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About to start a degree (sort of), need advice on how best to prepare

  1. Feb 19, 2013 #1
    To try and make it as short as possible, I'm an adult (25) who will be going back to university in Sept to study what has always been my passion, physics. I say "sort of" in the title because it's a 3 year BSc degree, but there's an extra year at the beginning, which is a foundation year, which is actually called year 0.

    Unfortunately, although physics is my favorite subject, it's far from my best. I chose it purely because I enjoy it, so I'm hoping that + work ethic will be enough.

    My question is, what is the best way for me to prepare before sept? The foundation year is essentially a year where they teach you everything you need to know in 1 year to start a physics degree - and they assume no prior knowledge (well, VERY little). The thing is, that sort of learning curve is incredibly steep as they are essentially teaching 2 years of material in 1 year, and they are teaching it to people like me, who have been out of formal education for years. So, I want to go there knowing as much as possible before day 1.

    Lots of people have told me to simply focus on as much math as possible, and I'm wondering whether I should do this (I've already started teaching myself maths) or should I study physics side-by-side, or maybe get to a decent level with maths (maybe wait 3 months) then start with physics? I know physics is a lot easier with a grounding in maths, so I'm unsure how to approach this.

    I work at the moment so max amount of time I can give is 4 hours per day, for what it's worth. Like I said, I'm not great when it comes to these subjects so if I gave much less than 4 hours a day the progress would be almost unnoticeable lol.

    Thanks for listening, if you are interested in what they actually teach during this foundation year, feel free to check it out at:


    You can click on each module and it gives you a breakdown of everything covered.

    And if there is any information I haven't given which would be useful please let me know.
  2. jcsd
  3. Feb 19, 2013 #2
    Re: About to start a degree (sort of), need advice on how best to prep

    To be honest, there's not much you really can do to prepare. Math is helpful. But don't focus on calculus or differential equations too much, mainly get your algebra together. You'll learn calculus, but probably skip a lot of algebra. Algebra is the most important thing you can learn. It's the foundation of everything. You can't do physics or calculus without it.
  4. Feb 19, 2013 #3
    Re: About to start a degree (sort of), need advice on how best to prep

    Doing some programming would be helpful. Not so much for getting good grades in classes, but for supplementing your degree program. Programming is one of the few way that undergrads can actually contribute during their research. If you know a little programming you will better be able to compete for undergrad research positions. Also, if you dont go on to a PhD program, being able to program is one of the main points of marketability for physics B.S. holders.
  5. Feb 19, 2013 #4
    Re: About to start a degree (sort of), need advice on how best to prep

    Thanks for advice. johnqwertyful, I'm going over all of algebra/trig/etc before I get started on anything like calc, I really want my algebra to be solid. Ive bought quite a few textbooks for different levels so I'm just making my way through them.

    ModusPwnd, any tips on where to start? I know there's a ton of diff options available, like C, C++ and other... programming languages (?) which are more widely used in the science community. Also, could you recommend a good book for a complete beginner to learn the basics of whichever one you suggest?
  6. Feb 19, 2013 #5
    Re: About to start a degree (sort of), need advice on how best to prep

    It doesnt really matter which language you learn with. C++ is fine since there is a lot of help about it on the web.

    Also, I agree that solid Algebra/Trig is very important going in. Concentrate on that now probably, since you feel you are deficient. But keep programming in mind. Its not something you will necessarily get in your curriculum, but its pretty important for things outside the curriculum (that is, its important for jobs and research).
  7. Feb 19, 2013 #6


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    Re: About to start a degree (sort of), need advice on how best to prep

    It's good to have a solid foundation in math, but it will also help a lot to read up on the actual physics you'll be learning so that you have some familiarity with the concepts. What a lot of students actually struggle with is the physical concepts, and then on top of that trying to translate those problems into math. Lots of student can do math problems, but turning physics problems into math problems can be a difficult task.

    So, I would suggest also reading up on some of the actual physics if you have time. If you can do some of the problems, that's great too! But, if you can't, that's what you're going to be taught, so don't despair. You'll get it eventually. Having a good qualitative understanding of the concepts will help you get started towards this next step, though.

    Unfortunately, I don't know of a good suggestion for what to read to get the concepts down. People often recommend the "Feynman Lectures on Physics". I'm afraid I must admit I haven't really read those books myself. But, they sound like they're worth looking into - they are pricey (it's a three volume set), so maybe rent them from a library first if you don't want to spend the money on them just yet.

    Be warned, however, that while many people say they're the greatest physics books ever, I've also heard people say things along the lines of, "while reading the Feynman Lectures may make you feel like you understand everything, 'when you try to solve a problem, you realize that, well, that you’re not Feynman.'"

    But again, for building up a qualitative foundation to start your studies, they may be a good read. Also, you have a whole forum full of people interested in physics to discuss things with if you find any of the concepts hard to understand!
  8. Feb 19, 2013 #7
    Re: About to start a degree (sort of), need advice on how best to prep

    Yeah, I think you're right that I should probably start soon on doing some basic physics, just so I learn how to apply the math I've got to physics problems.

    I've got parts of the Feynman lectures, in the form of "6 easy pieces" and "6 not so easy pieces", they are amazing to read, but more for a general overview and insight into the topics, they don't actually teach you how to solve problems. This forum is amazing by the way, the homework help section has already saved me twice!

    And I'll try and get a little up to speed on programming c++, is that the main language used in physics? I'll go for maybe half an hour a day, it doesn't sound like a lot but after 7 months it should add up!
  9. Feb 19, 2013 #8


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    Re: About to start a degree (sort of), need advice on how best to prep

    C and C++ are good languages for a physicist to know. Python is also good. They're also useful if you ever decide to look for jobs that involve a lot of programming (e.g., finance jobs). Matlab (and to a lesser extent, Mathematica) are also used a lot for programming by physicists, but those are programs that cost $ $ $ $ for an individual. If you have an opportunity to take a course in them when you start your degree program, they may be handy. Mathematica is mostly used to do "symbolic computation" (i.e., manipulate symbolic expressions), so I doubt it's used much outside of academia. Matlab is more computational, so it may see some use outside of universities. The program R, which is similar to matlab, and is free, seems to be one of the go-to programs for industry companies that use stats. Also, there's an add-on/library (not sure what's the best descriptor) for Python called matplotlib, which is a matlab-like library implemented in Python.

    I'm not suggesting you should try to learn all of these before you start, just pointing out some typical programming platforms that physicists use!
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