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Physics Assessing the risk of pursuing physics

  1. May 22, 2016 #1

    I've done pretty thorough research and realize that this topic of "Is physics hard, can I handle it, how risky is it, etc" has been beaten to death. But I'm gonna ask for advice anyway haha.

    So the situation is, I have always had a love for astronomy since I was a child, and nature in general. I have always been particularly interested in abstract theoretical concepts such as relativity, higher dimensions / brane theory, string theory, black holes, etc. Basically, I'm interested in stuff that is hard to understand. However, growing up, I was not exposed to much science, other than an astronomy textbook and a NOVA VHS tape. Instead, I was exposed to aviation a lot, and thus I pursued a career as a pilot. It never really clicked with me at a young age how important it was to study science and math, and thus, I did poorly in community college. I placed into precalc 1, failed, placed into precalc 2, failed, placed into calc 1, failed. Upon reflection, I realize that my math foundation was shaky, and even though I was apparently competent enough to get into calculus, I would find myself slipping over a lack of basic algebraic knowledge, which was ultimately a result of lacking motivation. My problem is the way math is taught, which has no applications really. It is taught to be memorized, but is not shown how it can be used in a practical sense. That's where I lose interest. But I will gladly watch videos of someone explaining the math that describes time dilation of a spacecraft moving at 99.9% light speed. Ultimately, I just stopped showing up to calculus, and failed for that reason. At the time, I was not pursuing a science degree, but was just kind of "floating around" in school, because I "knew" I wanted to be a pilot, which requires a bachelor's in any subject, so I did not take math seriously at all. My GPA is below a 2.0. At the moment, I am retaking classes to fix my GPA, and getting an A in Astronomy (of course, lol).

    So now, for whatever reason, I decide that I have an unshakeable desire to work in science. I am 22 currently, with poor academic performance. My friends from high school are all graduating this summer, and I have not even completed an associates. My current situation is that once I climb out of the hole I've dug myself, I can try to get into Embry-Riddle (aeronautical university), or University of Washington. I have spoken with a UW advisor and she laid out a plan for me. The aeronautics degree is easy. Very light on the math, mostly classes like "risk management" and "meteorology". I already have my pilot's license, and most of the prereqs. It would seem the most logical path to continue pursuing, considering my situation. The other possibility is trying to get into UW, which will cost me at least another year at my cc making up for rereqs, and reinforcing my math foundation. So that will be about 7 years to complete my bachelor's total, which is pretty ridiculous.

    From what I read, physics is pretty risky. Very high likely hood of washing out, low chance of actually securing a job in physics even after you finish with PhD. My fear is that I will get overly-hyped up, bite off more than I can chew, and wash out, realizing that I threw away a perfectly good flying career on a whim. One thing that crossed my mind is that since some people can do double-majors in physics in math, maybe I can continue my advanced flight training and eventually part-time flying job, while going to school for physics. This way, I can fall back on flying if I wash out. But I don't know if this is realistic. I see some people say, "Physics is easy. You have plenty of free time". And then I will see another say, "You will be up all night every night banging your head against the wall". I want no-BS answers, how heavy is the work load? I can probably anticipate that I will require more time than the average person due to my math deficiency.

    As for being a pilot, they don't care if you major in astrophysics, music, english, psychology, womens' studies, whatever. A bachelor's is a bachelor's. So I would certainly opt out of putting myself at unnecessary risk, if it is very likely that I will wash out of physics. That being said, I would rather be working at an observatory than in a cockpit any day. It's not even a competition. And every time I tell myself to back out of physics, I get quite emotional about it, especially since my social media feeds are often flooded with science news. I almost can't stand looking at it anymore. So my emotions seem to be conflicting with reality haha.

