• Support PF! Buy your school textbooks, materials and every day products Here!

Damage to potential career and recovery options.

  • Thread starter 2VtQCxn
  • Start date
  • #1
8
0

Main Question or Discussion Point

So I want to be a physicist.

Avoiding false modesty, I'm pretty good at it, probably the best in my year in physics and possibly math. I never have problems learning, unless the material is shallowly presented and I reject it, which has happened in many of my classes, unfortunately. I've taken some upper level classes (including graduate mechanics), some without prerequisites, and skipped some lower level ones like linear algebra. My GPA, about 3.2, rightly reflects my lax attitude about my transcript up until today. I'm a sophomore now.

Why the slacking? Until this week I had absolutely no intention of going into science. Grades weren't important because I took these classes purely out of curiosity and knew I was could score As in all of them. I figured I should spend my life creating something practical to improve people's lives, and I was working on a potential startup (the skills and the actual concept) instead of taking classes seriously. School was just a nicety with a certificate at the end, since my real trophy would be my project.

[content edited out at user request]

I will learn the physics no matter what. But I also need to demonstrate that I will be a good physicist, despite evidence to the contrary, and quickly. What can I do to reverse any doubts as to my commitment henceforth?

Some related things I've been thinking about:

(1) An unfortunate fact is that school (this school anyway) is very much in the way of my education. Everything I've learned I've learned by reading. I go to lectures only to stay up to date on what we're covering and to not offend the professor too much. My dream education would be tutorial-style. Self-driven, self-paced, but with knowledgeable people to answer questions. I don't have much hope of a solution, but maybe there are programs for this?

(2) I'm ignorant of what's going on at the forefront of science. I can't understand what's on the ArXiv. How do non-experts keep up? I was recommended Physics Today by a professor I had a long talk with this afternoon. I'd also like to keep up with what's happening in other fields, like biology and aerospace.

(3) I want to be a part of the community as well. Where are the virtual gathering places?

Thanks for any comments.
 
Last edited by a moderator:

Answers and Replies

  • #2
To demonstrate your commitment, obviously you should try and lift your GPA with the rest of your classes & do well on the GRE, and I would also say get involved in some research. The general consensus on these boards seems to be that research and the Physics GRE are the most important factors, more important than grades.

For #2 I was recommended "The New Physics: For The Twenty First Century" edited by Gordon Fraser just the other day. I haven't read it yet, but it seems to cover a lot of the present problems in many branches of physics. Apparently it isn't too in depth, but it might be a useful starting point?

Another good method is to get the magazines of any societies (which may entail paying a subscription/joining the society). For example, I am a member of the Institute of Physics in the UK, who send me a monthly magazine with recent developments in various fields. Possibly something like the American Institute of Physics?
 
  • #3
131
0
I never have problems learning, unless the material is shallowly presented and I reject it
What does this even mean?
School was just a nicety with a certificate at the end, since my real trophy would be my project.
An unfortunate fact is that school (this school anyway) is very much in the way of my education. Everything I've learned I've learned by reading. I go to lectures only to stay up to date on what we're covering and to not offend the professor too much.
This may sound harsh, but you sound like you're trying to blame everyone else for your perceived failure when the cause is really your own ego. And a 3.2 GPA is not that bad. Just start taking school seriously from now on. You are there to learn. You can do your own stuff on the side.
How do non-experts keep up?
First, they go to school to learn.
 
  • #4
8
0
Possibly something like the American Institute of Physics?
They're the ones behind Physics Today, actually, to which I am now subscribed. :)

What does this even mean?
By depth I mean how well the results are connected to first principles. If they're just presented as facts without some understanding my mind rejects it like a blood transfusion of incompatible type.

Schroeder's Thermal Physics book is an example of shallow. The stat mech class I took was based on this and was taught as if to high school students; formulas were given only with plausibility arguments, problems were assigned from the book and completely uninspired. I retained almost nothing.

That original sentence was pretty tautological, now that I think about it.

This may sound harsh, but you sound like you're trying to blame everyone else for your perceived failure when the cause is really your own ego.
My learning style has absolutely nothing to do with ego. I learn best by reading because I have to understand a point completely before I move on or everything collapses in my mind, so lectures tend to be too fast-paced or gloss over too many details.

[content edited out at user request]

I have a problem when the class isn't compatible with this learning style because of a horrible textbook, like the stat mech class. Then the class is a waste of time, because I have to learn everything on my own anyway.

I'm not talking about any failure, so I can't be blaming anyone. This is about changing course; something that was unimportant is now important. What follows from that?

Sorry if I was unclear.
 
