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Am I doing physics for the wrong reasons?

  1. Apr 15, 2014 #1
    Hi all,

    This is my first post on PF in a long time. I created an account in 7th grade to ask questions about how superconductivity and the speed of light worked, and now I'm ending my freshman year of undergrad, (majoring in Physics) returning to PF 6 years later in search of guidance. I have two side-goals for this post: I hope that I can communicate my personality alongside my situation, and I hope that this thread and the responses I get will serve as examples for others who are young and at a crossroads.

    Where I am now: I applied to schools with the intent on majoring in either Chem/Physics/Math and was accepted to UChicago, Columbia, Cornell etc, but did not qualify for aid, so I chose to attend a top 20 liberal arts school with a mid level Physics program that gave me scholarship money. Part of that money comes from scholarships tied to my second major, trumpet performance. Because I am a part of the music school, I was able to bring in AP credits to satisfy all non-music requirements. This also set me up so that I could take upper level chemistry and physics classes to satisfy medical school prereqs, should I choose to go down that path. This past year I took Linear Algebra, Classical Mechanics 1, Electrodynamics 1, and a year of OChem+lab. I came into freshman year knowing that I would continue with music in order to leave school debt free, even though it restricts my schedule. I made sure not to specialize prematurely or to rule out medical school, however, which is why I took the range of classes.

    A year of upper level physics later, I now see that I should’ve trusted my middle school intuition. However… I am in the music school. And I have to take music classes. This is fine, and the classes are enriching, but it means that I have to sacrifice the possibility of taking enough math courses to back up my physics, should I choose to go as far as I can with physics courses. So, this summer, while I am doing research in the condensed matter group I recently joined, I will be teaching myself DifEq and PDEs. I've talked to several physics professors at my school about this. The consensus has been that I can continue on with physics as long as I can prove to the professor that my math skills are there, since I’ve demonstrated success in self-studying math in the past.

    My paths in music and math conflicted in high school as well. I had to drop out of my school's advanced math course during my sophomore year as a result. The envy that I felt for my friends who were able to continue on drove me to teach myself calculus. I did, and in the fall of my senior year I took multivariable at a local college and got an A. Based on this success and my grades in math/physics courses at college so far, I’m not so much worried that I won’t do well as much as I am worried that I am focusing my efforts/ambitions on physics -*for the wrong reasons.*

    -Is this a safe mindset?: “I LOVE physics, I’ve loved it since middle school, and I love getting A’s and being at the top of my peers at my highly ranked school. I want to take all the hard classes! I want to take all the graduate courses I can before graduation! I REALLY want to be a Goldwater/Rhodes/Marshall/Churchill scholar. I want to get the awards that my school gives to their best physics majors! And, I want to have top physics grad schools as an option, because it looks possible. And I can always apply to medical school afterwards if I feel inclined, because I have the prereqs knocked out. “ Because this is the attitude that currently drives me to push forward.

    -is it worth it to keep working this hard in Physics? Because I have to really put in the extra effort to keep making it happen. In my mind, going to medical school after doing graduate work in Physics is a real possibility. However, I am not 100% sure if it is possible, or, more importantly, a worthwhile path.

    -Will my excitement for physics remain with me as I age? It has for 6 years, but will I have the drive to do post-doc work and attempt landing a job as a professor some day?

    -If going all-out on Physics is the way to go, what can I do to make myself part of the best of the best? I often think, “Well. I’m here, so I might as well be the best of the best at what I’m stuck with.” And I am by no means recognized as the best of the best in my class. I’ve only been here one year. I’ve made meaningful connections with 4 out of the roughly 30ish members of the physics faculty, and I’ve lived long enough to know that enough of the faculty have to know who I am before they would ever select me as the recipient of an award or nominate me for a national scholarship.

    I GREATLY appreciate any advice, especially from 1) my peers, underclassman in college, who have their own opinions and 2) senior PF members who can point out faults in my motivations and the best ways to proceed.

    Thank you all so much!
  2. jcsd
  3. Apr 15, 2014 #2


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    Gold Member

    I'm not what sure what a safe mindset is. It looks like it is working out for you right now, so might as well make the most out of it. I had a same mindset when I finished high school, but when the reality of an academic career stated trickling in, I gradually shifted my priorities off getting good grades and academic awards. Obviously it is always good to have them but I stopped breaking my back to get them.

    Is it worth it in terms of what? Money? Depends on what you want to get into after you finish your education. From what I read on this forum and from graduates I know, an academic career is not something you go into if you are looking for money.
    You probably have seen all these threads of people who have left school wanting to get back and learn physics. Do you think you will be one of them if you stop now?
    What exactly are you aiming for? Medical school? Might as well try get in as early as possible. Or do some type of medical physics specialization if available in your department.

    I don't think anyone can answer that question, but be prepared for those ups and downs. You will encounter difficulties that will make you question your goals.

    Recognized as the top of the class? I haven't heard of these things after I left high school. As far as I know, the academic staff in my physics department care about grades but they don't treat the top of the class any differently than the top, I don't know, 10-20%? Regarding to building connections with them, what you are doing is good just remember: don't over do it. Some people find it very annoying when students are trying too hard to be their buddy.

    I'm not sure what category I fit in. I just handed in my MSc thesis. I have tutored physics students for 8 semesters and listened to them complaining about labs being useless. I think it is good that you ask these questions now. Just make sure you know what you really want to do and get some reality checks when your goals start to look too dreamy.
  4. Apr 16, 2014 #3
    I am currently studying physics as an undergraduate as well. does your school have some sort of physics club, or outreach activity (maybe an open house)? Those are the events that really showed me why I love physics so much. If you are propelled by your love of learning, and your excitement in learning physics, you are in the right place. I've met many physics professors, but the best and the brightest were always just as excited to tell you about kinematics as they were to tell you about quantum mechanics.
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