Help me decide: physics or chemistry?

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  • #1
approximatelysphere
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I’m a high school senior currently struggling to choose between chemistry and physics. I’m really interested in pursuing physics, but I am not sure if it will truly be for me.

This year, I’m taking AP physics 2 and I have enjoyed it a lot more than AP Chemistry. I feel that physics is much more mathematical than chemistry and answers how the universe works at the most fundamental level. There also seems to be a lot more logic and understanding from first principles, whereas chemistry seems to be plug and chuck most of the time, at this level at least.

I’ve also thoroughly enjoyed many mathematical topics such as Calculus I and II, intro to differential equations, intro to vectors and matrices, hyperbolic functions, complex numbers, and further integration techniques. High school maths has really made me want to study maths more in depth in university.

Being able to apply some of these maths topics to physics (ie calculus to entropic calculation in thermodynamics and cross products to finding magnetic force vectors) really made me feel that I was understanding nature on a deeper level.

Forgive me if I’m being overly ambitious, but I’m captivated by general relativity and would love to study unification some time in the future.

However, I am worried about choosing physics because I realise that university maths/physics is very very different from high school maths/physics. I’m not sure if I have the intellect to really thrive in physics, as it does have the reputation of being for absolute geniuses.

I am worried that physics may become depressing due to its theoretical nature. Don’t get me wrong: I am absolutely captivated by the theory, but I wouldn’t mind a few explosions here or there once in a while. I also found classical mechanics in AP Physics 1 to be incredibly dull and counterintuitive at times.

Will I enjoy physics more than chemistry in university if I really loved high school maths?

What made you realise that physics was for you? What has been your experiences with high level physics? How different are chemistry and physics in terms of the maths and learning experience involved, if you could comment?
 
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  • #2
Why do you need to decide now? Enter your university, take the university's offerings in physics and chemistry - which you probably need to take anyway with either major - and decide then.
 
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  • #3
Vanadium 50 said:
Why do you need to decide now? Enter your university, take the university's offerings in physics and chemistry - which you probably need to take anyway with either major - and decide then.
Because I need to decide if I’m going to accept my offer to UK really soon. If I do, then it’s going to be chemistry for four years.
 
  • #4
approximatelysphere said:
However, I am worried about choosing physics because I realise that university maths/physics is very very different from high school maths/physics. I’m not sure if I have the intellect to really thrive in physics, as it does have the reputation of being for absolute geniuses.
Be careful of that kind of thinking. Hard work is extremely important and too many people (or students) discount the meaning and value of effort. DO NOT rely on Genius.
 
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  • #5
I only read the first, post #1.

Check into the blending of the two, and that could be Chemical Engineering. If you earn a degree in Chemistry, you may look for and find employment as a chemist. You would certainly spend some time solving problems, often involving Mathematics. If you earn a degree in Chemical Engineering, you may look for and find employment as chemical engineer, or possibly as a chemist. You would certainly spend some time solving problems, often involving the use of Mathematics. Engineering is known as at least vocational skills in its nature.
 
  • #6
approximatelysphere said:
Because I need to decide if I’m going to accept my offer to UK really soon. If I do, then it’s going to be chemistry for four years.
Nobody should be locked into a specific program without some options to change major field; or in your location is being locked into the program necessary?
 
  • #7
  • #8
When I saw "UK", my first thought was University of Kentucky which doesn't seem too likely for a Canadian. There's also the University of Kansas, but they call themselves "KU" for some reason, maybe so as to not be confused with Kentucky...

Maybe his offer is to some university in the United Kingdom?

approximatelysphere said:
I am worried that physics may become depressing due to its theoretical nature. Don’t get me wrong: I am absolutely captivated by the theory, but I wouldn’t mind a few explosions here or there once in a while.
I haven't looked at the current job statistics at the American Institute of Physics, but I'm pretty sure most physicists are experimentalists. When I was in graduate school many years ago, I was an experimentalist, as were most of the other grad students that I knew. The theorists were an elite bunch. (We did of course have to know enough of the theory for our respective fields to be able to apply it to what we were actually working on.)
I also found classical mechanics in AP Physics 1 to be incredibly dull and counterintuitive at times.
Don't judge physics by introductory classical mechanics! :mad:

I was actually in a somewhat similar situation to yours when I finished high school. I was undecided between majoring in physics or chemistry. I had taken two years each of physics and chemistry in my high school. (In those long-ago days, 50+ years ago, AP courses didn't exist, at least not at my high school.) I had also taken freshman chemistry in summer school at a nearby college.