Last edited by a moderator:
  • #5
6,814
12
But something happened last week that brought the truth completely into conscious light that I was just born to do physics and that I would be committing a crime against myself and my values to deny it. It's hard to describe the magnitude of the urgency I feel right now.
Calm down. If you get too motivated you are likely to burn out. Also, you really don't know what physics is like, so don't get your hopes up before you've actually experienced it. Much of physics is grunt work, and your likelihood of being a professor at a research university assuming that you get your Ph.D. is roughly one in ten.

The thought that's been literally keeping me awake for the past few days is that I might have missed the boat. How much have I damaged my potential career in physics by not applying myself in my first two years of undergrad? It seems absurd in the grand scheme but grad school admissions will certainly frown deeply upon it.
A 3.2 GPA isn't the greatest, but you have a lot of time to try to pull it up. And then there is the other stuff like letters of recommendation and undergraduate research. But I think what you need to worry about is not so much the GPA but having a realistic idea of what physics is like. If your hopes are too high, then when you find that a lot of physics involves boring low-paid grunt work, then things might fall apart there.

Also, it might be a good idea to at least pick up some business skills while you are in graduate school. Even if you do everything right, you are rather unlikely to get your dream job.

I will learn the physics no matter what. But I also need to demonstrate that I will be a good physicist, despite evidence to the contrary, and quickly.
Why? If you can get your GPA up to 3.5 and have the standard package, you'll get into grad school, where you end up being low-paid serf-labor. At that point you find out if you *really* like physics. Turns out that I did.

(1) My dream education would be tutorial-style. Self-driven, self-paced, but with knowledgeable people to answer questions. I don't have much hope of a solution, but maybe there are programs for this?
Get involved in undergraduate research.

(2) I'm ignorant of what's going on at the forefront of science. I can't understand what's on the ArXiv. How do non-experts keep up?
Don't bother trying to understand everything. You won't. Find one problem or one sub-field that you are interested in, and then focus on that. You will become a narrow expert that knows a lot about one topic but shockingly little outside what you've learned, but that's a consequence of the universe being as complicated as it is.

Also find a review paper that gets you the jargon.

(3) I want to be a part of the community as well. Where are the virtual gathering places?
Here. Also it helps if you attend a scientific conference.

Also calm down. It's not a marathon and not a sprint. If you can bump your GPA up and get some good letters of recommendation, you are likely to get in somewhere. However, the thing that you need to worry about is burning out. Also, it helps if you get undergraduate research.
 
  • #6
6,814
12
By depth I mean how well the results are connected to first principles.
The problem is that in a lot of situations the results aren't very well connected to first principles.

If they're just presented as facts without some understanding my mind rejects it like a blood transfusion of incompatible type.
One thing that you'll find as a problem is that a lot of things that you face as a research are facts without understanding. Take dark matter. I can give you several hundred facts about dark matter. I can't organize them into first principles, because I (nor anyone else in the world) knows what the principles are.

Schroeder's Thermal Physics book is an example of shallow. The stat mech class I took was based on this and was taught as if to high school students; formulas were given only with plausibility arguments, problems were assigned from the book and completely uninspired. I retained almost nothing.
Unfortunately you have to get used to that. Physics is like that.

I learn best by reading because I have to understand a point completely before I move on or everything collapses in my mind, so lectures tend to be too fast-paced or gloss over too many details.
You might consider something more mathematics. The problem with what you've said is that it a limitation. Often you can't understand a point in physics completely, because no one understands it.
 
  • #7
6,814
12
Something that might help you is to get other textbooks and do problems that aren't assigned. If you don't like the way that a professor explains a concept, then go online and find textbooks and learning materials that teach the idea in a very different way. For statistical mechanics, you might want to look at Kittel and Kroemer.
 
  • #8
131
0
I have a problem when the class isn't compatible with this learning style because of a horrible textbook, like the stat mech class. Then the class is a waste of time, because I have to learn everything on my own anyway.
Try to find a different book as a learning aid. Ask older students or a TA if they have suggestions.

I'm not talking about any failure, so I can't be blaming anyone. This is about changing course; something that was unimportant is now important. What follows from that?
The way you were panicking made it sound like you had already admitted failure, that's why I said perceived failure. A 3.2 GPA as a sophomore is not the end of the world by any means. You still have time bring it up and you can do research as others have suggested. If you got 3.2 without really caring, you should ostensibly get a better GPA now that you do care.
 
  • #9
6,814
12
(I'm assuming here that you are in a US university. If you are in Canada or UK, the grading system is quite different. Also it makes a difference if you are in an Ivy, a big state university, or a SLAC. Grading policies in those three types of schools are very different.)

