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I have heard natives say both

student with physics background

and

student with a physics background

so I assume both expressions are grammatical.

Is there any difference in meaning?

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    I don't like the article-less version very much. I suggest you avoid it. To me, the only "meaning" it conveys is that the speaker/writer is sloppy and/or not well-educated (or simply "not a native speaker"). Jan 12 '19 at 19:41
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    I agree that the article should always be used. I believe it's ungrammatical to leave it out (aside from in headlinese)—but I'm having difficulty forming a cogent argument. Jan 12 '19 at 20:05
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    Are you sure you haven’t heard /seen “students with physics backgrounds”? The article gets omitted when the phrase is in the plural.
    – J.R.
    Jan 12 '19 at 22:47
  • @J.R. That might be it! And in case it's in a resume: "John Doe, Engineer with [a?] physics background". Do we need the article there?
    – Leo
    Jan 13 '19 at 9:26
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    @Leo - You wouldn’t need it there, either, because resumés don’t use full sentences – just informational “bullets”.
    – J.R.
    Jan 13 '19 at 13:30
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'Background' is a singular countable noun, so would usually need a word like 'a', 'the', 'my' or 'your'. So standard English definitely needs 'a student with a physics background'.

But there are some special contexts where articles and similar can be omitted, for example newspaper headlines and headings in articles etc (which are written sources). Imagine a university faculty committee decides to create a new part-time job for a laboratory assistant. They say 'We need a student with a physics background'. Then they write the advertisement, which starts 'New job available - laboratory assistant. Suit student with physics background'. You see the ad and you think 'I am a student with a physics background. I'll apply.'

Where have you heard native speakers saying 'student with physics background'?

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  • How after reading your answer, it probably was not "I've heard" but rather "I've read". So what if we use it in writing as a subtitle for a resume: "John Doe, Engineer with [a?] physics background". Do we need the article there?
    – Leo
    Jan 12 '19 at 22:36
  • Yes. Titles, subtitles, dot points, short list items are all examples of places where articles, pronouns, auxiliary verbs can be omitted. I looked at my own resume. It includes "Experience / Skills • teaching general English at a private language institute in South Korea". I might have omitted the 'a', but I didn't. The more like a complete sentence, the more we have to include the 'a'. Compare: "Experience / Skills - teaching • general English at private language institute in South Korea".
    – Sydney
    Jan 14 '19 at 1:33

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