I ended up going to that college, so I started there with freshman physics, because I had already taken freshman chemistry. When we got to E&M in the second term, Maxwell's Equations blew me away, and I decided to major in physics.
 
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  • #9
UK - United Kingdom, haha
 
  • #10
jtbell said:
The theorists were an elite bunch.
That’s a bit intimidating! Though I do really want to have a solid grasp of the mathematics and theoretical side of physics, and perhaps even going into theoretical research. What would you say that would take?

jtbell said:
When we got to E&M in the second term, Maxwell's Equations blew me away, and I decided to major in physics.
You just got me excited! Interestingly, this is the second time in one day where I’ve heard physicists comment on how amazing Maxwell’s Equations are. Did you cover them in the second term? Maxwell’s Equations seem quite advanced as they involve PDEs, so I assume you’d need to have taken multivariable calculus prior.
 
  • #11
approximatelysphere said:
Because I need to decide if I’m going to accept my offer to UK really soon. If I do, then it’s going to be chemistry for four years.
So, if you do enroll in this university (that you have been offered admission to) in the UK, what are the program limitations? Are you saying that you will be admitted as a chemistry major, without the option of transferring to a physics major? Is that correct?

If the program at that university is too limiting, have you been offered admission to other universities? If so, what are your options there?
 
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  • #12
approximatelysphere said:
I am worried that physics may become depressing due to its theoretical nature. Don’t get me wrong: I am absolutely captivated by the theory, but I wouldn’t mind a few explosions here or there once in a while.
There's the whole wonderful world of experimental physics. And if you're curious about what fun explosions physics can result in, go watch Oppenheimer. :oldbiggrin:
 
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  • #13
gmax137 said:
@approximatelysphere 's "about" info says Canada. I'm not sure what school "UK" is.
Kalgary?
 
  • #14
approximatelysphere said:
Though I do really want to have a solid grasp of the mathematics and theoretical side of physics, and perhaps even going into theoretical research. What would you say that would take?

Undergraduate coursework is mostly theory, so at the point where you are now, my advice is simply to do as well as you can in your coursework. When you get to the point where you can start to participate in your professors' research, look for opportunities among the theorists.

My experience is in the US, where there are not (with maybe a few exceptions) separate undergraduate tracks for theorists and experimentalists.

approximatelysphere said:
Maxwell’s Equations seem quite advanced as they involve PDEs, so I assume you’d need to have taken multivariable calculus prior.

This was the second term of calculus-based freshman physics, using Halliday & Resnick's Fundamentals of Physics as the text. Multivariable calculus was not a prerequisite, although I was in fact taking it at the same time.

We learned the integral versions of Maxwell's Equations, which can be explained pictorially / graphically. We applied them in very symmetric geometries where the multivariable integrals reduce to simple multiplications.

In the mid 2000s, when I taught that material myself, I called those integrals "Geico integrals": "So easy a caveman could do them."

Later, in our intermediate-level E&M course using a text similar to Griffiths' Introduction to Electrodynamics, we got the full treatment using both the differential and integral versions of Maxwell's equations, and applied them in situations where we actually had to use our multivariable-calculus techniques.
 
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  • #15
symbolipoint said:
Be careful of that kind of thinking. Hard work is extremely important and too many people (or students) discount the meaning and value of effort. DO NOT rely on Genius.
Thank you for the encouragement! I do try my best
 
  • #16
CrysPhys said:
So, if you do enroll in this university (that you have been offered admission to) in the UK, what are the program limitations? Are you saying that you will be admitted as a chemistry major, without the option of transferring to a physics major? Is that correct?

If the program at that university is too limiting, have you been offered admission to other universities? If so, what are your options there?
I have an offer from Imperial College London in the UK to study Chemistry with Molecular Physics. It would be extremely difficult, I’ve heard, to change degrees since the UK system is so much more restricted (they expect you to have decided by Year 13 of high school, which is equivalent to first year in university in North America). I’ve heard that the CwMP degree is basically a chemistry degree with a physics minor. However, this is not really the best option as I am really interested in diving as deep as possible into mathematics and physics.

On the other hand, I can stay in Canada and go to the University of Toronto, and I will have the opportunity to choose physics in the second year. In fact, I’m really interested in the Mathematics and Physics specialist program that U of T offers.
 
  • #17
I guess my reason for asking you guys is to get an idea of if I can enjoy and do well in physics. I’ve really liked maths, especially calculus, so I want to challenge myself in that area.

My main fear is that, perhaps after a few years, I find that I am so terrible at physics that I consequently lose interest. That’s why it is so important to me to know what made you guys decide to study physics. To be honest, I know more about chemistry than physics, so making the decision to pursue the latter feels risky without further consultation. If I can know surely that people like me can enjoy and thrive in physics, I’ll go to U of T in a heart beat even though I really do like Imperial.
 
  • #18
To clarify, I originally wanted to go into chemistry. However, one of the biggest factors that made me reconsider studying chemistry is realizing that physical chemistry is the only part that really intrigues me, because of how mathematical it is. On the other hand, organic chemistry gives me nightmares. I frankly can’t care less about reaction mechanisms or synthesis.
 
  • #19
As I understand it, you wanted a degree in chemistry and applied to a program that locked you in to chemistry. Now you changed your mind.

It seems in that case it makes no sense to enter the program that locks you into something you don't want to do.

On the other, you seem to be looking to us to guarantee your success before you ever start. We can't do that. Nobody can. Further, while that attitude may be OK for a physics major, it won't be for a professional physicist. If you're that risk-averse, you will surely be unhappy.
 
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  • #20
approximatelysphere said:
I guess my reason for asking you guys is to get an idea of if I can enjoy and do well in physics. I’ve really liked maths, especially calculus, so I want to challenge myself in that area.

My main fear is that, perhaps after a few years, I find that I am so terrible at physics that I consequently lose interest. That’s why it is so important to me to know what made you guys decide to study physics. To be honest, I know more about chemistry than physics, so making the decision to pursue the latter feels risky without further consultation. If I can know surely that people like me can enjoy and thrive in physics, I’ll go to U of T in a heart beat even though I really do like Imperial.
In some places, picking undergraduate major field of Physics OR Chemistry will demand much of the first two years will have large amount of the same courses.
 
  • #21
approximatelysphere said:
To clarify, I originally wanted to go into chemistry. However, one of the biggest factors that made me reconsider studying chemistry is realizing that physical chemistry is the only part that really intrigues me, because of how mathematical it is. On the other hand, organic chemistry gives me nightmares. I frankly can’t care less about reaction mechanisms or synthesis.
The stuff I put into bold type: Hopefully that complaint will change.
 
  • #22
@approximatelysphere
Wherever you go, if you choose Physics, are you permitted "elective" courses in Chemistry enough to equate approximately to a minor concentration? If yes then you could gain at least some subject-matter satisfaction for Chemistry while working for Major field degree in Physics.
 
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  • #23
approximatelysphere said:
I guess my reason for asking you guys is to get an idea of if I can enjoy and do well in physics. I’ve really liked maths, especially calculus, so I want to challenge myself in that area.

My main fear is that, perhaps after a few years, I find that I am so terrible at physics that I consequently lose interest. That’s why it is so important to me to know what made you guys decide to study physics. To be honest, I know more about chemistry than physics, so making the decision to pursue the latter feels risky without further consultation. If I can know surely that people like me can enjoy and thrive in physics, I’ll go to U of T in a heart beat even though I really do like Imperial.
<<Emphasis added>> What motivated others to study physics is irrelevant. Only what motivates you to study physics is. There is no way you can determine at this stage surely whether you will enjoy and thrive in physics. That's why it's important to have a flexible undergrad program. If you're not sure of what you want, if Imperial College London locks you in to a program you really don't want, and if University of Toronto allows you more flexibility, then the choice is obvious.
 
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  • #24
symbolipoint said:
If you earn a degree in Chemical Engineering, you may look for and find employment as chemical engineer, or possibly as a chemist.
My understanding is that there is very little actual Chemistry involved in Chemical Engineering programs. It's more about process engineering.

OP, ICL is a fantastic school but unless you're 100% sure that Chemistry is what you want to do, I would recommend going to UofT. The flexibility of the curriculum, the ability to switch majors, and the requirement for elective courses I think make for a better program. The other thing to consider is that while you said that ICL's program is 4 years, (I assume that's a 3 year BSc + 1 year MSci), there may be material differences in the ability to get involved in research or to do a senior year thesis which are going to be important for admission to grad school. I personally believe that it's easier to craft a compelling profile for admission to graduate programs with a North American degree vs those in England (Scotland would be a different proposition since that's the model that NA degrees are based on). The final consideration is cost. Attending UofT is going to be significantly cheaper than ICL and given that grad school will be in your future, spending less for your undergraduate degree just makes more financial sense. I would aim instead for maybe attending graduate school in England if an international experience is something you would want.

As to the issue of Chemistry vs Physics, at UofT you'll have almost 2 semesters before having to choose. My son was in a similar boat in high school. In grade 11 he leaned towards Chemistry but by grade 12 had decided on Physics as he had absolutely no interest in organic chemistry. During his undergrad he did an internship that involved research in soft condensed matter physics which was somewhat at the intersection of Chemistry and Physics, and he's just been admitted to a direct-entry PhD at UofT for Physics but the professor he's considering choosing for his research advisor is a Physical Chemist in the department of Chemistry with a cross appointment to the department of Physics. All this is to say that there is still a possibility to work in the intersection of both fields. The other reason I would recommend Physics is from a curricular standpoint in that it will give you a much deeper grounding in math that will keep your options open for potential future research directions. While it is possible to use your elective space in a Chemistry degree to take additional math, having it integrated into your major as it is for Physics leaves you flexibility to pursue other interests with your electives (like maybe Chemistry courses).
 
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  • #25
approximatelysphere said:
There also seems to be a lot more logic and understanding from first principles, whereas chemistry seems to be plug and chuck most of the time, at this level at least.
That difference could be due to the instructor. Certainly there are many physics instructors who teach the plug-and-chug answer-making strategy rather than focusing on sense-making.

If you decide to major in physics you will certainly be required or at east encouraged to take chemistry in your freshman year. At that point, if you decide you prefer chemistry, you can switch majors.

My best advice is to do something that you not only enjoy, but will make you employable. There are too many horror stories out there of over-educated unemployed graduates forced into postdoc positions where they labor at poverty wages for years, waiting for something, anything, that will get them out of the pickle they're in.

Contrast this with someone who gets a B.S. degree, takes a high school teaching job and continues to take classes towards a M.S. degree. Ten years after starting college, they are financially more successful, have perhaps started a family, and are living a much happier, less stressful, more enjoyable, life.
 
  • #26
gwnorth said:
The other reason I would recommend Physics is from a curricular standpoint in that it will give you a much deeper grounding in math that will keep your options open for potential future research directions.

Totally! This is exactly why I want to do physics so much. I find math extremely interesting, especially when it is applied to the sciences. Chemistry, while it does have a lot of maths, just won’t be to the same degree as physics.
 
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  • #27
approximatelysphere said:
Totally! This is exactly why I want to do physics so much. I find math extremely interesting, especially when it is applied to the sciences. Chemistry, while it does have a lot of maths, just won’t be to the same degree as physics.
Dont do chemistry then. It's not a contigency, it's an entirely different field and mode of thinking from physics.
 
  • #28
approximatelysphere said:
I am worried that physics may become depressing due to its theoretical nature. Don’t get me wrong: I am absolutely captivated by the theory, but I wouldn’t mind a few explosions here or there once in a while. I also found classical mechanics in AP Physics 1 to be incredibly dull and counterintuitive at times.

Will I enjoy physics more than chemistry in university if I really loved high school maths?
Many Physics course in university/college will have laboratory sections in which students do laboratory exercises. Confusion MUST occur in the process of studying and trying to learn. One must read, reread, respond to worded exercise question, several of them, and regularly in order to reduce the confusion about the concepts and laws.

You may very likely enjoy Physics more than Chemistry because Physics will feel structured better and you will use much Mathematics in understanding and problem-solving. Chemistry really does still depend much on Mathematics but you do and will feel a qualitative difference (which I at this moment do not know how to explain to you). Chemistry is plenty mathematical.
 
  • #29
symbolipoint said:
Many Physics course in university/college will have laboratory sections in which students do laboratory exercises. Confusion MUST occur in the process of studying and trying to learn. One must read, reread, respond to worded exercise question, several of them, and regularly in order to reduce the confusion about the concepts and laws.

You may very likely enjoy Physics more than Chemistry because Physics will feel structured better and you will use much Mathematics in understanding and problem-solving. Chemistry really does still depend much on Mathematics but you do and will feel a qualitative difference (which I at this moment do not know how to explain to you). Chemistry is plenty mathematical.
I know a few too many chemists who clearly regret not studying physics; they haven't touched a beaker in years and spend all their time doing quantum calculations on molecules! So physics is also accessible.
 
  • #30
symbolipoint said:
Chemistry really does still depend much on Mathematics but you do and will feel a qualitative difference (which I at this moment do not know how to explain to you).
Chemistry provides a description of how matter behaves, necessarily invoking lots of physics in the process, because much of chemistry is underpinned by physics.

Physics rarely invokes any chemistry at all, except to explain how physics underpins some bit of chemistry.
 
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  • #31
Mister T said:
Physics rarely invokes any chemistry at all, except to explain how physics underpins some bit of chemistry.
My teacher likes to say that chemistry is just a subfield of physics haha
 
  • #32
approximatelysphere said:
My teacher likes to say that chemistry is just a subfield of physics haha
That's an old one. It's mostly true but not completely true. Chemistry focuses more on the empirical, less on the theoretical.
 
  • #33
Guys, if you still care, I think I've pretty much made up my mind.

I really do enjoy learning about maths and physics. At least I know that that is true for now. I won't know anything five or ten years down the line. I enjoy physics now, and that's the only thing that matters.

It is equally likely that I won't enjoy chemistry in the future, perhaps even more likely, since I already don't enjoy it as much as physics now.

Hence, I won't deny myself physics because it will be difficult, because I will struggle. I won't worry about not being good enough. That's a problem for future me.

I like physics and I'm gonna do physics. Wish me luck!
 
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  • #34
approximatelysphere said:
Guys, if you still care, I think I've pretty much made up my mind.

I really do enjoy learning about maths and physics. At least I know that that is true for now. I won't know anything five or ten years down the line. I enjoy physics now, and that's the only thing that matters.

It is equally likely that I won't enjoy chemistry in the future, perhaps even more likely, since I already don't enjoy it as much as physics now.

Hence, I won't deny myself physics because it will be difficult, because I will struggle. I won't worry about not being good enough. That's a problem for future me.

I like physics and I'm gonna do physics. Wish me luck!
Chemistry is already bad enough when you actually want to do chemistry.

Physics is the better choice for you.
 
  • #35
approximatelysphere said:
Guys, if you still care, I think I've pretty much made up my mind.

I really do enjoy learning about maths and physics. At least I know that that is true for now. I won't know anything five or ten years down the line. I enjoy physics now, and that's the only thing that matters.

It is equally likely that I won't enjoy chemistry in the future, perhaps even more likely, since I already don't enjoy it as much as physics now.

Hence, I won't deny myself physics because it will be difficult, because I will struggle. I won't worry about not being good enough. That's a problem for future me.

I like physics and I'm gonna do physics. Wish me luck!
That's a well-balanced perspective. Good luck on your endeavors, present and future.
 

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