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First-Year Undergrad: Comp Sci or Physics?

  1. Sep 11, 2010 #1
    Hi. I'm about to be a first-year undergrad student and am having some trouble choosing between two sequences. One of them is an Intro Comp Sci sequence - 2 quarters long - and the other is a first-year Physics sequence - 3 quarters long. My dad wants me to take the CS sequence, reasoning that doing so would make me a more attractive applicant for internships and participating in research. The CS sequence seems to be a mix of theory and application: lots of proofs (which appeals to me) and lots of coding/algorithm-writing (not so much). My college's CS department seems to be more on the math-oriented side (UChicago) but I'm a little wary.

    My thinking is that, since I already know some C++ and Java (enough to write basic programs and algorithms) I already have enough programming experience to be of some use. In addition, I really don't like the idea of being a software developer/IT person. I'm also very interested in pure/applied math. Therefore, I'd like to take the Physics sequence. (However, it must be said, the CS sequence seems to touch on a variety of languages beyond C++ and Java, so I may be underestimating its utility.)

    The classes meet at the same time, so taking both is out of the question. Furthermore, both departments recommend taking the sequence first-year, so taking them one after another would seem to really hinder research opportunities.


    EDIT: More information - at this point I tend to vacillate between potential fields (economics, math, biology, CS, physics) a lot, if that helps any.
    Last edited: Sep 11, 2010
  2. jcsd
  3. Sep 11, 2010 #2
    You did not mention your major. I have a BS degree in Physics and advanced degrees in CS. Having skills on your resume is important. However, without formal training in CS you are considered untrained. But Physics on your resume limits your job opportunities as there are so few opportunities for Physics compared to CS. At the end of your first year, if you choose the Physics route, you have no marketable skills so you looking at minimum wage, with CS you could do better. In the long run, a BS alone in Physics is not very marketable. Physics is not called the killer science for nothing. During conflict, lots of physicists are need during peace not so much. I personally liked my undergrad studies in Physics but to continue in the field I needed a PhD. Physics did not interest me that much so I switched to CS. However, in CS you will be competing with programmers that acquired their skills in high school or junior college. Additionally, there are a lot of programmers brought into this country on work visas. All these bring down the salaries of CS people. Many companies take summer interns into their IT group but want people who are majoring in the field or at least in the line of business that the company considers it product. Your decision is more than the simple which path to take. It is important to look at next summer, and what your undergraduate degree will be in.
  4. Sep 12, 2010 #3
    "My thinking is that, since I already know some C++ and Java (enough to write basic programs and algorithms) I already have enough programming experience to be of some use."

    Of use doing what? Being able to write basic programs may not be too useful in the "real world".
  5. Sep 13, 2010 #4
    Granted, but from what I've read about this course it won't take me much beyond that (except in a few more languages).
  6. Sep 13, 2010 #5


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    I'm so sorry, but I will just have to disagree with those statements.
  7. Sep 13, 2010 #6


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    At least half the physics majors in my graduating class went on to cushy Wall Street jobs with nearly 6-figure salaries, so don't ever let anyone tell you that physics isn't marketable ;-) Studying physics teaches you a particular way of thinking that many employers, even in unrelated fields, find very attractive.

    You should also know that a computer science curriculum, especially at a liberal arts school like U. Chicago, doesn't teach you programming. Or rather, it does, but only the basics (which you may already know), and then only because you will need some programming ability in order to apply the concepts you'll really be learning: algorithm analysis, data structures, security proofs, multiprocess synchronization, etc. It's really more like applied mathematics, where the application happens to be computer software.

    Both physics and CS will give you the opportunity to learn about advanced programming techniques (because lots of physics involves programming these days), although you'll have to be motivated enough to do some programming on your own. On the other hand, if you want to avoid writing code, you can't really do that in CS. You might be able to get away with it in physics, depending on what area(s) of research you do work in.
  8. Sep 13, 2010 #7
    Take another year and do a double-major? Or get one degree as an undergrad and change up to the second major for your masters program. This option will also cost you another year probably. But computational physics is a great emerging field, very useful and very interesting! (just my 2c :) )
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