      • by jsimon12 ( 207119 )
        2D design is a very very basic class, they teach basic color mixing (which any painter worth their salt can perform a months worth of these lessons in a matter of minutes), basic design concepts, what shapes are etc etc, it would be the equivelent of making an experianced Systems Admin take Intro to Microcomputer Applications (ie how to use Microsoft Office).

        Same thing goes for Art History 101, any good artist researches other artists and periods and styles, so taking this class is a review of things they have studied on their own.

        Of course this all depends on the person applying, some people with little experiance may require basic classes, in my wifes case they wouldn't of help further her, if anything it would have simply been an easy A, so she was able to get it waved and was allowed to spend her time (and my money ;) on classes that helped her (upper level MFA stuff).
    • That's all well and good, but art ain't physics and there's a good reason that physics programs require an undergrad in physics. That is, you simply have to have the knowledge taught in those classes. If you took the classes they want for grad school, then getting a BS in physics would be as simple as filling out a form in most schools. For many grad schools this isn't good enough either, they want a list of books you used in your upper-level coursework. This should include (at a minimum) texts in Quantum Mechanics, Electrodynamics, Classical Mechanics, and a few others depending on the sub-field you're interested in (Statistical Mechanics, Particle Physics, Plasma Physics, Astronomy etc).

      You will probably not be able to convince any graduate school worth its salt that you know all this stuff without having taken these courses.

      -- Bob

      • Excuse me for being ignorant, but your sig is bothering me. I can't find where the mistake is (if there is one?). Help me out, here...
      • You can do similar things with ANY degree, if you can prove you don't need the class and already know the material (and I am not talking klep(sic) tests) you can have the requirements waved. Colleges/Universities are like any larger beuracraycy, success in anything negotiation requires first and foremost finding the right person and second dealing with that person in the appropriate manner.

        As for your assertion of:

        "You will probably not be able to convince any graduate school worth its salt that you know all this stuff without having taken these courses."

        I don't think you are correct, it is a matter of talking to the right people. Sure if you go in and talk to JoeBlow advisor you will be unlikely to get anywhere, however if you talk to the dean or whoever is truly in charge and you can prove you have the know-how you will get results.
        • I don't think you are correct, it is a matter of talking to the right people.
          Note that I said worth it's salt. It can be done, it has been done, I know people that have done it. However, you must live with the fact that you will have to go to a grad school that is 2nd or 3rd tier in the field. You will not get into Harvard or Berkeley or MIT by being persuasive. 2nd tier schools accept people that do not have the greatest grades, GRE scores, or classroom experience, (however you should probably have 1 or 2 of the three) because out of that pool there are some gems. There are fewer gems than the pool of straight-A, GRE-acing people though.

          More importantly, if you intend to succeed in the field, you really really have to know that stuff, or you will most likely not be able to pass grad-level classes. It's more than just convincing some bureaucrat that you know it.

          Let me say this though. If you can sit down and go through an undergrad upper-level physics text (or better: grad level - mail me if you want references), and do most of the problems in each chapter, you will do very well. That kind of determination and drive is rare, even among physicists. I recommend large state schools. They're a bit easier to get into, and have a large faculty and student body (meaning many opportunities for research and interaction).

          I love Wisconsin! ;)

          -- Bob

          • You will not get into Harvard or Berkeley or MIT...

            Lets be honest here, you will NOT get into these schools more then likely period end of story. Persuasive or not they have VERY VERY high standards, people who graduate top of their class, get a 1600 on the SAT etc etc sometimes don't even get into these schools (my youngest brother got a near perfect SAT, graduated top of his prep school, played two varsity sports, did volunteer work at the local public hospital in pediatric ICU and he couldn't get into Harvard, he got offered a full ride to Stanford, Notre Dame, Loyola and some others but NOT Harvard, they waitlisted him). So your logic is a little faulty on this one, since even someone who has a undergrad in physics and good GRE scores may not even stand a good chance of getting into these three schools.