    So I'm curious if anyone has realistic advice for me. I think I already know what the answer will ultimately be. I'd be glad to hear of anyone's' stories of success after failure as well, or even stories of failure so I can more-accurately gauge the risk. Thanks.
  2. jcsd
  3. May 22, 2016 #2
    I'm on the same boat as you, at least in emotional way. As i look at science-related medias on my facebook or any other site, i get emotional or depressed that i'm still not on my right track, so it is painful to see my favourite subject, it feels like you know you have to be in there/ in your specific target, but bounded or hindered by some glue. Anyway, if you think physics/astrophysics is too risky, I'd take the risk, it will be better not regret on what you didn't do when you're on your deathbed than take risk when you have a chance. Actually i'm gonna about to take that risk and follow my dream no matter what. For you, i think you have better chance than me because you're in US, so it is likely that you can reach your dream than me who lives in some developing country in nowhere and have failed to study abroad. Because of my dream of studying in US or any other developed country and pursuing it, i have failed in my studies in here, so now i'm going to do second bachelor in here to raise my gpa and by doing so, i'll have more chance to do my master and Phd in US or UK etc.
  4. May 22, 2016 #3


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    The way I see it is that you failed calculus because you "stopped showing up." This is a major flag for someone interested in pursuing physics or astronomy.

    Obviously things like workload and difficulty are subjective. But a degree in physics will have it's difficult courses for anyone. (And after calculus I, they tend to get more challenging - not the other way around.) The fact that you stopped putting in an effort when the going got hard for you is something you really have to think about and decide if this was specific to the course at the time and you can realistically expect a different result the next time or if it's likely that you'll do the same thing.

    To be successful at physics you really have to put in the long hours of studying. You have to enjoy wrestling with problems that you don't initially know the answer to when you first see it. It's not conceptualizing string theory and black holes that you'll spend most of your time on as an undergrad, but rigorously developing foundations in classical mechanics, thermodynamics, electrodynamics, error analysis, and the mathematical and computational methods that allow you to solve the problems in these areas.

    And it's true that if you're eventually successful in obtaining a PhD, the odds of a career as a professor are low - on the order of the number of graduate students an average professor trains of the course of his or her career - so about 1 in 10.
  5. May 23, 2016 #4
    I wish you luck apolytos. From what I've gathered, the U.S. has poor teaching compared to other countries, but I don't know how it compares to the UK.

    Choppy - My perseverance depends on my motivation, I think most people are the same, and at the time I was taking calculus, I was not aiming for a science degree, just kind of in a "limbo" state. I believe that if I can see the applications of doing math in the real world, it would make me much more focused. I've started to do my own research to find out where this math I learn is applied. I will at least be retaking all the precalc courses and judging what to do based on my performances in them. I have a new appreciation for mathematics because it is the language of the Universe and has absolute answers to problems.

    I'm not so sure about PhD, but I would very much desire at least a bachelor's. As far as flying jobs for NASA and such goes, a STEM bachelor's will suffice. So I'm wondering about the difficulty of a bachelor's alone in physics? It's not that I don't want to put in the work, but I have to juggle flight training, a job, (and some other hobbies I have that are irrelevant but can be a bit time-consuming), all at the same time.
    Last edited: May 23, 2016
  6. May 23, 2016 #5


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    You could start with the goal of undergraduate degree in Physics, but change as you go. Physics is not the only physical science. Engineering might be a possible set of choices if you like things which are practical. You would need to study hard and regularly for anything in science or technology. You will need Mathematics for ALL of it.
  7. May 24, 2016 #6


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    You ask about others' success stories. You heard a few above, and here's a current thread I just read in another forum
    Do a search, you'll find dozens of others. But these are other people. I'm going to offer you a reality check for yourself, and apologize in advance for sounding harsh.

    Being "emotional" about physics is fine, but what is your motivation level, honestly? You say that 7 years is ridiculous, but I assume that you are counting the years you've wasted already, and it sounds like you need to start from pretty much from scratch. Another 3 (or even 4) years doesn't sound ridiculous to me for a B.S. in physics, so I question your motivation and realism. And what about your approach? You talk a lot about why you've done badly but little about why you think you could do better. Honestly, you won't get far with your study habits, miserable GPA, and nearly non-existent background preparation. (Sorry to say, intro astronomy at a CC is not indicative of what studying physics is like at a good university.)

    It can be done, BUT: You need to think about whether you really want it, and, more importantly, whether you can make the really big changes needed to succeed.
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