Does there need to be a common theme for STEM triple major?

My freshman son is planning on triple majoring in Physics, Math & CS, and with AP exam placement and his college’s open curriculum, this could be possible if he remains interested in all 3. He will get academic major advisors at the end of next year if/when he declares all 3 majors, but I am just curious if anyone knows if he eventually wants to do graduate studies in Physics, if because his 3 potential majors are somewhat related unlike choosing a French, Film and Math major, would a graduate school expect his upper level concentrations and research in each major be somewhat related? He will be eligible to select upper level electives soon for his sophomore fall.

He is currently doing an independent study guided reading math project with a graduate student on a topology topic and wants topology to be the focus his upper level elective math courses, so I was wondering if his other potential majors would then need to have a topology related focus too. Not completely sure if that would even be possible.

Why a triple major? Why not, say, a physics major with minors in CS and math?


I was a math major in university, and my first job (a long time ago) was as a software engineer at a physics research facility. I have also more recently had a couple of tours of other major physics research facilities. To me these three majors are very much related. At least both particle accelerators and large radio telescopes use a lot of computers and a lot of mathematics. I would expect that this applies to other physics also but I am not as familiar with other physics research.

I am not sure that I see the point of a triple major. However, I also do not think that your son needs to decide this yet. I at least took the courses required for all three majors through the first two years of university, and then decided to focus primarily on one (math), with a few course in the second (CS). Physics I stopped taking after quantum physics.

At least to me physics becomes less “real” when you get to quantum physics. Your son might want to get this far before he decides what major(s) to continue with.

If your son is interested in physics research, I would be inclined to be more serious towards applied math rather than pure math. At least linear algebra, calculus and differential equations, and probability and statistics and stochastic processes can be useful in physics research. There may be other types of applied math that could also be useful.

I do not know how physics or CS research proposals would be related to topology. Perhaps I am just missing something here.

My suggestion is that your son not worry about it too much, and take classes and participate in research that he finds interesting. Nearly all of us take some time to figure out where we want to focus. It is very common to first make progress in one area and think that is what you want to do, but then discover that something else is really the right path. If you have the brains, background, and drive to make a contribution in one area, then you probably can also make a contribution in any one of multiple different areas.

I would not try to find a physics project that relates to topology. Rather I would try to find a physics project that is interesting, and if reasonably possible uses computers and math (which I think describes a lot of physics research).


Physics PhD programs are likely to focus mainly on physics; non-physics course work would only be relevant as it relates to physics (which could apply to many math and some CS courses), not whether the applicant completed an additional major.

Similar with math or CS PhD programs regarding out-of-major course work.

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Thank you for your responses. I will pass on your advice to my son.

Why triple majoring- He was torn between majoring in math and physics when he started last semester, so decided he would double major. He then told us part way through first semester that after completing the math and physics majors, he would only need to take a few additional courses to add a major in computer science, which he also enjoys.

He will be through all calculus/multivariable/linear algebra/discrete math courses and the gateway courses for CS and Physics (+2 physics quarter electives) after this semester. The open curriculum only requires minimal distribution requirements and he told us he may try to even get some humanities and social science courses done in summer session so he can do more STEM classes during the school year. We are not pushing him, this is all him. We told him to follow his interests and adjust his plans if his interests change, the work became too overwhelming or he wants to focus more heavily on any of the potential 3 majors. He is enjoying and doing well (Dean’s list) in his classes, and has time to hit the gym every day and play intramurals and a 2 season club sport, but I will be happy when he gets official major advisors to guide him next year to make sure his course choices present the best for any future studies.

  1. Many, many physics majors end up with at least a math minor w/o trying, b/c of their major requirements, so physics PhD programs are well used to seeing that.

  2. PhD programs care about your work in their field. If your son double majored in French and Physics and applied for a Physics Phd program the only time his French background would come into play would be if it was somehow relevant to the work they were doing. A PhD in Math is a very different beast than a PhD in Physics, despite the overlap in their underpinnings. To that end…

  3. If a PhD is a likely path the sooner he starts doing research the better. He needs to know 1) if he likes doing research and 2) what, in particular, interests him, and there is no way to know that without just doing it.

  4. Computational physics is a thing- and you either like it or you don’t! The physics collegekid spent a summer at Sandia National Labs in NM doing computational physics. It was an REU through the NSF (she also did one at Argonne), and they were transformational for her.


His college has a small amount of graduate students so undergraduates are relied upon for research projects, to the extreme that the policy is “ Check out the research summaries outside of room 201 and talk to faculty.” He is planning on being involved in physics research on campus next fall and to look into the REU program for the summer after his sophomore year. Did your child start the REU program after freshman year or sophomore year? He thought he was more likely to be accepted after next year once he declares his major(s) and has another year of college experience.

I think it’s important to make a distinction between keeping three major options in play, early on, and being intent on completing all three majors. There’s little benefit to a triple degree. If he’s continuing to grad school, he’ll have to pick one discipline for that; and if he’s going into the workforce, employers will care more about skill-sets and knowledge base than about stacking up majors, so a minor in a secondary field can be more than adequate.

For double (or triple) majors, there doesn’t have to be a common theme - the only potential issue is that some dual majors (where you’re getting a single degree with two majors, rather than two separate degrees) may require a single thesis or capstone that is relevant to both.