            Again I ask, what is wrong with asking, the worst they will say is no, why are so many people on Slashdot against asking? Does it have to do with some sense of fairness, thinking that someone hasn't earned their Masters unless they slaved away on their undergrad in the same field? Or is it the negative attitude that permeates the computer types in society?
      • My only question for you is why are you so against simply talking to someone over this? It will honestly hurt nothing to simply ask if it is possible to get outta prerequisites and/or to discuss alternatives with the dean or whoever. I think the guy should at least try. Simply nay saying something gets you nothing, and for the most part asking will not hurt anything, at worst they will say no, and even if they do they will at least see that you have ambition. And heck maybe it will work and the guy will be able to get outta some or all of the undergrad classes.
  • The way I see it is that school isn't fun. I mean I'm a CS Major going for my BS and college is awesome. But classes aren't. Most of the suck. I'm getting out of here asap. I like coding though, so when I get a job in the real world, it will be fun because I'll be coding. If you've already got degrees, don't get more, just get a job that you like and get on with life. If you spend all your time in school you wont have any time to spend on "real life".
    • You have no idea what you're talking about. I don't mean to be insulting, but it's pretty obvious that you have no idea what the real world is like.

      Maybe you'll get lucky and find this fantastic perfect job you're dreaming of, but in my experience it doesn't exist.

    • Spoken just like someone who hasn't finished a Bachelor's degree and entered the professional working world.

      Oh that's right, you haven't.

      For some (including me), going to class can suck ass. But when you're being considered for a job against someone else, and you both have the same experience level, the one with the higher degree wins in many cases. Some people would realize real quick that buckling down and pushing aside the suckiness of going back to school might give them a little more job security during hard times.

    • Here I am, brain the size of a planet with a BSCS... Open the door, Marvin, fetch the alien prisoners, Marvin, fix the broken windows box, Marvin, spend the afternoon in the staff meeting, Marvin....
    • Nothing is what it seems. Most experiences are disappointing. Coding the same thing more than once is a bore; and each time, when you're finished the company dies and takes their proprietary software down with them, and you have nothing except the money you probably already spent, and your hard work never sees the light of day, or is properly rewarded if it does.

      Probably the best advice is if you have food on the table and a roof with a computer and a 'net connection under it, be happy; and if you like coding so much, get your thrills from releasing open source. A job is generally just a job - to support your habits.

      Maybe if you had an advanced degree you could work in a cool research lab, but otherwise the only real opportunities will be those you create for yourself.
  • A tough choice (Score:4, Informative)

    by shoppa ( 464619 ) on Wednesday October 30, 2002 @12:17PM (#4564885)
    You would truly struggle if you started physics grad school without a very thorough physics and appropriate math background. Typical first-year grad school in physics would have Jackson-level Electrodynamics, some kind of quantum physics, etc. Most physics grad programs offer a "mathematical methods" class to get those who are coming in with a good physics background but maybe a weak physics background up to speed; you'll be needing a lot more than that.

    Undoubtedly your undergraduate math classes (probably first-year calculus and several statistics classes, given your undergrad degrees) were sufficient for your current degrees, but they just aren't enough for graduate-level physics.

  • What exactly do you want to do with a PhD in physics. Jobs after the fact are extremely competitive, more competitive than other scientific PhD's like chemistry or molecular biology.

    That said, I have found the best way is to ask academic laboratories near where you live for a job (one by one). The pay will be crap, but it would be experience for the resume that won't require a physics background like an internship.

  • consider a graduate degree first.
    graduate schools are less picky about your undergrad degrees (just that you have one and score well on tests). ...physics is a rather specialized field, though, so it may be different.

    with a masters in physics, the physics phd program should be far easier to get into.
  • by Anonymous Coward
    I wonder, you mentioned having an AB in Economics and Public Policy, did you attend the University of Chicago perhaps? Speaking as an alum myself I can understand your position. With how one takes a little bit of everything while at the UofC, it can be hard to figure out what it is you really wish to do for your career. I have undergraduate degrees in both Math and CS but working for a few years in the Sillicon valley really turned me off from the computer profession. By then I wanted to do something that really had some meaning and I was too old to reasonably continue in math so I took a job as a software engineer at a governemnt lab.

    If you want to work in the physics field you really do not need much of a physics background. For example much of experimental high energy physics and astro is done in large colaborations. They need computer programmers, sys admins, engineers, and technicans.

