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Do I need to be a prodigy to succeed in physics?

  1. Jun 19, 2012 #1
    How good at math do I have to be to be a physicist? I am going to college in August and the most advanced math I have taken is calc I. I have always wanted to be a physicist and I am decent at math, but I have never been the kid who wins all of the math competitions. I guess what my question is if I put in enough hard work will I be able to succeed in physics? Or even get into a good grad school? I don't want to spend all of my effort into something that I am inherently unable to do. I would love advice from someone who has taken some sort of physics.
  2. jcsd
  3. Jun 19, 2012 #2
    I don't understand what's special about prodigies. That's just me I suppose. Yes, if you put in effort, you'll be successful. Sometimes you will feel like giving up, jumping off a bridge, or whatever. It's up to you if you want to continue. If you don't, fine.

    My first semester of physics was the hardest for me that I have taken so far. I just had to get used to the way of thinking in physics. Nowadays I'm doing really well.

    It's good that you have taken calc I before entering college. It just takes time and effort to get where you want to be, so be patient.
  4. Jun 19, 2012 #3
    Mmm Pasta

    Did you have a very good math or physics background before college?

    I am truly interested in the material, I have been reading introductory physics textbooks and studying extra calculus to try and prep myself along with trying to pick up any information I can on these forums.
  5. Jun 19, 2012 #4
    I took one semester of calculus in high school, and I took it again in college since the calc class in high school wasn't AP and only counted as high school credit. I didn't have much of a physics background, though.

    Good that you found these forums. There's a lot of good info in this area and Career Guidance. What you are doing is good as well: reading material beforehand. It's useful come lectures as you can ask questions and see the material again.
  6. Jun 19, 2012 #5
    It certainly doesn't hurt to be a prodigy, but remember you can make yourself smarter be working hard, the brain has a high degree of neuroplasticity, especially when you're young. By working hard you can give yourself the brain a prodigy might have been born with.
  7. Jun 19, 2012 #6
    I don't think of myself as particularly smart or gifted, maybe a little above average judged against my physics peers, but so far I've done very well in classes. I got a 4.0 taking 20 credits this semester, with about a 3.93 cumulative.

    Physics is a skill, just like learning to draw or play an instrument. There will always be people who are naturally incredibly gifted, but the average person can still do very well through training and practice.

    Now, there are certainly people who just don't have what it takes, but if you took calc I in high school you're probably not one of those people. Be prepared for a difficult first semester, and understand that it's difficult for everyone. I got a 68 on my first Physics I exam, which was humbling, but you'll learn a huge amount in a relatively short time, and you'd be surprised how quickly you can progress.
  8. Jun 19, 2012 #7
    Thanks for the encouragement guys. I have always considered myself to be relatively intelligent (based off of act scores and tests in school) but just talking to some of the people on this forum is very humbling.

    I am banking on the fact that I am an extremely stubborn person and generally when I start something I'm willing to work very very hard at it until I finish it, so I am hoping that transfers over to college
  9. Jun 19, 2012 #8
    I'm also banking on the fact that I'm stubborn; I just learned this while working an exhausting, 40 hour week and having trouble in chemistry based on having no time to study. I finally rocked the final and landed a B+ after wondering if I was going to pass at all. I imagine for degrees as difficult as physics and chemistry, being stubborn will help in the long run. "I CAN and WILL do it, dang it!!"

    Just make sure you channel your stubbornness into studying, and not, say, playing RPG video games like I did part of the time during my chemistry class. :p I probably could have gotten an A if I hadn't played so much Skyrim, haha.
  10. Jun 19, 2012 #9
    I'm going to graduate school next year for theoretical chemistry, not quite physics but it may ease you to know I started college in Algebra II. When I started college there were hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of 8th graders more advanced than I was.

    It seems obvious that not all physicists are child prodigies. Look how many physicists there are, they can't all be prodigies. Hard work and passion can get you far.
  11. Jun 19, 2012 #10
    Yeah, I'm starting a physics MS program next week, and I began my undergrad in trigonometry. I had math up through an into calculus course in high school, but at the time my priorities were elsewhere and I was not interested in math or physics.
  12. Jun 20, 2012 #11
    Would you guys consider Oklahoma State University to be a decent physics (undergrad) school? (I googled it but I'm not quite sure what is considered "good" under the ranking systems I found)
  13. Jun 20, 2012 #12
    Rankings really don't matter at all for undergrad institutions. Go visit physics departments at different colleges before you pick a school, and get a feel for how much you like the professors and where you feel most comfortable.
  14. Jun 20, 2012 #13
    I originally planned on aerospace engineering and OSU has a pretty good program in it so chose it for my school and finished all of the enrollment process already. But if undergrad doesn't matter as much then I'll probably just stay. I got a decent scholarship and I like the atmosphere of the engineering department so hopefully the physics department is good as well.
  15. Jun 20, 2012 #14
    seriously, ohio state is good enough. Don't listen to the guys that say you have to go to Yale/Princeton/Harvard. UT Austin, UIUC and UM College Park are all top 20. I'd say anything within the top 50 is already great, and in the top 80 is OK. #1 is research interest, #2 is faculty personality, distant 3rd is school overall ranking (because if the first 2 are off, you'll never make it).
  16. Jun 20, 2012 #15
    If you are doing decent at calculus I, that's "good enough."