My suggestion would be to map out the curriculum for the triple major, but to go in with the intention of paring down to a double major, or a single major with two minors, as he gets farther along and gains clarity about his priorities. If he doesn’t plan to do this, the depth with which he can pursue his primary field (the one he plans to pursue in grad school) will suffer. He simply won’t have as much time for advanced coursework and research as a single-major student who isn’t spreading himself so thin. Strategizing to keep options open is wonderful, but at some point the time will come to make a primary commitment and pare the others back.


Your son is right that it usually the summers after 2nd & 3rd year. Our one did a (paid) research project on campus over the summer after 1st year, and then did the 2 REUs.

Have your son check his college, but many just want a major declaration by the end of 2nd year- and let you add majors and minors right up to something like 10 minutes before graduation (I exaggerate, but not by much- one of ours added a major autumn of senior year). If physics is the core interest, he can just sign up as a physics major, and take math & cs courses as suits, and if they are adding up to a ‘major’, register for it then (one advantage: you don’t have to take some of the dud classes that every major seems to have stuck in someplace). Grad schools will look at the actual classes you have taken, and are much less bothered by the name of your major(s) than UGs ever believe!


His college offers a free 5th year MA Program of “intensive research experience” for each of the 3 majors. He would obviously have to pick one of his possible majors if he chooses this option, but it might be a way for him to get more intense coursework and research if he can’t be persuaded from his current undergraduate plan. I hope one choice becomes clearer for him as he takes more upper level courses and gets academic advisor planning advice.

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First of all, nearly all colleges require special permission to triple major (beyond the signature of his academic advisor). No college that I’m aware of allows a student to declare triple major immediately. He likely needs to convince quite a few people at his college before he can declare 3 majors. For his third major, he likely won’t get the consent to declare it until at least his junior year.

Then there’s the question of why triple major. There’s certainly synergy among the three majors, but that doesn’t mean it makes sense. As others have mentioned, no grad school or employer will give special consideration for triple major. There’re some disciplines of physics (e.g. theoretical physics) that require much more math (including abstract/pure math) than others. If he’s interested in one of those (he may be if he likes topology), he can certainly double major in both. There’re also some disciplines in CS that are much more pure/abstract math intensive (e.g. CS theories), some much more applied math intensive (e.g. deep learning) than other disciplines of CS. It may make sense to double major if he’s interested in one of those areas. If his interest is in quantum computing (especially on the hardware side), double majoring in CS and physics may make some sense (but is still unnecessary).

To summarize, I see some benefits of double majoring, but no benefit of triple majoring (and certainly no need to contemplate it right now).


A double major sends the message “a go-getter who can take on the challenge and extra work”

A triple major sends the message “can’t make up his mind and happy to be a perpetual student”

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That was what I was afraid of, especially if the 3 majors went in different directions. He is still just a freshman, so hopefully will figure out more of a focus over the next few years especially once he starts being involved in research. I will pass on everyone’s advice,concerns and insight to him. Thank you.

I checked the Graduation Majors report and over the last 10 years there seem to be around 10 students each year graduating with a triple major at his school; one year had 18. That’s not to say he should do the same, but I guess that is why the idea is in his head. He is my only, and I had never considered more than one college major for myself, so I do really appreciate everyone’s responses and insight. I am hoping with the school’s guidance he will figure out a successful path.

A course in probability is also a good one to take at some point. I think that I might not have taken this until my junior year. I definitely used this both when working at a physics research center, and again several times at other jobs.


I don’t disagree. But triple majors are so constrained in their courses, that may not be possible. Another problem with triple majoring.

This might be showing my bias. However, I would drop the triple major before I would skip taking at least one course in probability as an undergrad. At least in my experience some knowledge of probability and elementary statistics is just too useful to want to skip it. I think that this is true for a physics major, and also for a math major, and also for a CS major.

The way my freshman son explained it to me is he has 3 undergraduate years left with a maximum of 5 courses each semester. (He plans to complete his remaining 4 Humanities and Soc Science distribution credits using some combination of the 2 winter sessions and 2 summer sessions offered every year, leaving just courses in the 3 majors for the school year sessions.) Not counting twice any required courses used for more than one major and not reducing it for any elective courses that may apply to more than one major, he has left to complete-

Math: 2 math required,
3 math electives
Physics: 2 recommended math courses
4 required physics courses
3 elective physics courses
2 required labs (each worth 1/2 course)
CS: 5 required cs courses
2 elective cs courses
Total: 23 courses

I did not come up with this plan and am hoping once he gets major advisors they will make sure this is either a plan they support or will get him him to alter his plan. His plan may also change along the way since he is only a freshman and has not yet been involved in research. I am going to let him know the concerns raised here.

He does have credit for a statistics course from his AP score, but I agree he should plan to take a probability course and maybe another statistics course.

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I think his objective shouldn’t be to fit 3 major requirements into his plan of study. The required courses and electives for each major are the minimum for that major. There’re other courses in each of these fields that will likely benefit him more for grad school and/or his career (in terms of the breadth, and more importantly the depth) in the field that he may eventually pursue. I’d advise that he picks the courses based on what would make him a better physicist, mathematician, or computer scientist in the field of his ultimate choice, whether that means just one major, or two, or all three.


AP statistics is probably considered too low level for someone in a high-math major who needs statistics (in high-math majors the expectation will be for more advanced calculus-based statistics).

CS often requires some probability theory (or includes it in some other course), and physics typically requires a statistical and thermal physics course. However, he may choose to take additional more advanced statistics courses.