    You mentioned you have TA'ed for a Masters CS program. If this is the proffesional CS program from the UofC be sure to take the 'hard' courses. Most of that program is looked down upon by people in the know. When you are ready you can apply for a job at a national laboratory, say in the DoD or DOE. Look for work in in 'operations' on an accelerator, often this will be shift work, or in accelerator controls for example.

    Your coworkers will teach you what you need to know about physics to do your job and if you do it well you will be helping the collaboration do physics which is wgat you wanted. If you do indeed decide that physics is for you and you have some good luck, you may be able to do graduate research related to what you do, say accelerator operations, and have the lab fund a portion of it.
    • I feel like there should be some sort of secret handshake here. But what's the need when we can so easily identify the incidary markings of those years.

      I am curious; do you perceive your job now as meaningful? In other words, are you looking for something better? If so, what?

  • by cybermace5 ( 446439 ) <> on Wednesday October 30, 2002 @12:33PM (#4564999) Homepage Journal
    Sounds like you have a little difficulty determining what you really want.

    Did it ever occur to you, while working toward you other two degrees, that it wasn't what you wanted to do? You could have switched majors and been much further ahead then where you are now, which is probably in debt and with two essentially worthless (for what you want to do) degrees.

    I suggest you pay more attention to what you're doing this time. Maybe find a way to work with actual physicists and determine if you like it.

    Whatever, it's just another "O Great Oracle of Ask Slashdot, guide me in my everyday life choices!" question.
    • Wow. What good points.

      I am glad that engineering is right up your alley and you made the good choice the first time. Hopefully, it will be rewarding enough to continue throughout your life.

      I will pay better attention this time. Luckily I was able to indentify where I need to be before it was too late. Hopefully, should you find yourself in a similar situation at some point in the future, you will find just the answer you need in this oracle.

    • Well, I'm not sure if I'd qualify getting a PhD in physics an "everyday life choice," but I definitely agree with cybermace5's advice.
      I just started a PhD in geophysics (substantially easier, I suspect, than what you're considering), but I've already spent 4+ years finding out that I enjoy geophysics. Borrowing course notes isn't really enough experience to figure out whether or not you like physics enough to dedicate, and I do mean dedicate, the better part of a decade to its study. Find a way to work near physicists for a while and see what you think.
      • know, people make these kinds of decisions every day. And it's one of the choices that at least don't lock you out of trying something different after a short time.

        I'm hoping that, in a few years, engineers and scientists will be in high demand again. There are already reports out there that students (at least the ones only in it for the money) are switching out to other majors like journalism.
  • Take the physics sybject GRE.

    If you do decently, you'll be ok, if not, I stongly recommend you consider giving up.

    Schools tend to put a lot of emphasis on that test, so if you do well, you have a chance at getting in. If you really want to go through getting a BS, and then applying... that's means it's going to be 10 years before you're done... and then you'll probably post-doc for another few years... it could take a while.

    Don't listen to all the doubting computer scientests out there, they forget that computer science and engineering are branches of physics. There are some branches where jobs are plentiful (optics, materials), and some where they're not so plentiful (particle, cosmology).

    If it helps, I do know one physics PhD who recieved his degree when he was in his forties. It can be done.
    • Take the physics sybject GRE.

      Absolutely, that will verify if you have an understand of the concepts of physics as well as test some of your math background.

      When I first read the question, I just about spit out my coffee. Math and Science are not like other fields. They build upon incremental knowledge. You cannot just walk into a PhD program without the background studies. After embarrassing yourself with the physics GRE, I would recommend taking the following courses before trying again:

      Freshmen Physics (2 semesters, you might not need this if you are as knowledgable as you say), Optics (1 semester), E&M (2 semesters), Mechanics (2 semesters), Quantum Mechanics (1-2 semesters), Modern Physics (1 semester) and Thermodynamics (1 semester).

      Additionally, you need the following Math courses:

      Calc 1&2, Mutivariable Calc, Differential Equations, Partial Differential Equations, Linear Algebra, and Complex Analysis.

      The 18 semesters worth of courses listed above are just the basics, of course.
  • IU. (Score:3, Interesting)

    by eclectric ( 528520 ) <> on Wednesday October 30, 2002 @12:44PM (#4565075)
    indiana university doesn't put any restrictions on how many undergrad degrees you have. You might have to re-take basic coursework because classes only count for 10 years, but that's to be expected. You could always test out of those classes.

