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Chemistry vs Physics for Undergrad

  1. Nov 17, 2014 #1
    Hello, I have questions.

    I love science. I don't think I am much of a biology person so naturally I am more appealed to both chemistry and physics. While I find physics incredibly fascinating and logical, I am exceedingly mediocre at the subject, earning only B's on all of the quizzes and tests. I am much better at chemistry, however I do not find it quite as interesting. I am only a high school senior right now, but I'd like to have at least some rough idea of what I want to try out in college.

    I've tried improving my physics grades, however I think it is a lost cause. Over the last few tests and quizzes I created a graph of "Time spent studying" vs. "Exam scores". I noticed a negative correlation. Studying more causes me to perform worse on physics tests. Thus, I will not study as much for physics tests in fear that doing so will lower my grade. It is interesting, because in all of my other classes, more time spent studying usually results in increased exam scores. It is truly an incredible phenomenon that goes against all known laws of retention-physics. I am at a loss now on what I can do to improve my exam scores, as studying is usually the best way to do so for most people. Perhaps in future physics courses, I may see a positive correlation, but I have no evidence to base such a hypothesis on.

    I am also scared that if I pursue chemistry I will be looked down upon by physicists who will think I am less intelligent for not being able to understand and comprehend the beauty of the world. I fear that I will also live in regret sometime in the future that I did not pursue physics. I also fear that I will be jealous of all of the new physicists I see and I will become very sad. I do understand we should pursue our "passion", however I am scared that if I pursue my passion and do everything in my power to succeed, it will not be enough.

    I'd also like to add that I have no test anxiety. I love taking tests. I always go into tests confident. I did very well on the ACT. I do well on tests in almost all other classes. I don't feel unprepared or scared whenever I go into a test. Tests are fun and time passes by so quickly when I take them! Oh, how I long to take a test right now.


    Besides studying, are there any things I can do in order to improve my physics grades? I routinely do practice problems and check my answers. I routinely consult my teacher for help before and after school, and during study hall. I routinely frequent these forums for help on my homework problems. I honestly have absolutely no idea what more I can do. The only thing that I would assume improves my exam scores apparently decreases them.

    Is everyone born with an equal level of intelligence, or are some children inherently more intelligent than others?

    Why is it possible for a student to do a problem incorrectly if the student never learned how to do the problem incorrectly?

    Any answers are greatly appreciated. I will return to my physics home work.
  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 17, 2014 #2

    Simon Bridge

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    ... well you've pretty much ruled out bio and phys, so you are out of options in science.

    I wouldn't worry, if chem is your thing then you won't care. Anyway - you'll get to look down on the physicists for being scared to get their hands dirty.

    "Intellegence" is a poorly defined term - the answer depends on the definition.
    It seems people are born with varying innate competencies in different areas - people can also learn to become more competent.

    There are many more way to get something wrong than there are to get the same thing right.
  4. Nov 18, 2014 #3


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    I'd like to comment only on this part. First, how other sciences think about you should be none of your concern. The truth is that almost everyone thinks their own field is the best (often even if they did not think so when they entered it), and that everyone else has made a worse choice. If you want to placate everyone... there will not be much left to study (that will not even happen if you become a superstar musician, film director, or tennis player).

    Second, regarding "the beauty of the world"... a short look around you should convince you that almost 100% of the objects and processes around us are governed primarily by CHEMSITRY, not physics. Yes, getting closer to understanding how stars and galaxies work lies mainly in the domain of physics (but even here: where did all the materials on the planets come from? -> astrochemistry). However, everything from organic LED displays over combustion engines over dry walls over plastics over food processing over living cells... is governed by chemistry. If it is the beauty of real, physical, everyday world you are interested in... chemistry might be a better choice in any case.
  5. Nov 19, 2014 #4
    cgk you're right! chemistry is pretty darn cool too I guess. If I become a chemist I can potentially look down on other scientists too as well if need be. Although, I'm only writing this post now because I did pretty well on a chemistry test. My love will last until I do bad on a test, probably. I like stoichiometry and bonding and stuff like that. molecules and substances and elements are more fun than forces and energy. Besides, I think if I tell people I'm a chemist they will imagine me in a lab pouring chemicals. Physicists are science men who have apples dropped on their head and make discoveries! I was actually just kidding about that last sentence. There is actually more to what they do. It was an understatement and I was alluding to Newton, who according to legend formulated his laws of motion after an apple fell on his head.

