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Courses 3 physics courses at once too much?

  1. Dec 15, 2011 #1
    I'm an undergraduate physics major. It's my 4th year at college but my 3rd year as a Physics major. Then I also took one semester off when I thought I wanted to go into elementary education instead so... my schedule of physics classes hasn't exactly been as standard as most others'. In the spring, I know for sure I am taking Intro to Circuits (200-level) and Classical Mechanics (300-level). I also want to add Electromagnetic Theory (400-level). However, I've heard from colleagues that all 3 of those courses require a lot of time for homework. The EM Theory professor said her course would take at least 10 hours outside of class.

    So, I can't decide whether to take EM Theory or not. Out of all the course titles, that one always sounded the most intriguing to me. Any time I ask my parents a question about something interesting in physics, it always tends to break down to 'oh you'll learn that in EM Theory.' Since circuits and mechanics aren't particularly appealing subjects to me, I thought that having at least one course that I'm really into would be good so I don't get lazy and fall behind in the not-so-exciting courses. But I have been known to get too excited and overload my course schedule in the past. Last semester I took a general modern physics course, 2 labs, an english class, a 400-level astronomy course, and thermal physics (400-level) and had to drop the Thermal. So I know I'm okay with just a couple of physics classes but maybe not 3.

    The EM Theory professor said that 10 hours is the minimum if I'm good at vector calculus. However, and this may be a silly question, what exactly does 'vector calculus' mean? I've completed the calculus sequence and have also taken Matrix Theory and Differential Equations. Is that enough? I'm actually retaking Diff EQ again this spring to get a better grade.

    I apologize for the length and I know this decision is one I have to make because I know myself best but I am trying to get as many opinions as I can so that I can have an adequate amount of information to base my decision off of. Thank you to anyone who replies! :)
  2. jcsd
  3. Dec 15, 2011 #2
    If you don't know what vector calculus is then you probably haven't studied it yet. It's usually the final class in calculus you would take in a general 4 semester calculus stream (at least at my university it is). You'll cover things like Divergence theorem, Stokes' Theorem, curl, etc. etc.

    As for the course load. That's what happens when you're taking a physics degree. 10 hours outside of class honestly isn't that much, it's relatively standard. You already said that you usually take 5 courses. Each course should take at least 10 hours of your time outside of class time if you plan on doing well, though you did say you took 2 lab courses. Labs take up a lot of time as well so I don't see it being a huge stretch.
  4. Dec 15, 2011 #3


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    I read your title and debated whether or not I should even respond to the question. I mean, a physics major taking 3 physics courses... what's next? Arts students showing up for class on Fridays?

    Seriously though, the important thing is to make sure that you've covered all the necessary prerequisites you need for the course. Browse through a copy of Girffith's Introduction to Electrodynamics (or whatever textbook your professor is using) and that will give you a good idea of the level of calculus is required.
  5. Dec 15, 2011 #4
    Clever-Name, thanks for the info - we did go over those theorems in my third (and final) calculus course but nobody called it vector calculus. Thanks for the clarification.

    Choppy, I don't appreciate the sarcastic insult. Advisers at my school actually encourage about 2 physics courses a semester since there are other courses to be taken as well and they don't want students overloaded with homework. Everyone goes at their own pace and when I already have a job and family obligations, deciding how many credit hours is realistic for me is not always an easy decision to make. Thanks for your input, though. That is the textbook we'd be using so I'm going to find myself a copy of it to look over, thanks.
  6. Dec 15, 2011 #5


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    "Vector calculus" means stuff like gradient, divergence, curl, surface integrals and line integrals. In most colleges/universities in the USA, these are covered in the third semester of a three-semester calculus sequence. At some colleges like mine, it's the fourth semester of a four-semester calculus sequence.
  7. Dec 16, 2011 #6


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    Sorry - I didn't mean it as an insult.

    Of course you're right. Everyone has to find their own balance and I don't know what your other obligations are.

    I generally disagree with the advice though. I came through a system where a standard courseload is five courses per semester. What worked best for me was 4 physics or math courses with an elective that allowed me to switch gears a little. Something I would caution against is that it cab be a little dangerous to assume that non-physics courses will involve less work than physics courses.

    You also have to consider that if you only take 2 physics courses per semester, how do you expect to graduate in a reasonable amount of time? Or if you're only taking a minimal number of physics courses, is that going to limit your exposure to the field?

    Further, if you intend on going on to graduate school - you'll have to do a lot more than the equivalent of 2 undergraduate physics courses in a semester.
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