    I'm going back for a second degree, but that's not because I didn't like the first.
  • by Eric Green ( 627 ) on Wednesday October 30, 2002 @01:35PM (#4565547) Homepage
    Middle-tier state universities (as vs. top-tier universities) typically don't care whether this is your second or fiftieth undergraduate degree. They get funded by the state based on how many bodies they have filling chairs, so most of them will accept you regardless as long as your transcript shows that you had at least a 2.5 GPA at your last university. Though I'll note that in many cases it's just as easy to get into a Master's degree program as it is to get another bachelor's degree at these universities (though you have to take the GRE and have a 3.0 GPA in most cases). For example, at the university I graduated from, many of the folks going for a MS in Computer Science had degrees in a wide variety of subjects. My TA when I was a freshman had an undergraduate degree in general studies!

    Eric Lee Green BadTux []

    • For example, at the university I graduated from, many of the folks going for a MS in Computer Science had degrees in a wide variety of subjects.

      Not to knock Comp Sci majors (I mean hell, I am one), but if you're someone who is good at logic and problem solving you're not going to learn very much at all from getting an undergrad degree in CS. On the other hand, Physics may start out intuitive in Physics I and II, but once you get beyond that it's just not something you're going to be able to fake your way through. Trust me, I've tried.

      As for getting into a middle-tier state university for a master's program, I've tried that too, and failed, but maybe it's possible. But if one goes that route they should expect to take 4 or 5 undergrad courses while getting their master's. Which if you're paying grad prices to take undergrad courses is perhaps a bit silly. Most places will let you go non-matriculated for 4 or 5 undergrad courses, so perhaps that's the cheapest route (unless you want to haunt the classes, which would be free if you can find the professors to let you).

  • except that I have a Comp Sci degree, so maybe I have a little bit more on the math side (and I'd taken Physics I&II). Anyway, one thing you need to do eventually is take the GREs. Last year I took modern physics and mathematical methods for physics at a local college (and got two As :) and then failed the hell out of the Physics GREs. Yeah, you can't fail them, but I was in the bottom 15% or something. So that told me that I was going to need more studying before I could tackle grad school. I'm now taking Quantum Mechanics, and I need to take at least Analytical Mechanics and E&M (which is not Physics II).

    I've already taken Calc I and II, and Linear Algebra, which combined with Math Methods for Physics should be enough for undergrad, though it would be nice if I took Calc III (multivariable) and/or Diff EQs (both of which were covered in Math Methods, but we spent about one week on each of them).

    In the mean time I passed the Physics (and Chemistry and Physical Science) Praxis exams with flying colors, so once I get my application in and processed I'll have an alternative route certificate to teach high school while getting the extra education I need (and they'll pay for my masters if I decide to do that part time).

  • by f97tosc ( 578893 ) on Wednesday October 30, 2002 @02:57PM (#4566437)
    Do you want to go to a theoretical or applied branch?

    If you want to do hard-core theoretical physics you need to be extraordinary intelligent and hard-working to do even a minor contribution to the field. Of course, it you are really passionate about it you will be rewarded just by getting a better understanding about the world we live in.

    If you want to do some applied physics (say material science or space propulsion) the prospects are much better to do a serious contribution, especially if you are smart, hard-working and lucky.

    Tor (physics BS/MS now in consulting)
  • Trade ya (Score:2, Interesting)

    by jasonditz ( 597385 )
    heh... funny I just spent 5 years getting a double major B.S. in physics and math, only to find I can't do a damned thing with them.

    I was considering going to grad school for finance... too bad we can't swap degrees :)
    • Oh, you don't want to do that. Finance is all about the money. Where's the heart, man? Where's the heart?

      Seriously, though, you don't want to work further with that?

    • I was in your situation (except it was after I spent almost 6 years in grad. school, although I did get a MS out of it). If you are so inclined, consider software test. You get to define and execute tests (just like physics), point out mistakes in other people's work (so you maintain your better-than-thou attitude you culture after years as a math-physics student) and generally get paid better than college professors and post-docs. Of course, you have to work to break through the "don't have your CS degree" misperception that some employers have. But even in this economy, the smart companies have an even greater need for software testers, because when you lay off a few developers, the remaining ones will be working that much harder, with less time. Do you really think they'll be generating fewer bugs?

