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I am hoping to become a physicist focusing mainly on the theoretical side in the future. I am trying to decide whether to go for a physics or math undergrad course.

Assuming that I am capable of doing either, what are the pros and cons of either route?

I know that mathematics is essential to doing physics, and in most math courses, there are applied math modules that are very much related to physics. Also that many research physicists have math degrees. But surely there is a reason why people choose the physics course over the math course and vice versa?

Thank you.

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    $\begingroup$ I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it is not a physics question. $\endgroup$ – ACuriousMind Dec 13 '16 at 21:03
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It depends a lot on your interests. If you are more drawn towards abstract thinking, it may be better to start -like me- the math and learn physics along the way, while if you are more drawn towards understanding physical phenomena, it may be better to start -like most physicists- with physics and learn math along the way. In the end you'll need both anyway for a thorough understanding.

You may also want to choose based on what you'd prefer to end up with in case you'll not have the stamina to complete both studies.

In any case, studying one subject properly (according to the syllabus of your university of choice) should not deter you from learning as much as you can about both sides of the coin.

People with different educational background and/or preferences will often develop different preferred approaches, though they learn of course the traditional ones, too. This diversity is an advantage, as different points of view complement each other.

If you plan your life actively rather than have it determined by circumstances, what you specialize on will mainly depend on what you want. Cultivating strong and well-defined interests is a definitive advantage, as it simplifies everything - choices, understanding, motivation, recognizing possibilities and open doors, etc.

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Sometime ago, I had same doubt, but finally, I chosen Physics for the following reasons:

Pure math is very abstract, you may go along very complex structures that will bring you to nowhere, in a sense of their practical usability. Modern math is very far of it's old philosophy "intuitionism" , and they try always to prove things that seems very obvious , this decreasing productivity very much, and dragging you back of understanding the "big picture", that of course not a wrong thing, but they are really exaggerating in that in my opinion. Besides other reasons I will not mention to keep it short.

My advice to you:

Try to read a math book for mathematicians and another one about the same subject specially for physicists, such that both of same subject. You will understand immediately what fits you. even from the first 50 pages, that how I understood what I want, and as a good example of such subject is "differential geometry".

P.S

May be you want to consider an "in the middle" solution: since physics is more intuitive-oriented, you will see a lot of hand waving in books of physics, mathematically ill defined objects, or even totally unacceptable manipulation ways (from math point of view, like Dirac delta function), or non rigorously derived things. If this makes you uncomfortable, you can go to "Mathematical Physics", there guys tries to make physics more "math-friendly" and rigorously defined, in the same time avoiding the usual "maze" of math abstraction.

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you can get a PH Degree on physics and then make a MASTER (sorry i do not how it is told in english) in mathematical physics or perhaps you can switch to mathematics and make a thesis on mathematical physics.

for me it is easier to learn MATH from PHYSICS than becoming a MATHEMATICIAN and then trying to learn physics

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  • $\begingroup$ Thank you, Jose. Would you mind explaining why it could be harder for a mathematician to learn physics than vice versa? $\endgroup$ – Rinaldo Sep 19 '12 at 10:25
  • $\begingroup$ One reason is physicists don't use terms correctly (e.g., Lie groups and Lie algebras are synonyms for physicists). Mathematicians go crazy over this stuff. Another reason is the lack of rigor, and generality of algebra is used often in physics... $\endgroup$ – Alex Nelson Sep 19 '12 at 15:42
  • $\begingroup$ yep, we physicst care only for the result :D (experiment) and sometimes we do not care about rigour but i do not think is so bad , another think mathematician do not usually like is the notation for multiple fourier integral $ exp(k.r) $ where k and r are vectors. $\endgroup$ – Jose Javier Garcia Sep 19 '12 at 16:16
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After reading this dialogue I can't help but feel like a burden on society....you're all so frickin smart. Anyway, here is two cents from Napoleon's corpral. There is no wrong answer here. Either course/path will enlighten and strengthen your capability to perform to greatest potential. However, I would ask you to acknowledge your passion...physics and race ahead with gusto. Also, this is not an either or. Do both! However, I would say physics first and then go back and police up any math skills later... Hope this helped???? Unless you have some sort of terminal illness you have about 60 years to get toward your goal.

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I don't know if there is a right answer of math vs. physics at an introductory level. However, what is important is content, concepts and context. The problem I have seen in many math classes is that they frequently have the content you will eventually need to understand, but they are taught generally independent of the physical concepts and context. Since I don't have the benefits of current course descriptions, I would take a day to map the key material being taught in physics courses to those taught in math courses. A simple table would suffice I think, this may be difficult since it is hard to know a priori what the underlying math in a physics course might be, but some quick searching for online references might help. In any case, one is looking for gaps in the mapping, and then try to understand why the gaps are there and how long it would take to fill them. One thing that is frequently an issue with physics is that they frequently do not keep pace with connecting back to what is being taught concurrently in mathematics and the mathematics will outpace the physics courses in introduction of new content. This might not be true in all universities, but there is often little coordination that would benefit the student.

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