    Define success.

    The likely outcome is that you will spend ten years of your life, working your rear end off, and you still won't be able to get the job of your choice.

    However, if you think that hard work and learning something about the universe is it's own reward, then that's success. If not, then it's failure.

    One thing that has helped me is that I'm willing to spend an insane amount of effort at things that I'm bad at. After I spend all that effort, I'm *still* bad at it, but I'm better than I would if I didn't spend the effort.

    One thing about physics is that you will always be at the very limit of your ability. You will constantly meet people that are just plan smarter than you are, and can do things that you will never be able to do. If confronting your limits makes you uncomfortable, then physics is a bad choice.

    Physics is all about *failure*. You will fail, again, and again and again. Personally, I think that's cool.

    Most people shouldn't go into physics. It's not an intelligence thing, but a personality thing.
  17. Jun 21, 2012 #16
    I want to major in physics for the knowledge not for the job prospects, but are their enough industry jobs for physicists right now? I know that I would almost certainly end up in a different sub field than my first choice, but that would not bother me.

    What sort of personality must one have?
  18. Jun 21, 2012 #17
    Hard to say. Also, one problem is that the issue isn't jobs now, but jobs in 10 years.

    I and the Ph.D.'s I know personally have never had a problem getting industry work, but different people have had very different experiences. One thing that makes this a hard question is that I entered the work force during the dot-com boom, and when it went bust, I had experience. The other thing is that my graduate school seemed supportive (perhaps unusually supportive) of people that went out into industry.

    I think that part of the problem is that it's hard, perhaps impossible to predict the future.

    The decision may boil down to what the decision you have to make is. One thing is that it's important to compare apples to apples. The question isn't so much how "bad" physics is, but how "bad" it is relative to the other options you have. Physics is more marketable than say going to film school or Russian literature.

    Persistent. Especially important is the ability to get knocked down and come back up. One big issue is that pre-college education has a large component of building up your ego, and if you are smart you can get 90's on tests. What happens if you go the physics route is that you have to get used to being below average and sometimes way below average.
  19. Jun 21, 2012 #18
    I'm actually really excited for a challenge and courses I care about in college. I made pretty bad grades in some of my classes in high school. I wouldn't due homework because i knew i could get a high grade on my tests without it and i ended up getting screwed over by it. I definitely plan to do better in college, but it will be weird to be one of the below average students. Guess I'll just have to work harder :biggrin:
  20. Jun 21, 2012 #19
    Hey guys, quick question. And certainly a question that will annoy the more knowledgeable people here and will probably be met with 'work harder' and 'practice' and all that. Which is all helpful and very good advice but I am looking for some hard truths..

    The past two semesters, I took Calc A & B, yet have forgotten why an integral can be evaluated as the difference of its anti derivatives. Does this bode badly for my future in mathematics? I'm sure it doesn't, I'm sure many people have struggled with the same problems early in their studies and have gone on to earn their degrees... I just need someone to tell me I'm not hopeless. Thanks!
    Last edited: Jun 21, 2012
  21. Jun 21, 2012 #20
    Of course it's not hopeless. Was the calculus proof based? If not, then youre completely fine.
  22. Jun 21, 2012 #21

    Haha I torture myself over the exact same issue on whether or not I have a mathematical mind. The proof in my textbook for it is entirely algebraic and doesn't make much intuitive sense as say, a graphical reason would.
  23. Jun 21, 2012 #22


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    the answer is no.
  24. Jun 22, 2012 #23
    If you can pull up google and remember the answer in a half hour then you aren't going to have a problem. If you don't use something constantly, you tend to forget it, but you can relearn it much more quickly than when you looked at it the first time.

    You actually end up struggling with this stuff all your life.
  25. Jun 22, 2012 #24
    A question to you twofish...so after having earned a Ph.D in physics, is it conceivable for you to struggle in answering some textbook problems (particularly the ''challenge'' problems, but even a medium problem) in an introductory textbook?
  26. Jun 22, 2012 #25
    I love how mathwonk is always straight to the point. The man speaks the truth and nothing but the truth.
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