      Interestingly, I just went back to graduate school myself. I'm working on a MS in Software Engineering. (Figured I'd get some "real" creds.) Hey, it's fun to be working full-time and also be a full-time student.
      • oh god, I can't tell you how many people won't interview me because they "want someone with a CS degree".

        On the off chance they do give me an interview, the first question is "do you know COBOL?"... I will try out the "software testers" idea though, thanks for the advice.
    • Start your own business! What are did you specialize in?

      Here's a few things to look into:
      Alternate Energy
      applied use of a Telsa Turbine

      I was tinkming about building a device that caputures RF from local television transmitters
      (1 block away) and rectify the energy to DC.
      I managed to power an AM/FM radio this way!

      Sulfur cake batteries. Look them up, the railroad used them in the 1890s.. and they work well!

      Too bad you didn't minor in chemistry.
      I've been playing aroun with fuel cell technology.

      If you can't find a job, now is the time to start
      your own research firm.

      I designed my own Telsa Coil for haloween.
      Ahh good old flyback transformers.

  • Speaking as a physics PhD, post-doctoral researcher, and person currently looking for faculty jobs...

    1) I agree with the person who said take the GREs. If you have a good undergrad degree in physics, and good letters of recommendation, the GREs are not that important. However, if you have none of these things but did well on the GREs then you will get looked at.

    2) I know a lot of physics PhDs who have left "research" for programming, consulting and all sorts of weird and wonderful things. Some leave because they couldn't make the cut (and these are the bitter and twisted ones :-) in a tight job market, but lots of the people I know who have left research are smart people who left of their own volition.

    3) Do ask yourself why you want to do this -- a PhD is a lot of hard work.

    4) Identify some institutions / individuals who do work that you are interested in, and email them (and perhaps sit a couple of mock GREs first, so you can reassure them you are not a complete daydreamer) for advice.

    5) I know plenty of people who have completed PhDs without a strong undergraduate background in physics, so it is not impossible.

  • Few if any colleges will allow one to enter an PhD program without adequate background, but many are willing to entertain allowing a student into a Master's program if you can demonstrate sufficient background or enough that they will let you in under a "provisional" status and then have you take some remedial courses.

    It worked for me. :-) I entered an MSc program in CS that way, graduated with a 4.0 and have been accepted into the PhD program.

  • Try master's first (Score:1, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward
    Some schools will admit you to a Master's degree program on a provisional basis. Admittedly, physics is a tough discipline to break into. Look into getting a master's degree in a related field, like mathematics.
  • You can take the courses you need as a non-degree seeking student. The graduate schools will look at your transcripts, see the requisite courses, and let you in (provided you've jumped through all the other hoops first, of course). Education is all about jumping through hoops for people. Jump through the right hoops for the right people, and you can get where you need to go.

    Also, since you have an educational background in econ, you might be able to get into a graduate program in Math. From there it's an easier jump to graduate degrees in physics. They may let you play their PhD games, even!

    Finally, you can always try to get a favor from a former professor. Did you take any physics in college at all? How about math? Go talk to your professors, and talk to professors and admissions officers at schools you are interested in.

    The slashdot crowd has many intelligent people with great ideas, but that's no substitute for talking to the very people who really do control your destiny. Talk to the colleges, not us.
  • why here? (Score:4, Informative)

    by ameoba ( 173803 ) on Wednesday October 30, 2002 @07:24PM (#4569276)
    By turning to Ask Slashdot you're missing the most obvious place to get information, the admissions office and advisors at the school(s) you want to go to. Having recently looked at grad schools, many schools (and even departments inside of them) have wildly differing requirements. A few emails to will probably get you a lot more useful, relevant, accurate information than 100 posts here.

    My $0.02 : Find a not-entirely-prestigious school that will let you into their MS program and let you make up the undergrad classes that you're missing out on (could probably bust them out in a year or so) and from there transver into the Really Good School to finish up the PhD. That way, you not only make up the missing undergrad work quickly, you also end up with a MS degree at the halfway point, giving you an advanced degree to fall-back on if you decide to not go on to the PhD.

Memory fault -- brain fried