One other thing about GPA's is that low GPA will hurt you but high GPA's won't necessarily help you. If you have a 3.0 in your physics courses, then you have to a lot of explaining as to why you should be admitted. Once you get to 3.5, then GPA's rapidly become unimportant. The reason why is that GPA's vary a lot from school to school, and so a 3.5 at one school might be a 4.0 in another.

If you get below 3.0, that likely means that you messed up big time whereever you went. A 3.2 at the end of sophomore year, isn't great, but if you can get it to something like a 3.4 or 3.5 when you get out, then it's decent, and if you have good physics GRE schools, recommendations, and undergrad research you are in.

I'd recommend that you shouldn't shoot for a 3.9 or 4.0. The problem is that getting something from a 3.2 to a 3.5 or even a 3.3 is something that won't stress you out, and if you have totally unrealistic expectations than you are likely to burn out. The other problem is that if you focus too much on the GPA, then you miss the other parts of the admissions package. Finally, trying to get an unrealistically high GPA makes you less likely to take a hard class. A lower GPA with hard classes is better than a higher GPA with easy classes. If the admissions committee looks at your transcript, barely passing quantum field theory looks better than aceing Algebra II, particularly if you get a good recommendation from the professor of the class.

One final thing is that a lot of schools (particularly large state public universities) have "weed out" classes in which they make the grading deliberately hard in the intro classes to get rid of people. Find out what those "weed out" classes are. If you've already passed them, then you'll likely find things a lot easier, because the grades are set up to eliminate people in freshman and sophomore years, but once you have physics majors in upper division classes that can and want to attend grad school, the department will set the grading standards to that most people aren't eliminated because of grades.
 
  • #10
836
13
Try some graduate courses in physics, if you are finding the undergrad courses too simple. You said the only course you really enjoyed was the course from Arnol'd. Graduate courses are far more in-depth and challenging than undergrad courses. And if you do well in grad courses it will make up for the first two years.
 
  • #11
336
14
Get involved in research as soon as you can. You need more than a solid GPA, you need good research experience and letters of recommendation.

And, most importantly, talk to graduate students (especially older graduate students) and postdocs. Most undergrads have little to no understand of what doing physics is actually like, and even successful career paths in physics can be pretty unappealing.
 
  • #12
8
0
Everyone, thank you so much for your replies, twofish-quant especially.

Don't bother trying to understand everything. You won't. Find one problem or one sub-field that you are interested in, and then focus on that. You will become a narrow expert that knows a lot about one topic but shockingly little outside what you've learned, but that's a consequence of the universe being as complicated as it is.
I know, I just don't want to be completely clueless. I want to understand everything to the point of being able to ask thought-provoking questions. And by everything I mean a handful of other fields.

The truth is that even though I have to spend some of my life in this field, I may not stay in pure physics. It would be wise to have an eye out for interdisciplinary opportunities in AI, space, biology, computing, ...

One thing that you'll find as a problem is that a lot of things that you face as a research are facts without understanding. Take dark matter. I can give you several hundred facts about dark matter. I can't organize them into first principles, because I (nor anyone else in the world) knows what the principles are.
That is something I've been thinking a lot about as well. The thing is, I don't mind mystery as long as it's really mystery. I don't like ideas presented as facts with only hand-waving as justification. That's just insulting.

Try some graduate courses in physics, if you are finding the undergrad courses too simple. You said the only course you really enjoyed was the course from Arnol'd. Graduate courses are far more in-depth and challenging than undergrad courses. And if you do well in grad courses it will make up for the first two years.
I'm contemplating the idea of basically impersonating a first year graduate student next year. Maybe they'll let me take the qualifying exam? :P

Get involved in research as soon as you can. You need more than a solid GPA, you need good research experience and letters of recommendation.

And, most importantly, talk to graduate students (especially older graduate students) and postdocs. Most undergrads have little to no understand of what doing physics is actually like, and even successful career paths in physics can be pretty unappealing.
Working on the research part!

Actually, the impression I got of physics is that as a career it's miserable and soul-crushing and as a field it's beyond hope of improvement, which was from a grad student who dropped out to do startups. That's part of why I wasn't considering it.

Seeing this today wasn't very encouraging, either:
http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/2011/02/13/bloodbath-for-science/
 

Related Threads on Damage to potential career and recovery options.

  • Last Post
Replies
3
Views
1K
  • Last Post
Replies
2
Views
550
  • Last Post
Replies
1
Views
1K
  • Last Post
Replies
5
Views
2K
Replies
18
Views
3K
Replies
4
Views
2K
Replies
6
Views
7K
Replies
2
Views
1K
Top