Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

Advice for a former Theatre major doing a 180 into Physics?

  1. Jun 22, 2010 #1
    Hi Guys and Gals - I need some help. My educational professional career to date has been somewhat aimless and meandering. Good news - I think I know where I want to go now. Bad news - my background does nothing for me.

    I have had a hard time figuring out where I want to go or what I want to do. I have a BA in Theatre Arts, which I got because 1) I had no idea what I wanted to major in and 2) I had some idea of doing writing. When I graduated, still having little or no goal or aim, I went into the US Air Force as an Enlisted Computer Programmer for six years. When I finished that I returned to my hometown, home to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and have been working at a local military surplus store - fitting as I'm military surplus myself.

    As a youth I had attention span issues (ADD) and no taste for note-taking, and little self-discipline. I still struggle with these, but have matured slightly since then. I always was fascinated with the sciences, and loved learning about them, but due to my distaste for note-taking assumed that I could never do that professionally and shied away from calculus and the sciences academically with a passion.

    Lately I've been reevaluating myself. I love thinking my way through problems, puzzling on things and trying to find the how's and why's of things. I like order. My favorite parts of my job as a sales associate are inventory (i.e. detailed note-taking) and the creative problem solving helping customers find things to meet their needs when they need something unusual and we don't have exactly what they're seeking. These are the exact traits that the sciences require. Thinking on various types of science, the ones that appeal most are physics and astronomy. I took one Astronomy course in college - and it was one of the few A's I got, and a relatively easy A as well. I loved it and took to it like a fish to water, even as a Theatre major - perhaps I should have taken this as a sign.

    My dilemma now is that I want to move towards a career in physics or astronomy, probably as a researcher and/or professor - even though I have exactly ZERO background for it.

    On the plus side, I have the Illinois Veterans Grant and the GI Bill to help me pay for schooling.

    UIUC (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign) doesn't do a second bachelors - which is the direction I'm afraid I'll have to go to get the necessary background before continuing onto Masters/Doctorate work. EIU (Eastern Illinois University - in Charleston, IL) will do a second bachelors, though there is a bit of a commute involved.

    Any tips or advice out there for someone like me who's wanting to do a pretty much 180 degree career change?

    Thanks for the help!
  2. jcsd
  3. Jun 22, 2010 #2
    Urbana wont let you get a physics BS because you have a theater BA? Thats F'ed up.

    My advice is to start out at a community college, take beginning calculus and beginning physics for a year or two and then if you still want to do it transfer somewhere.
  4. Jun 25, 2010 #3
    Here's the relevant text from the UIUC website. It sounds very positive at first but pay close attention to the last line (which I have highlighted for emphasis here)

    All sciences fall under the College Liberal Arts and Sciences.

    My plan at this point is to give some professors over at EIU a call on my next day off and talk to them about how to best prepare myself for their program and to make some first contacts.
  5. Jun 26, 2010 #4
    Well, I did a sort-of U-turn from physics to engineering. It doesn't sound drastic, but....it felt so, kind of.

    I think these are good ideas. Warning: this list is not comprehensive. I can't think of specifics, and I may be skipping stuff...

    0) YOU WILL NOT LEARN ANYTHING WITHOUT WORKING PROBLEMS. Otherwise: just reading the material will be a waste of time. Period. Physics and math kind of differ from the other disciplines in this regard. If you don't work out problems: you'll miss out on the order and structure you claim to like. (Note: I am not casting your spirit into doubt. Just be prepared for some sucky times where your attention flits to butterflies and out the window instead of This Damned Equation That Just Won't Work). Try and hang onto the promise of beautiful structure and order lying beyond the sucky times.

    1) Sound up your algebra. Period. I cannot think of physics-examples (right now) in which various algebra-stuffs become useful and relevant (e.g., finding roots of polynomials, substituting one equation into another [or, as I like to call it, "telling the equation about another equation so the math can tell you neat stuff"]), but... maybe you could peruse a physics-textbook...

    1a) I suspect a good "catch-all" for learning algebra is to learn what a "vector" is, and the geometry of vectors (dot products, cross products, orthogonality, tangent vectors to parametric curves, vector fields, ...)

    1b) Ooooh...as I write this, I realize I have not yet mentioned the importance of The Mathematical Function, usually denoted "f(x)".

    2) Your algebra's OK? Good. Learn some calculus. If you find calculus difficult at first, it might be better to study the physics needed for it, and then visit a calc textbook to study the methods.

    2a) Learn that the functions from 1b, "f(x)" are solutions to this magical and foreign thing called a "differential equation". If you get around to studying differential equations, study the simple harmonic oscillator equation's solution.

    2b) Perhaps this point would be a good segue to "Classical Mechanics", for which I recommend "Introduction to Classical Mechanics with Problems and Solutions" by David Morin. It's expensive, but it contains a good collection of "good practices and habits" for a physicist...I think.

    3) Physics and the math used in it are pretty cummulative practices. After my first year in grad school for physics: I began to keep a Microsoft-Word document of equations belonging to each book I read (to save myself time: I try not to get obsessive about it), and save the results of "derivations". So: keep a record of your work, and build upon it.

    I am getting long-winded, and I'm not even sure I've got everything. These are a few shots in the dark about how to Be a Physicist.

    Oh! Another good idea on how to be a good physicist or a good anything in real life: learn how to ask specific and non-nebulous questions. There's a difference between "How do I study physics?" and "I am studying this crate on this frictionless inclined plane, is it OK to assume...". The devil is in the details. Namely: I can answer this "how do I become a physicist?" question better if you supply more details. Not to say this ain't a good starting point, but you have to learn to grapple with the specifics. Again, the devil is in the details: advice from a friend well-received after my first year in physics grad-school.

    Go learn physics with my goodwill and prayers! I hope you're a great contribution to this community of inquisitive minds : )
    Last edited: Jun 26, 2010
  6. Jun 26, 2010 #5
    Glad to know your decision. I think the school can break the rule if you are really enthusiatic about physics. You may get approval by the professors.

    But You have to think about these before spending 3or4 years on the BS physics.
    1. The chance of becoming a professor is very small.
    2. What you will do after earning the BS.
    2.1 Master/PHD(another 4-6 years~not recommend)
    2.2 High school teacher
    2.3 Research/lab assistant
    2.4 Job irrelevant to BS physics
    3. BS physics is a much harder/tougher degree than BA theater. You will not have much time with your family/friends.
    4. Sad but true-you are much older than others so there is some self-esteem problem.
    5. Most important-Ask the professors for advice and have a good relationship with them. As i said before you may have to get the approval from the professors.
    Good luck!
  7. Jun 27, 2010 #6
    Huh, I wondered why there were no older students in any of my advanced physics classes at UIUC. Now I know. Sorry dude!

    TECHNICALLY, there is one science major in the Engineering college and that's engineering physics. However, admission to Engineering is super tough (even for first-time undergrads, transfers and second BS's are likely to be even harder) and the physics program that they offer is definitely not for anyone planning on pursuing physics beyond undergrad. It may or may not be of any help to you but I thought I should mention it.
  8. Jun 27, 2010 #7
    You may want to look at Illinois State. They allow second degree students, and their physics department is better than Eastern's. I know this first hand, and I may be a little biased, but I think it is a correct assessment. Check out the ISU physics website for more information. Also, Normal is about an hour drive from your area, so that may affect your decision.
Share this great discussion with others via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook