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College Sophomore, Advice on Path to Graduate School

  1. Feb 7, 2016 #1
    Hi all,

    I'm a college sophomore studying physics and computer science, and I was hoping to get a bit of perspective on graduate school and careers with respect to physics. In high school, I was very much a slacker, who would slide by in the "Honors Classes", but would occasionally do quite well at math competitions or such. I was quite lucky in getting into a relatively nice college, if you go by US News Rankings a top 15 university, but I guess I have found the experience so far to be a little less than ideal.

    College so far has been a mixed bag-- first semester was pretty good and made me really enjoy problem solving. But lately, classes have seemed quite underwhelming. I've switched into engineering so I can focus on STEM, and have taken up to sophomore quantum physics, Multivariate Calc, Linear Algebra, DiffEQ, Intro Programming Course, and a Data Structures course. The grades are good (4.00 cumulative GPA) but I fear that is because the classes are designed to be way too easy and aren't representative of the material itself.

    It's been kind of hard to find an "atmosphere" of interest in physics as well. Seems like the other majors switched out. I tried to get an astronomy club going to no avail. I don't claim to be a particularly good leader, but I can't seem to find other people interested in solving extra problems outside of class. We didn't have a Society for Physics students until my second year, but it seemed to be rather casual like movie watching. I hear about places like MIT with huge student interest in problem solving, and legions of students who ooze passion, and I get rather jealous. I recognize this may be quite distorted, but I do feel let down by the current situation. I don't know how much potential I have, but it's been hard to get ahead of the curriculum and really explore to see what I'm good at, if anything. I was really hoping to find a strong community of physics students to help guide me, but that just hasn't been the case, and I've been trying to figure out how to go about doing well in college.

    I've tried to pursue a 2 research opportunities, both on volunteer basis. The first time, I was given a large book to read and was directed to a graduate student for help. I managed to get a little bit done with simulations, but never felt like I remotely understood what was going on. The other research opportunity-- the professor had to keep rescheduling and gave me very little time to get anything done. Perhaps the core issue with both is that classes ate up too much of my time to really invest in the research. As I said, the classes lately don't feel very stimulating, just a lot of busywork. They certainly didn't make me feel ready for research.

    I am taking this semester off due to an injury. I have contacted a local observatory to try to volunteer on astronomy/ data science analysis project, and have been learning python to prepare (gone through 2 books in the last month), but the volunteer sign up process has been really slow. Otherwise, I hope to self-study as much as possible, but I procrastinate and struggle to stay productive. I was offered a summer research project on Condensed Matter Theory, and I plan on taking it.

    I am considering grad school, but I just don't feel that I will have built up my skills enough by the time I'm a college senior to make it worth the while. I really feel like I've learned very little in college. When I get back, I'll have 2.5 semesters left. In the meantime, I'd like to hear your perspective on how to make the best of my situation. What can I accomplish in the few months I have? I've had thoughts about transferring schools, but I don't know how big a difference it'll make. I certainly feel a lot of doubt about the future.

    Thanks for reading, and apologies for the amount of text. I hope I've expressed my doubts without being overwhelmingly negative.
  2. jcsd
  3. Feb 7, 2016 #2
    You are questioning your progress and thinking of your future, that puts you ahead of the majority already. Reaching out shows you are not content to just go with the flow and are willing to take extra steps to accomplish more. Kudos on not settling for herd mentality.

    On your current grades, don't doubt that you must already have a stronger grasp on the subject matter than they seen to expect from the majority of students on the same part of the journey. It is worth mentioning too that there has been a decline over the last couple generations, in what they expect of students in their first year such that a large portion will seem like it's merely revisiting things that should have been learned in high school. Should is the key word there, and doesn't represent the majority. At the same time, if you've been identified as being in the top 1% scholastically, perhaps your real educational success will include merely sticking it out. Working through boredom is difficult to be sure, but certainly beneficial and especially early in your career.

    2nd year picks up a little as they slowly bring everyone up to speed. Don't be surprised if you are challenged a little more in third year, though if you are used to top of the class status, sometimes showing you can tolerate the drudgery is just as important as taking on extra work. It sounds like you have taken some positive steps in trying to join or form clubs and organizations, my opinion is to keep doing that. College is as much about networking as it is learning, you never know where you will meet that one person who will be pivotal in your career. There is a strong likelihood you will make friends with them in an on campus organization, perhaps something not in your field of study.

    While you're busy studying everything they throw at you and anything else you can convince them to fling your way, don't forget to live a little bit and surely make as many quality friends as you can. This may be the time you learn to lead.
  4. Feb 7, 2016 #3
    Thanks for the advice. Here's a question I've had about how to best spend my time: Should I be learning as much coursework as possible through self-study in my time off, or should I be dedicating as much as possible towards the research opportunity? I sometimes hear of students coming in as a freshman taking grad courses off the bat, so I wonder if I should make it a priority to be learning enough to where I can start taking grad courses very soon. It seems like the departments of physics/ math have some flexibility if you can assure them you are ready for jumping ahead.
  5. Feb 7, 2016 #4
    My personal opinion, which may be different from others, you need to set immediate goals but mid-term and long-term objectives are both, at least as important with academic progress. Staying at least slightly ahead with the course material may be important and shouldn't be too much of a struggle for you, but perhaps Grad school is only 1 of your mid-term objectives? While there may be advantages to finishing the program ahead of schedule, employers will be interested in more than just how well you placed in your program.

    Research opportunities may seem like a place to prove you are absorbing the material, but they go a lot further into showing you can think beyond only what you have learned so far and also validate that you can manage more baskets, as opposed to the average that use only 1 or two for the few eggs they may have. I will say that it's a lot easier to burn 2 candles at both ends when you're 20, than when you're 40.

    When it comes to career time, your grades will move you to the top of the list for whose resume they at least read before being sent to the back of the drawer. Research and extra-curricular activities that are program related will help in getting you a better time slot for your interview and give you a few more bargaining chips in choosing the position you seek. The people you meet and the other, world related activities that will give you something in common with the interviewers, will have a profound impact on the growth potential of your placement.

    My opinion then, make early entry into grad school an unavoidable result of your combined efforts and not a goal for it's own sake. Do continue to excel academically, find ways to challenge yourself to avoid boredom and especially in areas that enhance your progress, and find ways to involve yourself socially with those you may be working near when school is done. School is very important but it's only a step in the right direction and not a destination.

    The forgoing does not apply to career students. :-)
  6. Feb 8, 2016 #5
    This is good advice. I thought I was busy when I was in college, but in retrospect, I will probably not see that kind of free time again until I retire.

    To the OP, I second Wee-Lamm that you should see the challenge level of your courses increase. For me, the big jump came in the third year, it was like a step change in difficulty once the courses I took focused on the students who were there to study physics, rather than the students who needed to meet a pre-req for another program.

    It is really important to "stick to it". Keep your grades up, that will matter for getting into grad school. Keep trying on the research activities. I too had a lot of trouble trying to find an undergraduate research program that really worked for me. This should get easier with time. You may have heard stories about students getting great research projects or taking graduate courses very early, but these are likely somewhat exaggerated. Most students, even most bright accomplished students, just don't know enough yet to benefit from these types of things. Since I don't actually know you, I can't realistically assess whether you, QuietMind, in particular would benefit from such a thing. I'll just say it is unlikely in many cases.

    My last suggestion to you is don't get too focused on school, either undergraduate or graduate. There is much more to life than school, and with a few exceptions among those psychologically incapable of doing otherwise, you should benefit from learning things outside of physics, mathematics, or CS, or indeed even the school environment at all.
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