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General and/or Specific Advice For a Fall 2014 Freshman

  1. Mar 25, 2014 #1
    I'm 19, aspiring to go into professional physics, most probably in the astrophysics branch. I'm mostly attracted to gravity (please do not mind the pun), quantum mechanics, string theory, the remote possibility of FTL travel using Alcubierre Drives (or better technology, someday), fusion, et al.

    Graduated from high school in 2013, had a gap year due to a few bad decisions about college. International student. Indian.

    I've been accepted into UMass Amherst, and unless some REALLY good offer comes my way by April 4/5th, I'll enroll myself.

    To compensate for my wasted year, I took a bit of an initiative, and did the following:

    MIT OCW:
    1. 8.01 Classical Mech.
    2. 8.02 EM.
    3. 18.01 Single Variable Calculus.
    4. 18.02 Multivariable Calculus.
    5. 18.03 Ordinary Differential Equations.

    Now, for advice:

    1. What are the usual Freshman year GenEds?
    2. How many credits can I safely take while maintaining a 3.9+ GPA? I realize this is a somewhat vague question, but I'd appreciate any answer, even if it doesn't directly answer the question itself.
    3. I still have 4 months till I leave for college. Is there anything I can do, any texts I can study, anything at all, that I can do to prepare me for Freshman year so that when I do reach college, regular revision is all I need to do for an year?
    4. Is there an online repository of problem sets for introductory physics courses which I can plough through? Or something a bit more challenging?
    5. Any other general advice that would be useful to me?

    I realize that some of these questions may have been answered generically in other threads. I read the pinned threads. I do lurk around the forums and read the threads quite a bit.

    A preemptive thank you to anyone who is going to reply to this thread.
  2. jcsd
  3. Mar 25, 2014 #2


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    That varies from one university to another. As you may know, the US does not have a unified college/university system with uniform requirements everywhere. What does UMass require for gen-ed courses, in general? They should have something on their Web site.

    Just to give an example: where I work (a small church-related liberal-arts college), the "normal" freshman-level gen-ed courses are science (chemistry or physics or biology), math (whatever the student places into), English, foreign language, physical education (just 1 credit per semester) and religion. The "normal" sophomore-level gen-eds are things like psychology, sociology, political science, history, art and/or music (but not all of these). Students do shuffle them around or put some of them off till later years. Of course for a physics major, intro physics and calculus also satisfy the science and math gen-ed requirements.

    Basically, you first schedule whatever courses are required for your major, then you "fit in" the gen-ed courses around them.
  4. Mar 25, 2014 #3


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    general psychology is a good first gen ed
  5. Mar 25, 2014 #4


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    There is a text available quite cheaply on amazon by Richard Feynman called Tips on Physics. Not really tips, the book is comprised of review sessions he gave at Caltech while teaching introductory physics in the 60's. The review sessions are of some interest, but there are a hundred or so problems at the back of the book (many answers are provided). They are fairly challenging and perhaps more creative than the typical introductory problems. It's an inexpensive book, as far as books on physics go, and I strongly suggest picking up a copy.
  6. Mar 25, 2014 #5
    Many thanks for everyone's inputs till now. They've been helpful. I managed to find the gen eds, and look into psychology as an option. And also found the physics book in reference.

    Keep the inputs coming. Much appreciated.
  7. Mar 25, 2014 #6


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    Get help as soon as you feel you're not understanding something. If you wait too long it might be impossible to catch up.

    Don't short yourself on sleep. If you're sleep deprived, learning is extra difficult.

    Get regular exercise - make it a priority and find a way to fit it into your schedule.

    Join clubs.
  8. Mar 25, 2014 #7
    As for gen ed's for a physics major, I'd look into public speaking and writing (science writing would be best if available). Contrary to what some might think, a philosophy course would be a bit better than psychology, IMO. In some subtle way I think philosophy has a role in scientific thinking.
  9. Mar 25, 2014 #8


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    I think Psychology is good for anyone wanting to learn anything. Philosophy wouldn't cover anything about the brain, as far as i can tell.
  10. Mar 26, 2014 #9
    I've always made it a point to get all problems solved either right after class, or at the most, by the end of the day. Never been a big fan of leaving work undone.

    How much should I sleep? I read somewhere that sleep is best done is 90-minute increments(something about sleep cycles), and somewhere else, that 8 hours is a healthy average. 8 is actually 7.5 + 0.5, so that's half an hour to fall asleep/drag myself out of bed, and 7.5 hours = 5x90 mins.

