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How Feasible Is It? Changing English major to Physics major

  1. Dec 17, 2013 #1
    Hi guys. I'm an education major. I'm about to transfer to a university where I was planning on getting my undergraduate degree in education with a concentration in English. However, both my uncle and my dad were great at math. My uncle was accepted into a highly prestigious college for technology (back in the 50's), but turned it down because his mother wanted him to join the army instead. He fought in the Vietnam War and came back to join the University of Florida, where he received his engineering degree. He also worked for what is now known as Lockheed Martin.

    Recently, I've been thinking seriously about a physics degree. I've always been interested in the stars, the origins of the universe, NASA, etc. and even have memories of walking in the big warehouses, where they would be building parts of the space shuttle (there would be big curtains that blocked most of it off, but in other paces you could walk inside of them). This was when I was around 5 or 6 and I got to go to work with my father a few times. It's always been on my mind and, until the present day, I never really took it serious. I don't know why.

    I grew up in a rather unorthodox way - in that, I didn't go to college right after highschool. I wanted success without the need for higher education. Three years ago I went back to college, now I'm 34, and I'm serious about changing my major to physics. I have a family with two kids, and a wife, but I don't do much else aside from that. I understand that math will be a challenge, but a challenge I'm willing to accept. When I was taking my math courses before I was usually the first one to finish my exams in test and, last test I remember, made a 97. Most of everyone in the same class didn't do so well. So, I know I'm capable.

    My greatest challenge right now is accepting the challenge completely, i.e. in other words, making the decision to pursue the path and changing my major. Just wanted to get advice or thoughts from the community. Thanks.
  2. jcsd
  3. Dec 17, 2013 #2
    I'm not sure what your motives are as far as getting an education, but if you are doing this primarily to be able to be in a better financial status to support your family better, you might want to look into engineering.
  4. Dec 17, 2013 #3
    Oh no, I don't really care about the money. I'm more interested in cosmology, quantum physics, etc. My education major was originally for teaching, so if for no other reason, I could teach later on. I basically just have an honest approach to it.
  5. Dec 18, 2013 #4
    If you want it, go for it.

    But be prepared, the math will be a challenge, for anyone. Unless your 97 you spoke of was in partial differential equations, it literally means nothing in regards to the math curriculum of a physics major. I know many people who aced trig, or calculus 1 & 2 that were just not cut out for other courses.

    Also, be prepared to spend a long time learning about things in physics you may not find particularly interesting at the beginning.

    It's like night and day to go from a English/education to something like physics, and by "night and day" I mean a "swift kick to the teeth."

    What you may want to do to is find a good textbook for a (physics major's) introductory physics course and try observing the kind of things you'd be doing. You generally need around Calc 2 for the beginning physics courses, but that probably won't make the problems in the book unsolvable. I think that would go a long way in helping you make the decision/commitment.
  6. Dec 18, 2013 #5
    When is the last time you seriously did math? Depending on that, you might want to review a lot of high school mathematics. I recommend the excellent book "basic mathematics" by Lang. The book contains everything you need before starting calculus. So work through it, and do the exercises. If you do alright, then you're in a far better position to go for a physics major.
  7. Dec 18, 2013 #6


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    You never mentioned anything about your career goal. Why are you hoping to do with your physics degree? Are you aiming to stop after you get your undergraduate degree?

  8. Dec 18, 2013 #7
    I would suggest you do what I did and pick up college textbooks for some of the mid to high level classes in any degree you want to reach for.

    That's how I decided on computer science, the higher level stuff is just extremely interesting to me and I love studying it.
  9. Dec 18, 2013 #8
    I do not suggest this. Particularly, not for physics. The upper division physics books will be heavily focused on mathematical methods so you will not get much out of it. I would suggest flipping through an intro book as others have mentioned.

    What is the highest level math you've been exposed to and when?
  10. Dec 21, 2013 #9
    "You never mentioned anything about your career goal. Why are you hoping to do with your physics degree? Are you aiming to stop after you get your undergraduate degree?"

    Glad you asked that question. I've always been drawn to the universe and how it works. I watch quantum physics debates, watch the discovery channel Stephen Hawking movies, and I just have a childhoon affection for space and space related mechanisms. I always down-played myself saying "I won't be good enough or smart enough to be one of those guys"...but as I get older, I realize this mentality has kept me from being happy and doing exactly what I've really and truly wanted to do since I was a child. Am I the best at math? No. Will I take more hours to do the same math that say someone else will? Probably. But, this doesn't matter to me. What matters to me is that I get to my goal no matter how many hours it takes me.

    Now, what is my ultimate goal? This is more personal, because I'll start a whole deabte here if I say anything more. But, I want to uncover more to our universe. This idea that we have so much to discover is intriguing to me. Unlike things we've already discovered, space if the final frontier, and I want to reach my hands through it to see what I can bring back to earth and to our understanding. In a sense, just bringing that something to the table would be enough for me, i.e. my goal.
  11. Dec 21, 2013 #10
    "When is the last time you seriously did math? Depending on that, you might want to review a lot of high school mathematics. I recommend the excellent book "basic mathematics" by Lang. The book contains everything you need before starting calculus. So work through it, and do the exercises. If you do alright, then you're in a far better position to go for a physics major."

    Considering my major was education with a concentration in English, I only had to go to math 112 and haven't even gotten to cal yet. But, I will learn it again stage by stage in college. Since I was almost about to graduate with my associates in education, I will have extra credits after leaving my junior level college when I go to a university (and English is good for critical thinking, which can be helpful in physics I would imagine), but this is also setting me back another year, possibly a year and a half considering all I can take now is math. I've basically taken everything else I need. I signed up for my classes recently and was only able to sign up for two classes due to having everything else I needed. However, I'm also taking summer semester as well to get me up to par faster. Basically, in a year, I'll have three math courses covered. I think I have five or six to go before I can transfer.
    Last edited: Dec 21, 2013
  12. Dec 21, 2013 #11


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    First of all, you should use the "quote" function in your post.

    Secondly, you actually haven't said anything about your career goal. You stated what you wish to do, but not occupationally.

    Based on what you wrote, you want to be a practicing physicist. If this is true, then I suggest that you read my "So You Want To Be A Physicist" essay.

    Secondly, you need to evaluate if you are willing to spend 4 years of undergraduate education, 6 years of graduate school, 2-4 years of postdoctoral work, and then fight for an academic position or a position at a National Lab or research agency.

    Lastly, I think you still have a very narrow, restricted view of what physics is, and that the view that you have on it will also restrict your employability. You have the same view of physics as a high school student or the general public who don't seem to know that physics isn't just the LHC or the Stephen Hawkings, but it is also your iPhone, your MRI, the Andre Geims and the Phil Andersons.

  13. Dec 21, 2013 #12
    Occupationally, I'm not sure. I rely on the progressive revelation that my years of education might lead me to. I rely on teachers and professors to help encourage me and point me in the right direction. And, eventually, maybe I will find out what exactly that is. I must note that I live in Alabama right in Huntsville where there's the Redstone Arsenal, Lockheed Martin, and various other big companies that I might end of working for.

    I may be willing to do this altogether, but not all at once. I know it's possible to get a job with a bachelors degree, though I may or may not be doing exactly what I want to do at first. And, I'm fine with this. Many engineering jobs are available to physics majors.

    As for what physics is, I think you're right in some sense, but what's wrong with having a high-school mentality of the subject? Surely, you too had this idea as a student at some point?
  14. Dec 21, 2013 #13
    Where is your essay located, Zappers?
  15. Dec 21, 2013 #14
  16. Dec 21, 2013 #15


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  17. Dec 21, 2013 #16
    Thanks. I find it insightful.
  18. Dec 22, 2013 #17
    The problem with a high school mentality is you have a family. Not saying you can't do something you enjoy but at the same time when you got married and had kids you made the decision to put them before your personal endeavors. That means you should be looking for ways to better provide, not wasting time and resources on a degree that you have a very narrow view of, and worse you don't even have a slight idea of what kind of employment you will be able to pursue. What makes you think those big companies will hire a physics major over a well qualified engineer at the same level. You don't even plan to get a PhD at this point, which means you won't be doing any research, anywhere. It would make a lot more sense to get a more marketable degree that relates to the topics you enjoy in physics and then shoot for companies or labs that deal with those topics. Even if you can't work with those topics directly after your bachelors, you'll still have an employable degree to use while working on more advanced education
  19. Dec 22, 2013 #18
    Well, the way I understand it is that physics majors can do engineering jobs, whereas engineers cannot do the jobs of physicist. Also, a physics degree can be lucrative and adapt to many professions.

    Post hoc fallacy. Me having a family has zero effect on my getting a degree. Before considering a degree in physics, I was majoring in education - still in school. I also work, as well, and take care of my family. I really don't know where this notion that I can't get a degree in physics in good consciousness because I have a family comes from. The time is takes me to read through 45 pages of Biblical print style literature will take me just as much time to cover as it would for me to cover my math homework, even with a math lab.

