Work Ethic Is a Key to Success for Science Majors

After earning a 4.0 GPA in his first semester as a Physics major at an esteemed state university, our son (and homeschool grad) attributes his success to: 45% work ethic, 30% homeschool subject mastery, 25% reasonable course load.

I was surprised he gave such greater weight to the work ethic we imparted rather than actual mastery of the material we taught. By work ethic, he means attending every class, beginning assignments ahead of time, completing all assignments (graded or not), and prioritizing work over play. We had a concept in homeschool we called “proportional progress” meaning if one has two weeks to complete an assignment, one should be halfway through by the end of the first week. If one has weekly assignments in a class, one should always be halfway through by the middle of the week. To teach the priority of work over play, we only allowed video games, social media, sports, screen time, and extracurriculars AFTER the day’s work was done and only approved weekend activities AFTER the week’s work was done. And of course, half-hearted work got redone.

By subject mastery, he means thoroughly learning math and science and English and history, etc.  We emphasized math and science a lot in our homeschool program, including a year of Physics and a semester of Astrophysics and math through Calculus 3.  But more important than learning this material was that through this material, he learned to work hard.

By a reasonable course load, he means that starting with 33 hours earned through dual enrollment allowed him to only take 13 credit hours his first semester (rather than 16-17), even though he did take Differential Equations, Intro to General Relativity, Biology, and Honors Symposium (or something like that). He also had a part time job (5-10 hours per week) tutoring athletes in math.

I would gently suggest that parents, teachers, and students would do well to pay more attention to work ethic and worry a bit less about always finding the perfect curriculum or best instructor. (Our homeschool grads could tell you about the deficiencies of their instructor …)  Public school or home school, lazy is lazy, and always accepting excuses regarding why assignments are not completed on time is feeding the laziness.

Balancing Work Ethic and Mastery?

Our students only had tests on coursework that was outsourced. High school courses taught by a parent didn’t have tests at all. We just kept going until mastery was achieved and adjusted the pace of progress through the material as necessary. We did want students to be making a good effort for 1 hour each day at a minimum in their challenging courses. (At times we might increase that to 2 hours per day for challenging courses, especially when there were “gaps” in other courses.)  Of course, this level of personal attention is often unavailable in other settings, and tests are necessary to keep students motivated.

For example, my wife and I felt the dual enrollment online Chemistry 1 course was a little light for our 12th grader who is an aspiring Chemistry major and were underwhelmed with his 76% on the final exam, even though he eeked out an A with a 91% or so for the semester. So we put him in a Chemistry 2 class in person with a professor we trust. He has a gap in his college work between semesters, but still needs 90 homeschool days to be halfway to the required 180 days for the year. Solution? Two hours each day doing online ALEKS review of Chemistry 1 material. The extra work will have him ready for that challenging Chemistry 2 course in January.

In my own college experience, I worked very, very hard, but I was never really confident in my mastery of the material.  I scratched and clawed and was often disappointed in both my confidence and in my test scores.  Yet in 38 of 40 college courses, that scratching and clawing yielded As, resulting in graduating first in my class and admission to PhD programs at MIT, Stanford, Princeton, and SUNY-Stonybrook in spite of a PGRE score that only placed me in the 70th percentile.

How Much Work is Enough?

Knowing when to say “enough” as in enough studying is important for students who are aiming high. My rule of thumb for success in college is that students should spend 2-3 hours outside of class for each class hour per week. A 15 hour course load translates to a 45-60 hour work week (15 hours in class, 30-45 hours preparation outside of class). If one has done that, one can safely say, “enough.”

Not having the benefit of starting with 33 credit hours, I had a number of semesters as a Physics major taking 15-16 credit hours and putting in 50-60 hours per week of academic effort. Yet I can count on one hand the number of times in college that I studied past 10 PM. Secret? Don’t waste time during the day – work before play.

But my experience was a key motivation in having my teenage children all have 30-36 credit hours in the bag when they graduate from high school. This will enable them to only carry 12 credit hours most semesters which translates to a more manageable 36-48 hour academic work week. Yes, majoring in Physics or Chemistry is still a full time job.


It shocks my conscience and the conscience of our adult children in college that the common saying among their peers is:DUE TODAY? – DO TODAY.Which means their intentional plan is to put off assignments given weeks ahead of time until the very day that it is due. They don’t even have the sense of duty or work ethic or concern for the outcome or their learning to work on it the night before and burn a little midnight oil if necessitated by their procrastination.Back in my day, the sloths and procrastinators at least started the night before.


This homeschool grad aspires to a top 5 PhD program.  We understand that the end of the matter is better than the beginning, but we also recognize that continuing as a Physics major with a great work ethic gives one a better chance of fulfilling this dream than plodding along and hoping to get lucky with a shotgun application approach as a senior!
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