    As for exercise, again, how much is legit?

    And clubs, yes. Now, physics clubs, study clubs, and maybe gaming/general amusement clubs are a given, but what else?
  11. Mar 26, 2014 #10
    I won't 'disagree' with you there, but I do have a grudge against philosophy in that I believe that it tries to 'justify itself, more than justify thoughts and knowledge'. Just an opinion I found somewhere on the Internet that I liked.

    Scientific writing and public speaking would be good, yes, since I seem to have an ability to make people listen (unless they have a ~5-second attention span).

    Thank you for the input. I will try to find appropriate GenEds.
  12. Mar 26, 2014 #11
    I second this with all of my heart. You have no idea how much this single fact will help or hurt you.
  13. Mar 27, 2014 #12
    Any specific time I need to sleep? Common consensus on the Internet seems to be 8 hours. Is 16-18 creds possible with 8 hours of sleep?
  14. Mar 29, 2014 #13
    Its alright provided that some of those credits come via labs and homework-light classes. Some universities limit 1st year students to taking only a certain amount of classes per term, mine was 15 credits @ 3cr per course. Enroll in classes as early as possible to get a decent schedule, otherwise you might end up doing partial differential eqs at 8 in the morning.
  15. Mar 30, 2014 #14
    Well, what is your sleep schedule like now? Some people perform well on 5-6 hours, but some people (like myself) cannot get less than 8 and still be considered a functioning human being. 16-18 credits with 8 hours of sleep is do-able, but don't procrastinate or you'll dig yourself a hole. And that really won't leave much time for anything else.
  16. Apr 1, 2014 #15
    Okay, so I got a few things figured out.

    About 7:30 of sleep a day, plus getting up/falling asleep = 8.

    Also, I'm still a bit new to this. Suppose there's a particular course, let's say X.

    Will the course have different lecture segments altogether?

    Like MWF @11:15 AM lecs for an hour each day, MWF @3:15 PM lecs for an hour each day, and TTh @12:15 PM lecs for 1.5 hours each day?

    This is just an example. My questions are:
    1. IS this model representative of the actual scenario?
    2. Depending on how early I choose my classes, I can choose whichever one is more convenient for me, yes?
  17. Apr 1, 2014 #16
    You're suggesting those three schedules are all for the same class? It sounds about like the schedule for three semester-long classes. You can choose whatever lecture section is most convenient for you, and it might also be useful to look at what professor is teaching what (try looking at what other students are saying about a particular professor at something like ratemyprofessor.com), or how far away something is.
  18. Apr 1, 2014 #17


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    Likely already covered above, but the point of the elective credits is that you take the opportunity to explore different interests. Some students stack them up so as to have a second major or a minor. Others will use them to explore a little. Others opt for "bird" classes that will be easy to earn a high mark in. Personally I needed about one course per semester that wasn't math or physics related, so I took courses in the humanities that interested me. I don't think that aiming for something just because you think it's going to be easy is a good idea. I've seen that backfire many times and you get students stuck taking courses that they (a) have no interest in and (b) struggle with.

    Start out with a standard course load for the school. I think this is typically 15-18 credits or about five courses per semester. The correlation between credits and GPA is not necessarily linear so don't assume that if you drop a course, you'll get a better GPA. Obviously though, taking on too many extra credits can be detremental because eventually you end up in a state of time-saturation. Based on how you do in your first year you can adjust accordingly.

    Personally, I would concentrate more on things that you won't be doing while you're at university. Get a job to keep your debt load down and get some practical work experience. Start a project that will enable some practical learning. Learn to program. Read as much as you can about the things that interest you. Volunteer.

    It varies from person to person. Eight hours is a general rule of thumb, but that's like saying a man is 5' 9" tall. Chances are you know how much sleep you need and can identify when you're not getting enough. It's easy to fall into a trap of using caffeine to compensate or sacrifcing sleep to cram for exams, but in the long run those will hurt you.

    Diet can also play a big role here. The "easy" foods commonly available around campus can make you lethargic (low energy levels, sleepy in class etc.) and for a lot of students on their own for the first time it's easy to eat a lot of crap. Learn how to eat well.

    Everyone and their dog has an answer for this and really it depends on what your goals are. In the context of doing well in school I would recommend doing something social and active at least once a week (join a sports team or a running club or just find a few friends who like to work out together). You should do some kind of cardiovascular exercise on a regular basis (get your heart rate up for 3-5 times per week for at least a half hour). And don't forget about strength training. Lift something heavy.
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