    Also, I could even consider chemical engineering. But, I don't like engineering that much. From job descriptions it looks very boring and lucrative, unfortunately.

    So much stuff to do! I also really like linguistics, history, archaeology etc. but you have to actually dish out several hundred thousand dollars for a PhD in that field only to be met with job prospects worse than that of PhD scientists.
  6. Nov 19, 2014 #5
    1) Your sample size was probably much too low to draw conclusions from.
    2) Being the tester and the test subject at the same time probably affected your results, especially since the mind tends to look for excuses..
    3) Your study habits may be inefficient. I'm sure the people here would be able to give critique if you describe what you do to study.

    And there's no need to fear being looked down upon. If I see people in the library studying chemistry it doesn't even occur to me that they may less intelligent than me, and I'm sure most of my classmates are the same. Ok, I did think at one stage that the reason people study chemistry is because they think it's the most fundamental science and they don't know that this honour goes to physics!
  7. Jan 23, 2015 #6
    "molecules and substances and elements are more fun than forces and energy."

    You do realize that none of these things are mutually exclusive? They are all manifestations of one another, just in different forms. A chemical reaction takes place because forces are acting, and energy is transferring. Energy might be transferring, and forces may be acting, because a chemical reaction is taking place. Catch my drift? You'll end up learning some physics as a chemist, and you'll end up learning some chemistry as a physicist. Also, if you are in High School, your brain has not yet peaked in terms of its ability for complex insight and logic. That happens in the mid-twenties, according to neuroscience and experimental psychology. So if you feel some things in science are still over your head, it may just be because you are experiencing something that is completely normal, and time/perseverance/biological maturation will change things for you, over time.

    As an example, there was a time when I could get an A in a Calculus class, and still not really understand where anything was coming from, or why the Math was the way it was, despite being able to remember algorithms that yielded solutions. Now I am 26, and the reason behind mathematical structures seems self-evident. My mind has matured, mentally and biologically. I assure you the same will happen to you, if you persist with your studies.
  8. Jan 24, 2015 #7
    If people are going to look down on academic achievements, and if you care about that, they look down on people who don't get an MSc or PhD(or no degree at all) and get low scores. It would be stupid to be mediocre at physics if you can be good at chemistry, just because physicists look down on chemists, or whatever, when you decided that you really care a lot about all that.

    Is everyone born with the same genes? No. Not everyone can get a PhD in science. Be it intelligence, passion or some mental blockade they subconsciously put on themselves.

    As for negative correlation between study time and results, is that really a good sample size you have there? And did you really compare data that's fair to compare? Really it can't be true that if you spend zero time on all of these subjects, you would have gotten the highest score you could possibly get.
  9. Jan 24, 2015 #8
    To the OP, this might not be the best advice. It would be stupid to choose a subject solely because you believe you will get high marks. In the bigger picture, where lifelong creativity comes into play, you will be good at what you enjoy the most, and the only way to accomplish that is to follow your curiosity. If you choose any path because you are afraid of the other one, you may end up without passion for the route you choose, and end up being mediocre because you do not have the heart that it takes to study 40-80 hours a week. You must love what you study, in science, or you will be a mediocre scientist. Your grades will be a direct reflection of your level of passion. I think all you need to do is spend some time learning how to study physics the right way, and you will understand it, if you desire to.
  10. Jan 24, 2015 #9
    All else being equal, it is not.
  11. Jan 27, 2015 #10


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    I do not think that this is true. It is very important to be (or become) good at what one is doing. It is also not very difficult to learn to like what one is good at. "Just do what you love" seems poor advise to me: First, in the long run one will most likely never keep on loving what one is doing as a day job, and expecting this to happen is unrealistic, in my opinion. All jobs have many boring downsides. Second, just because one was, say, a great fan of basketball as a kid does not imply that one should try to become a professional basketball player, especially not if one happens to have a height of 160cm (5ft 3in). And what you are proposing is the science-field analogy of exactly this.

    While I do agree that OP's mode of assessing his/her skills are likely not conclusive, I also think that a much more important question than "What do I love?" or "What am I currently interested in?" are "What *should* I be interested in?" and "What important field can I become *really good* at in order to make a positive impact on the world?".
  12. Jan 27, 2015 #11


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    Correlation does not equal causation. The data indicated that more study time = lower grade. There comes a time when logic has to take precedence over incredibly questionable correlation of data. Does it -make sense- for more study time to result in a lower grade? No. I can assure you that it doesn't. In order to learn physics, one must actually do physics. Studying can take a lot of different forms, and your data most likely indicates that you are not studying correctly. Stop making graphical representations of study time vs. grades and use that time to do a physics problem. ;)

    Wait, what? Most scientists think that their field of specialization is "the best." That's why we choose our respective fields. I'm a physics major, but that doesn't mean that I look down on the chemistry majors or biology majors. I love chemistry and biology. Chemistry and physics are very related in many aspects, but they are also very different. In many respects, chemistry has a lot more relevance to the everyday world than physics does. Take a look around the room and notice all of the different materials used in the various things within the room that you're in. That's chemistry. Science doesn't have a hierarchy. It isn't ordered as "physics-->chemistry-->biology-->geology" or something like that. Sure, plenty of people will joke around about such things, but that's just friendly banter. One of my good friends is a biology major, and we were hanging out last week between classes. She got her biology textbook out and I said "oh, good! I was looking for something soft to sit on!" It's no different than a couple of friends telling one another how slow they are while playing a game of basketball.

    Is there some reason that you need to look down on other scientists? You're coming back to this point multiple times. A chemistry major doesn't choose chemistry due to not being good enough to do physics. Some people find physics to be downright dull and boring. Chemists choose to be chemists because they love chemistry. Biologists choose to be biologists because they love biology. Physicists choose to be physicists because they love physics.

    Similarly, a chemistry major doesn't choose chemistry due to being "too good for biology." Neither does a physicist choose physics due to being "too good for chemistry."

    These fields are not as distinct as you seem to think they are. I'm in the last semester of the introductory physics sequence right now, and some of the topics that we're covering include atoms, molecules, atomic and molecular bonding, fluid dynamics, and thermodynamics. These are all standard topics in both physics and chemistry. Each field handles each subject a bit differently.
    Last edited: Jan 27, 2015
  13. Jan 27, 2015 #12
    Theoretical chemists are often excellent physicists in their own right with tremendous insights into quantum mechanics and statistical mechanics, so there are ways to, in essence, do both. I don't think theoretical chemists are looked down upon, but if they were, who cares?
  14. Jan 27, 2015 #13
    Everyone who is studying science comes to the point where one believes he is not good enough. My friend who is of average intelligence, decided early on he wanted to study physics. He was average st best. Instead he analyzed his current situation and what he could do to be on equal footing with other students. He gave up having friends, getting hot chicks, and calculated his time. He sacrificed his 20's but now he is in grad school and is exceeding well. He never gave up. The time he spent plowing through information (he was stuck alot) prepared him for grad school, because he discovered how to learn and also patience.

    If you are not ok at failing sometimes then I am sorry, every stem field Is not for you.
  15. Jan 27, 2015 #14


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    ^^This. I'm a physics major. I love physics, and I'm good at it. I certainly have not excelled on every single physics exam. I've gotten Cs on a few. Some of my labs have turned out with really high percent errors. I'm sure that's the case for most of us. Physics isn't an easy subject. It can be very intellectually challenging because you often have to think about everyday things in ways that you've never thought about them before. That can sometimes be hard for even the best and the brightest physics students.
  16. Jan 28, 2015 #15
    It is very well known,as far as things can be 'known' in social 'sciences'', that the right approach to be happy and live a satisfied life it to make your passion out of your profession. This is what one finds when one looks at people who have a passion for what they do. They didn't turn their passion into their job, they did it the other way around.

    If you make your hobby into your job you lose your hobby. And when you have bad luck, you may also lose your passion or your job.

    People get really excited about cosmology or particle physics, but even for most PhD-level physicists, this is a hobby. The most fun thing possible should not be your job, but your hobby. This does not always hold, but it holds a lot more than people give credit for.
  17. Jan 30, 2015 #16
    This is not right. It is a very shallow view of Physics. Physicists are responsible, at least in part, for many of the technologies that we enjoy. Combustion Engines, LED displays, pretty much anything that is created by engineers is as much a product of Physics. Plastics are great, refining petroleum is great (though also in the realm of physics), but without Physicists, the world would have depleted its proved reserves a long time ago. But by the discoveries and inventions of Physicists (and the application of their discoveries by engineers), we have been able to access oil that was at one time too deep, or too costly.
    Computers are a marvelous invention. It is a Good thing we have Physicists who study electricity and magnetics of materials so that it is possible to carry a terabyte of hard drive space in your pocket.


    Reality is that Chemistry is as much a cool science as Physics. It just depends on what you like better. A lot of people I know have double-majored. And it is easy to double major in physics and chemistry because there is a lot of overlap in subject matter. Even those that don't, there is mutual respect between both departments. I have never met a Physicist who looked down at Chemists. I have met a lot of Physicists and Chemists who looked down at Biologists, and Psychologists, and Sociologists. Biology is, as they say, for those who do not have the maths for real science... Not necessarily true, some people just love Biology. But I have met many people in my Chemistry and Physics class when I was a young student who were majoring in Biology because they wanted to go to Med School, but were terrible at math.

    Don't sweat it though. Choose the subject that speaks more to your passions. Personally, I enjoy Physics more. Chemistry seemed more like rote memorization to me, memorizing all the rules in Organic Chemistry. Physics was just more of a challenge. I don't get straight A's, but I feel like I actually accomplish something. Physics is the liberal arts degree of STEM. It is more about teaching you how to think, and how to attack problems. And I like that. I am not just studying to get a good paying job, I am studying to improve my being. But that's just me. I do not look down on Chemists, because their subjects are also tough. I just prefer the discipline of Physics.

    this comic really puts it into perspective for any Physicists on an ego trip images
  18. Jan 30, 2015 #17

    Quantum Defect

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    As others have noted, there are lots of interesting areas between chemistry and physics. I had a horrible physics teacher in high school and a fabulous chemistry teacher. This colored my choice of major in college. I started out as a chemistry major, but I had a really wonderful physics teacher as a freshman, and took as much physics as I could squeeze into my coursework -- taking essentially all of the physics courses required for a physics major through the junior year.

    I did graduate work in physical chemistry/chemical physics. I met my wife (a physicist) in a 'mixed' physics/chemistry group during a post-doc.

    You should do what interests you.

    Don't worry about what physicists say. My wife teases me about my 'sordid' background, but I was able to fix her glass vacuum line when she broke it on a Friday afternoon, after the glassblowers went home -- thus salvaging her planned weekend of experiments.

    Also, on the more practical side of things -- there is a very large "chemical" industry that has employed many of my graduate student peers over the years. The equivalent does not really exist for many branches of physics, in which case you are pretty much stuck being trained for a job in academia.
  19. Jan 30, 2015 #18


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    @grandpa2390: I had no intention of marginalizing physics or physicists. I am trained as physicist myself. I just wanted to point out that the common view that all things beautiful or important in nature are purely physical, is misguided. If someone wants to dedicate her life to studying nature on a fundamental level, that is absolutely fine, but this does not imply studying physics. All I wanted to say is that it is unfounded if proponents of some science look down on proponents of another science, as all sciences have made tremendous contributions to human society.
  20. Feb 3, 2015 #19
    While I can understand the perspective that your words come from, I draw upon my own life experience and musings to rebuttal that making decisions based upon the assumption of negative-things-to-come often leads many people to sell-themselves short, and create the self-fulfilling prophecy. Because they believe/assume that they will end up hating/being tired of whatever job they do obtain, they work less hard towards the goal of obtaining one that they have a greater likelihood of not hating or getting tired of.

    All of those are great questions. I would answer each of them with the first question, "What do I love?"
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