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Advice for prospective physics students?

  1. Jul 9, 2005 #1
    I am going to be a sophmore in high school and i've known i wanted to be a physicist for a couple years, but i've heard things about how many people who have/are getting a degree in physics end up in different fields, etc., and have a hard time finding jobs! Is physics a...realiable career choice? I'm not planning on giving up, i'm extremely determined to be a physicist...just looking for some "experienced advice"! thanks in advance!
  2. jcsd
  3. Jul 9, 2005 #2
    As far as I am aware, if you have your Ph.D., you pretty much have a job somewhere. I've never heard of a starving physicist. But you do have to go pretty much all the way to do physics, since an undergraduate degree is like the kiddy pool, so to do anything effective you'll have to keep going.

    As far as preparation, take as much math as possible at your high school. If it offers calculus, take calculus. I would recommend purchasing some textbooks to get ahead, but those puppies are probably out of your price range; I'm a student right now and they're out of mine. Honestly there isn't much preparation you can make without calculus, aside from learning how to "think like a physicist." This means look at everything with a degree of skeptical neutrality; assume a result is false until something suggests otherwise.

    Now for a list of things to do when you get to college (and possibly study ahead for in high school):

    (1) EVERY subject is important. Physics as a theory beautifully meshes its various fields, and so a good understanding of the basics makes the later stuff easier. I figured this out quickly, but a lot of people never figure this out, and they're the people with the degrees in physics that may have trouble finding work.

    (2) Develop a strong mathematical background. You need to be familiar with series expansions, multivariable calculus, complex analysis, linear algebra, group theory, and that's just what comes off the top of my head. It seems daunting, but you'd be surprised how quickly you can get down some of these subjects. Know them well, because if you know enough math then the rest is "just physics", which is a lot easier to deal with.

    (3) Get into research early. Even if you're useless for your first year or so, getting into research exposes you to the kind of knowledge a physicist has to have, and can earn you a faculty mentor that can get you farther. Also, research can help you find a specialty you want to get into. But don't take one research experience at face value, and don't be discouraged. My first research experience was a calamity because I didn't have to necessary knowledge or skills developed, but the professor I worked for is still willing to help me out, and that's worth a lot. I can't over-emphasize research; it not only gives you a lot of valuable experience doing what you may do for a career (or give you an idea of what you DON'T want to do), but it also tells graduate schools that you can do the work they want you to do. It also gets you good letters of recommendation later on, and those things are probably worth about 0.5/4.0 points of GPA.

    (4) Don't be discouraged if you don't understand something the first time through. Nobody understands everything the first time through. Be patient, and keep looking at something until you can truly say you understand it.

    (5) Befriend upper classmen. The professor I work for was introduced to me by an upper classman. We happened to coincide in research interests, and he's been accepted to the graduate school I want to go to and wants to work for the same professor I've found that seems interesting. So this friend not only set me up in general, but he's paving a road for me further down the line. You never know when somebody will turn out to be your golden key into the world of physics.

    (6) Go to a solid undergraduate school. This means go to a school that specializes in science, a small liberal arts school will not help you. Engineering/science schools have better faculty, stronger curricula, and good facilities. You'll need these to get ahead.

    (7) Always stay curious.

    I hope this helps a little.
  4. Jul 9, 2005 #3
    If you haven't seen the sticky thread, look here. Personally, I found it very enlightening. :smile:
  5. Aug 19, 2005 #4
    another question?

    i've been reading The Elegant Universe-- mostly about string theory-- and i've noticed it says a lot that string theory (etc.) is the newest big thing in physics. i know that finding the TOE that they all search for would be amazing, but what would they actually do with it?
    i'm not sure if i'd want to have a career in that type of physics when the goal is something i'm not sure of...i'm also kind of interested in biology or neuroscience but it seems i'd have to pick one or the other! hard choice....
  6. Aug 19, 2005 #5
    I think you hit the problem with string theory on the nose. As far as I understand (disclaimer: 2nd year university student) string theory may be the next big thing to string theorists, cosmologists and the theoreticians of that sort, but practically speaking it is (as yet) completely useless and improvable.

    There are many other branches of physics that are also very "big things" in physics, most of which are actually experimentally verifiable! Very few physicists work on string theory.

    There is also the field of biophysics if that would suit your interests.
  7. Aug 19, 2005 #6


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    learn as much as you can, do what you love most, adjust your sights to what you can survive with. don't be afraid. You are what, 16 years old? Have some fun. :smile: the main thing you need to worry about is: don't drink and drive.
    Last edited: Aug 19, 2005
  8. Aug 20, 2005 #7
    biophysics does sound interesting........do you know of any good sites to learn more about it? or even for the other "big things" in physics? i'd love to get a good head start on physics (or other fields related) before i can actually take a class on it!
  9. Aug 25, 2005 #8
    Does anyone know of a good resource with which to learn Linear Algebra? I've heard the subject is incredibly dull, so I think I'll need a really good text or something to get through it. I'm currently a high school senior that's pretty much done with high school (and it's only been 3 weeks), and I need something to learn in my spare time. If anyone could give the name of a good book, or a website, or anything, it'd be great.
  10. Aug 25, 2005 #9
    Now this may sound weird... but in PA most physicists who do NOT put the Dr. in front of their name are getting hired than the people who have the Dr. in front. From what I have heard through a looong grapewine, some employers simply do not want to pay a doctor. Even people with the doctorate degree will not put the Dr., hoping that they may get a job. Again, I have only heard of this, I've never actually seen this happen nor do I know anyone who has had this happen.
  11. Aug 25, 2005 #10


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    Then why even bring it up? What possible benefit can be gained from such information? That we all should be aware of an unverified rumor (redundant) so that it can be continually perpetuated?

  12. Aug 25, 2005 #11
    /Zapped badly
  13. Aug 25, 2005 #12
    I've found that the Friedberg Insel and Spense Linear Algebra (NOT Introduction to Linear Algebra) is a very good mathematical treatment of linear algebra. The opening chapter of the Sakurai Modern Quantum Mechanics is also very good, but not as complete as the FIS (which is expected).
  14. Aug 25, 2005 #13
    Hey, I'm just letting you know. Sue me.
  15. Aug 26, 2005 #14


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    If this were tabloid journalism, someone probabily will!

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