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How do you know whether or not you're actually capable of majoring in physics?

  1. Oct 27, 2011 #1
    I'm a college freshman, who is thinking about majoring in physics.

    The problem is, that I suffer a lot of anxiety about whether or not I'm actually capable of going through with it.

    I didn't do all that great in high school, and that's why I'm at a community college now, but that had a lot to do with some personal problems that I was dealing with.

    However, I managed to start doing really well in my Junior and Senior year, when i decided that I wanted to pursue my childhood dream of being a "scientist". I took an honors level (I didn't even take pre-calculus yet, so i wasn't allowed to take AP level physics, even though it wasn't that different from honors level), and I did extremely well in it. My final score was 98%+

    The thing that makes me nervous is that the only three people I know who are going into fields that are similar to physics are way above my league. All three of them had 800 math SAT scores (mine was about 650), 2 of them finished calculus 3 while still in high school, and the third got as far as Differential Equations in High School.

    I'm a college freshman taking calculus, and I'm doing well, but nowhere near the level that my friends did. My friend made an offhanded remark about how he's never gotten less than a 98% in a class, while I can never quite get scores higher than a 95, no matter how hard I try.

    Basically what I'm asking is, how smart do you actually have to be to major in physics? Are all of you on the same crazy level that my friends are?

    I'm the sort of person who panics a lot, and I'm terrified that I'll get past the first few years of lower level math and physics, and that I'll suddenly be overwhelmed by how hard it is, and that i'll have to change my major and lose a lot of credits, or that I won't be able to get into grad school and I won't be able to get a job with just a bachelors degree and a mediocre GPA.
  2. jcsd
  3. Oct 27, 2011 #2
    stop comparing yourself to others immediately and work at your own pace. you seem to be doing great so far, so keep up the hard work and stay focused.

    take things one step at a time. you have to complete calc 1 before you take calc 2, so there is no reason to worry about senior level physics courses as a freshman.

    the best thing you can do for yourself is FOUCS HARD on your classes now, and get a great foundation in them. upper level courses are based on the fundamentals in lower level courses, so if you have a SOLID foundation and understanding in your classes up until this point, you have a very, very good chance of doing well.

    so if physics is your end goal, then work hard, preparing yourself for those later classes by doing well early on, and the rest shouldn't be too far of a reach :)
  4. Oct 27, 2011 #3
    also, physics is a popular subject, so there are a lot of schaum's manuals and "xyz demystified" books out there full of practice problems and worked out solutions that are a great asset to students looking for extra practice / explanations in a variety of courses -- don't forget to check out these to supplement your textbooks and give you some extra problems to work through in preparation for those tough exams along the way :)
  5. Oct 27, 2011 #4
    Just take the intro calc-based physics sequence (or at least the first two), and see how you like it. If you like it and do reasonably well, you can major in physics. If you dislike it or do poorly, you can still use the credits towards many other science degrees, or even just as gen ed requirements.
  6. Oct 27, 2011 #5
    I got a 650 on the math part of the SAT, and I'm publishing papers, won a grant, and already know I have an internship at a well-known national lab. I also graduated high school with a 2.01 gpa, and never even got a 3 on any of the AP physics exams I took, and the calculus I took in senior year hardly covered 2/3 of the AP calculus stuff.

    Honestly, what I really did was work hard. Yes I struggled, and yes I met people who thought they were much smarter than me and bragged. Where are they now? Some in great places, but most are just at the average because they love to talk but they themselves can't handle it. Do what you can do. Even very complex ideas are accessible to people of average intelligence if they work hard enough, so just assume you are of average intelligence and understand that you will have to work hard. Regardless of how much natural talent you have, you'll have to do that anyway, so you might as well put in as much as you can because it will make you a better physicist in the end.
  7. Oct 27, 2011 #6
    I agree that you should not be comparing yourself to others. Moreoever, your friend has never gotten less than 98? Seems a bit unreasonable at secondary level....
  8. Oct 27, 2011 #7
    This is, in my opinion, really, really good advice. The second sentence in particular. I think people underestimate how much hard work is required even for incredibly brilliant people to do anything.

    At the early stages, the average and the very sharp have completely different amounts of work they need to do. At the later stages, they both need to do tremendous amounts of work to stay afloat. It's just the very sharp one might be more of a machine. But familiarity with physics adding on to the average student's ability to process things at a reasonable pace with added maturity over the years can still render him able to be a good physicist.

    However, it is really important to be obsessed with being productive and discovering stuff that makes some progress. It can be easy to get a bit too tired to do this at some point.
  9. Oct 30, 2011 #8
    Thanks for the kind words and advice everyone.

    I guess I'll just have to work as hard as I can and see how things go.

    I'm just worried that if things don't go well, and I find out that I'm not actually capable of majoring in physics, that I'll have to change majors and lose a bunch of credits.
  10. Oct 30, 2011 #9
    You will do fine. Those people you know seem to take pride in just getting good grades, and not in the understanding of information, where as you seem to be the opposite.

    Anyway, I think the way math is taught is extremely dumb. You can learn Calculus I through III very well in less than 5 months if you spend 10 minutes per day learning and 5 minutes doing about 2 practice problems.

    Think I'm lying? Go here: http://www.khanacademy.org/#calculus

    In that list of videos, start at your current topic in your calculus class. Each video is about 10 minutes. After each couple videos, find some practice problems for the topic on google and do one or two (or pause the video in the middle and try a problem he is about to do).

    Seriously, please try it out.
  11. Oct 30, 2011 #10

    Thanks, I'll be sure to use this to study for my exam!

    But there is one thing that I'd like to clarify.

    I didn't mean to imply that my friends were in any way arrogant. All three of them are usually modest about their success (or as modest as most high schoolers can be), and insist that they're actually just average intelligence people getting good grades as a result of having no social life, and they're actually really supportive when I tell them that I want to major in physics.
  12. Oct 30, 2011 #11
    Great. That only supports the 'work hard' advice. Good luck.
  13. Nov 4, 2011 #12
    Oh also, I have some more questions.

    1- How hard is it really to find a job with a physics degree, outside of teaching? I always hear a lot of conflicting information about this. Some people tell me that physics majors have great job security, and that a physics degree can pretty much get you whatever job you want, but I've also heard people tell me to prepare for financial difficulty. I don't mind knowing that I'll probably never become rich. I understand that liking your job is a lot more important than making a lot of money, but actually having a job is pretty important to me as well. What are your experiences in this?

    2- How does the subsidization of graduate programs (in the US) work? How hard is it to get a grant that pays for my schooling? What are my options if I get an undergraduate degree, and I can't get into grad school

    3- Will the fact that I'm at a community college now hurt me later on? I already know that my GPA won't follow me when I go to a 4 year, which is dissapointing since I'm doing so well, and it would be nice to know that I'll have some of the easy classes I'm taking now padding my GPA in case the next few years don't go as well.
    Will grad schools go back and look at what I'm doing now, and will they think negatively of the fact that I started out at a community college?
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