    As for the employment, nowadays you can aim for something, but nine times out of ten you don't do what you planned on doing, so I don't make plans. I simply hope for something I want to do. I hope I can be a theoretical physicist someday, but I also understand this will take much longer to do, so in the meantime I have to let my options tell me what I can do while I'm getting my graduate degree.
  20. Dec 22, 2013 #19


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    Don't make the assumption that engineering jobs are easy to get with a physics degree - it ain't necessarily so. Most hiring managers have no idea about the skill set of a physic major, so if you manage to get a first interview you have a big marketing hurdle that engineers don't have.

    And there are *lots* of skills engineers have that physics majors don't. I'm sure the engineers here will be happy to elaborate.
  21. Dec 22, 2013 #20


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    To add to what lisab stated, this is especially true if you have a mindset of pursuing to "... be a theoretical physicist someday... ". It means that your undergrad coursework will not have as much experimental work as part of your electives as someone who is more experimentally inclined. You might also not be involved in research projects or summer work that have to do more with experiments.

    This makes you to be even LESS desirable for engineering consideration, because you have less tangible skills that many engineering companies are looking for.

    Last edited: Dec 22, 2013
  22. Dec 22, 2013 #21
    Tack another point in the column for having a HS mindset about physics
  23. Dec 22, 2013 #22


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    I'm neither an engineer nor a physicist, but I would submit that there are many things that engineers do that physicists don't have the training to do.
    As academic disciplines, education and physics are vastly different. You might be able to read through 45 pages of whatever you're currently reading in a short period of time, but it's completely naive to think that you can do the same with physics or mathematics. Physics and math textbooks are an order of magnitude more dense in how much information is packed into them.
    Good luck with that. Without some sort of plan, your chances of achieving what you want are much less than one in ten. Hoping for something to happen is not a good strategy.
  24. Dec 22, 2013 #23


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    Completely unnecessary comment that basically contributed nothing to the thread.

    Solisspiit you would do well to listen to some of the great advice offered here, if you're dead set on this path come hell or high water, make sure you take all the math and intro to physics at junior college and decide if this is for you before you transfer. Many universities won't let you change majors once you transfer.
  25. Dec 22, 2013 #24
    Student, I appreciate your class and fair honesty. I don't think this forum has been all that helpful, aside from offering a strange set of opinions to someone that is honestly seeking both positive and negative advice. I was offered only negative results with absolutely zero room for hope, which is quite sad (not for me, but for anyone with such a dim view on reality).

    I was hoping by coming here I would get helpful advice, but the only thing I've received is a bad taste in my mouth from the community of physics, at least in this forum. For the record, I have talked to both students and professors regarding job opportunities and outlook, and the information I provided were points from them, not from me, as I don't know myself. I'm not sure if most of the comments here are coming from pessimist or just very outdated professionals. In any case, thanks for nothing.
    Last edited: Dec 22, 2013
  26. Dec 22, 2013 #25


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    By Jove, solisspirit, you're almost an exact copy of myself! I'm currently finishing my BA in English teaching(as a foreign language, though), am also on the wrong side of 30, and wish to get that physics degree I've always wanted. Someday.

    I think I get your mindset -- and apologies if I go too far trying to read your mind -- which is just wanting to do what makes you happy, however cliche that may sound. Matters of frugality and career prospects are of secondary importance. In a way, it's a quest for an elaborate hobby, that just might have the advantage of also being a job.

    Unlike you, I did study physics for a couple years soon after high school(before flunking out due to the vagaries of youth). What I think I can say based on that, as well as my recent trying to get back into it, is that the kind of focused effort required by uni-level maths is much different from what you may encounter in the humanities and your everyday life. It's not necessary more difficult, but it's a different kind of difficult. It's as if you were trying to use a muscle you didn't even know you had, or which had atrophied long ago.
    Getting there will require lots of work, I think I can safely say. Work that younger people who hadn't been long out of the loop math-wise, will find relatively easy.

    I'm not sure if I may espouse any advice, being in so similar a situation, but if I did, then it'd be to get a bunch of math books and try to gauge your determination by trying to plow through at least one of them.

    Lastly, to encourage both you and myself, let me remind you that there's advantages to be found in our situation: the tumultous youth is past; some wisdom has, perhaps, arrived; we're somewhat settled in life, and can do stuff like this purely because we like it. It's just a matter of commitment, I believe. Good luck.
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