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Advice for an undergraduate physics major.

  1. Feb 1, 2008 #1
    For anyone here who is a physics major, have you found the undergraduate courses tough and easier as you went up the ladder or more of the opposite?

    Just how much do you need to know to be prepared at the university level and as a physics major post B.S. degree because we are only human and there is only so much that you can remember, etc. Furthermore, I know that math compliments physics very well, but what would you recommend in terms of math knowledge to be prepared for physics in general?

    I am currently in Physics w/Calculus 1 at my local community college and feel confident in my general understanding of the physical concepts we have covered thus far, but I know I cannot do every single homework I have seen in the book - is this to be expected for one at my level?

    I am a physics major because I have passion in the subject and would like to someday teach it to college students, but I fear as if I am not good enough if I cannot do all the problems in my current textbook.

    Overall, what advice can you give an prospective undergraduate physics major so that they too can be successful in their completion of junior and senior years at the university and beyond?
  2. jcsd
  3. Feb 1, 2008 #2
    For me it's been consistently tough. Although the material is harder, it's still just building off of the math and physics I already know, so that kind of evens it out. But still, every class is a challenge for me. Never, after class, do I go "Yeah that was a breeze." I might have an epiphany at the end of class, but even then up to that point it wasn't easy. Usually I am confused after class, though, and it's okay because most everybody I talk to responds the same way.

    You then go read the book, try to do the homework problems, ask the TA's for help, ask professor for help, get together with fellow classmates and do the homework, and somehow by next week you understand it. Then it starts all over.

    It's actually pretty fun. I can't speak for other majors, since I haven't taken upper-division classes in those subjects, but I really like the weekly challenge physics offers. Always keeps me on my toes.
  4. Feb 1, 2008 #3
    The beyond part is the trick. You say you want to teach physics at the college level. There are lecturers that teach and don't do research, but this isn't a very good position. Almost all college level teachers are professors, and if you want to make that happen, it's best to start now.

    Even if you think Calculus is tough now, I promise you it's even tougher to get into a professor-producing graduate program without research experience. Start now. Talk to your teachers; they might not be doing research themselves, but they'll know where the opportunities are, and it's good to get to know them personally anyway, because you're going to want letters of recommendation when you start applying for REU programs or any other undergraduate research opportunities available to you... And read the "so you want to be a physicist" thread, too.

    As for whether the classes get harder or easier? Easier. Some of your teachers might not be able to do all the problems in your book without a bit of help. It's the nature of the game. As you get further in physics, though, you start learning how to make all the disparate rules that you're memorizing now from a much smaller set of more general rules. It becomes less about memorization and more about critical thinking.
  5. Feb 2, 2008 #4
    For me, I was able to do and did most if not all of problems from text book that we used as a freshman physics class. I think the author of the text book was Resnick.

    But when I entered into upper level class. I couldn't do half of the problems on the text book either due to lack of understanding or familiarity of concept or time constraint. Upper level classes go fast. Lots of new concept to chew but just not enough time to digest. It might be very depressing process because you're forced to close a chapter in order to catch up with class and study new chapter when you feel you haven't mastered the previous topics. If you also feel this way, you're not alone.
  6. Feb 4, 2008 #5
    Well, we are now on Chapter 4 in our Calculus based Physics I course and I must say that although our first test covered Chapters 1-3, I felt it was too easy. However, I was only probably able to finish about 50% of all the problems in the end of the chapters altogether. My teacher always emphasizes that the concepts are more important than remembering formulas which is what physics is about, but when a teacher gives you a test that is simple (my opinion anyways), and you make an A, does that mean you understand the physics well or just were prepared by doing more than enough homework than fellow classmates? I made a 97 and I must say that I am proud to have made that grade especially on the first test, but from my viewpoint, I thought it was pretty easy for the most part. How would you interpret these concerns? Thanks.
    Last edited: Feb 4, 2008
  7. Feb 5, 2008 #6
    I am half-way through my last semester of a 4 years honours degree and I am finding this year much easier than the last one. I found 1st easy, second was the hardest for me because I had never needed to develop good study habits, third was a bit better, and I am finding my last year a breeze since you have all the thought processes down, and the way to think about physics and work things out. If you are willing to work hard, then I think it will get easier to learn new things as time goes on.
  8. Feb 5, 2008 #7

    Dr Transport

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    You're not expected to be able to do every problem in the text at your level. Solving probelms takes years of experience and repetition. Even after getting my PhD, I most likely could not solve every problem in Halliday and Resnik without serious rereading of the text. Your instructors have mastered them because they have solved them before.
  9. Feb 6, 2008 #8
    For me my upper division physics classes were definitely easier than my introductory courses. I suppose experiences differ from person to person. But look at it this way: when you learn introductory physics, you're learning the scientific concepts for the very first time. Advanced physics courses really just teach you advanced mathematical methods. I suppose that since you already know the science, this makes things easier.

    Out of high school you don't need to know jack in terms of physics. Freshman college students should be familiar with precalculus though, so that they can enroll in calc 1 their first semester. Don't worry if this is the first time you're seeing physics. The point of college is to teach you what you need to know.

    After you've graduated with your B.S., you should be familiar with classical mechanics, electromagentism, quantum mechanics, and statistical mechanics. You should also have taken a couple of modern topics courses. I, for example, took cosmology, space plasma physics, and a course on waves, optics, and relativity. By your third year, you should have taken four semesters of calculus. If you want to go to grad school, complex variables or differential geometry wouldn't hurt either.

    Nah, don't worry about it. When I was a freshman I couldn't do all of the problems either. As a physics TA, I have to admit that I'm often surprised that I somehow have gained the ability to solve any problem in the freshman text. If you're willing to work hard, college will teach you everything you need to know over the course of four or five years. Don't concern yourself right now; you're not expected to solve every single problem in the book. But the time will come when you will be!

    From your post you seem to be a bit concerned that you might not have the aptitude to do physics. But in my experience, hard work is by far more important than intelligence when it comes to physics (not that you aren't intelligent). I'm not a particularly bright individual. No, I'm not trying to be humble, it really is true: I only got average scores on my SAT and ACT back in high school. Yet I've been successful in college and in my first year of graduate school. What I've figured out is that you need to put in a lot of hard work to be good in physics. You need to consistently do practice problems, work with others, and make sure you understand the material before exams. As long as you are diligent about studying and make sure you work in study groups, you should be good.
  10. Feb 6, 2008 #9
    As far as your question about classes getting harder as you progress:

    I think it depends on your mathematical aptitude. For in stance if you go into college with no knowledge of calculus, an are always taking the required math classes for you physics class concurrently, then you may find it much harder as you progress. My experience is that the students in my freshmen classes who were just seeing calc for the first time were the ones that struggles more.
    Again now I am in upper division Electricity and Magnetism, and the concepts are no different than what we did freshmen year only the math is way more complicated so again those that struggle with the math will be the ones further behind in the class.
  11. Feb 6, 2008 #10
    I'm finding that already having your appropriate math courses under your belt when you take the related physics courses that it makes life a lot easier. By then, you're really only working on understanding the physics concepts, not working on the mathematics.
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