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

Physics Calculus and Physics Careers

  1. Jan 19, 2010 #1
    So, I am really terrible with Calculus, but I wish to pursue a career in physics research. So far I have been scraping by well enough, but it is very difficult. I noticed that Mechanics and Electricity & Magnetism are pretty much just applied calculus. Conceptually, I understand calculus just fine, but I am absolutely terrible at working through problems. Essentially I have trouble memorizing and synthesizing the many identities required to work through calculus problems.

    What I want to know is:
    Is it possible to pursue a career such as physics research without knowing calculus backwards and forwards? I know that there are computer programs (and calculators) that can solve calculus problems, and I'm sure many physicists utilize these tools, because it would be too tedious to work everything out by hand all the time. On the other hand, how can I expect to come up with something new if I do not have a full understanding of what has already been established?

    I suspect I already know the answer, and that the solution is to simply try harder and study more often. However, I was hoping to get some input from those in the field.
  2. jcsd
  3. Jan 19, 2010 #2
    To do physics research you will need a Ph.D. or at the extreme minimum a B.S. which requires going through calculus hell for many hours a day every day for years. Trust me I am in the thick of this right now.
  4. Jan 20, 2010 #3
    I would have to say that Calculus is an integral part, no pun intended, of Physics. As you mentioned, it will probably be very difficult, if even possible, to derive a new theory with out the knowledge of "why" we use Calculus in Physics. When you say it is difficult for you to memorize all of the operators and so on associated with Calculus, are you able to memorize the forumlas & different approaches used in Physics? I am sort of the same as you are accept I have a sponge for a memory, but not so much the conceptual portion. I can remember it all, just can't remember when to differentiate or to integrate and so on. My simple solution was to turn every problem I encounter, even in Chemistry this is helping, into a Physics problem and from there I am able to "visualize" what is happening and what "needs" to happen. I think you should start small with this approach and see if it benefits you in any way. If you cannot grasp it at the early Calculus levels, it will be an up hill struggle for the remainder of your degree. As Phyisab mentioned just for a B.S. in Physics/Engineering, one has to complete Calc I, II, III, & Differential Equations, there maybe even more maths depending on the University. As far as the P.h.D. level, which is what I am striving to attain, the maths get to an entirely different level, I actually don't know what they are, but cannot wait to learn them! Good luck to you and welcome to the forums.

  5. Jan 20, 2010 #4
    I too have a sponge for a memory, and I have already completed Calculus I, II, and III, Calc II being the hardest in my opinion because I hate integral calculus. I have yet to take differential equations because I dare say I'm scared of it. I don't think there is any danger of me becoming "rusty" on the subject (not that I'm that great at it), because I am taking Mechanics and E&M right now. They seem as if they will keep my skills sharp. I'm just afraid that my distaste for calculus could cripple my physics career, as I have lofty goals. 3 semesters from now when I get my B.S. in physics, I hope by some miracle that I could be admitted to MIT or Cambridge (or even Trinity) to work on my graduate degree. Ultimately, I hope to end up at NASA or Berkeley as a researcher, but I would settle for a research position at any reputable university. How can I hope to achieve such lofty goals with, at best, only a mediocre understanding of such a fundamental component of physics as calculus?

    I'm sure by the time I get my B.S. I will feel more solid in my understanding of calculus.... I guess I'm just looking for some encouragement. I can only imagine what tedious, strenuous, and symbol-ridden math will be involved in graduate level courses.
Share this great discussion with others via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook