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How you decided your course of study

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  • Thread starter deRham
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  • #1
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Main Question or Discussion Point

I wanted to ask, simply out of curiosity, how people here think they arrived at where they are, interest-wise. For instance, why did you choose one (or two, or three, or rather...some natural number k) in particular of physics, mathematics, engineering, or one of other fields, as opposed to any of the others?

Especially for those who have had many interests. Then there is specialization in graduate school too, for many of us.

I find that I at least have to keep in touch with all the things I find really enriching, although I know I vastly prefer to get involved in close range with the details of some things over others.

I ask this question here, because I think it can be instructive to those who are figuring it out, either when it comes to deciding on a broad area of study or for instance picking a subfield of physics, mathematics, etc.
 

Answers and Replies

  • #2
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I moved to physics in undergrad because I didn't have the GPA for engineering. I completed MSc in physics with thesis in condensed matter theory because that was pretty much all that was available to me at the time.

Not very exciting, but thats what it is.

I originally wanted to go with computer engineering since I had been working (playing, repairing, networking) with computers virtually my whole life. When I realized I wasn't going to have the GPA to get into the engineering college after my 2nd year I went with physics since that seemed like the next best thing.
 
  • #3
Cod
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4
A lot of library trips and "trial and error". Also, in my case, offerings availble through a distance learning medium.
 
  • #4
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I'm currently a third-year Pure Math major and my story is rather interesting--at least to me.

I came into my university with three semesters of credits to my name (thanks to AP classes) with an undeclared major, but an interest in Psychology, English Literature, Economics, and Computer Science. In my first semester, I enrolled in Introduction to C Programming because, though I had taken a year of Java in AP Computer Science A, that was the gateway course for all CS classes. Long story short, after a semester, because of my credits from high school, I was told that I had to declare some sort of major, so I tentatively declared Computer Science because I liked C Programming and was taking a couple other CS classes in the Spring (along with Microeconomics and World Lit I).

When Spring rolled around, I realized fairly quickly that my World Lit class was terrible, so I dropped it and, lacking other options at the time, enrolled in a Discrete Math class required for all CS majors. The class was fairly interesting to me, but I didn't think much more of it. The following Fall, I decided to take Calculus II--required for all CS majors as well. By luck, I managed to get an excellent professor and it ended up my favourite class, enough so that I decided that I wanted to give math a try as well. (I declared a Pure Math major because I didn't really know anything about any of the tracks, but had I known that Pure Math was proof-heavy, I probably wouldn't've declared it.)

And it all sort of fell into place from there. I took Calculus III and Linear Algebra last Spring, Differential Equations over the Summer, and PDEs, Combinatorics, Theory of Computation, and Statistical Theory I in the fall, which made me realize that my interest was solidly in the area of pure--and primarily discrete--mathematics. In the process, I decided that I wasn't interested in pursuing more CS than another couple electives, so I decided to drop the major.

Now I'm going into my seventh semester and taking a full load of math courses, as well as starting some graph theory research and I'm pretty excited about the whole thing. After a few semesters of indecisiveness, I'm pretty confident that I'm on the right rrack now and I'm constantly working to improve as a math student (especially considering that I have no natural talent for the subject).
 
  • #5
115
1
I'm currently a third-year Pure Math major and my story is rather interesting--at least to me.

I came into my university with three semesters of credits to my name (thanks to AP classes) with an undeclared major, but an interest in Psychology, English Literature, Economics, and Computer Science. In my first semester, I enrolled in Introduction to C Programming because, though I had taken a year of Java in AP Computer Science A, that was the gateway course for all CS classes. Long story short, after a semester, because of my credits from high school, I was told that I had to declare some sort of major, so I tentatively declared Computer Science because I liked C Programming and was taking a couple other CS classes in the Spring (along with Microeconomics and World Lit I).

When Spring rolled around, I realized fairly quickly that my World Lit class was terrible, so I dropped it and, lacking other options at the time, enrolled in a Discrete Math class required for all CS majors. The class was fairly interesting to me, but I didn't think much more of it. The following Fall, I decided to take Calculus II--required for all CS majors as well. By luck, I managed to get an excellent professor and it ended up my favourite class, enough so that I decided that I wanted to give math a try as well. (I declared a Pure Math major because I didn't really know anything about any of the tracks, but had I known that Pure Math was proof-heavy, I probably wouldn't've declared it.)

And it all sort of fell into place from there. I took Calculus III and Linear Algebra last Spring, Differential Equations over the Summer, and PDEs, Combinatorics, Theory of Computation, and Statistical Theory I in the fall, which made me realize that my interest was solidly in the area of pure--and primarily discrete--mathematics. In the process, I decided that I wasn't interested in pursuing more CS than another couple electives, so I decided to drop the major.

Now I'm going into my seventh semester and taking a full load of math courses, as well as starting some graph theory research and I'm pretty excited about the whole thing. After a few semesters of indecisiveness, I'm pretty confident that I'm on the right rrack now and I'm constantly working to improve as a math student (especially considering that I have no natural talent for the subject).
That was a nice story to hear. I came into university to study engineering because that was what everyone "who did not know what they wanted" studied. In high school I had been more interested in sports.

Because I grew up understanding math by geometric intuition and identifying patterns, I have trouble comprehending more abstract math concepts now. I am not sure whether that is something I can overcome if I go to grad school.
 
  • #6
673
2
Because I grew up understanding math by geometric intuition and identifying patterns, I have trouble comprehending more abstract math concepts now.
Can you rephrase the abstract concepts in terms you do understand, or work with someone else who's good at it?

*shrugs* I'm a first generation American and imminently practical, so a liberal arts degree was never much of an option, plus I didn't want to write that many papers. It didn't hurt that my mom's a programmer and my grandma's an engineer.

As for my actual major? Barbies. Seriously, as a kid I played lots of Barbie video games and thought the options were lousy, so I got into CS 'cause I wanted to make better games, but I didn't figure out my major 'til around May of my senior year of high school (see you, don't need to know what you want to do with the rest of your life when you're 12) when I took a comp tech course and decided k-maps were so much fun that I chose compE as my undergrad.

I've laid out the story in detail in other threads, but I met my undergrad (now grad) adviser by chance and started out disliking the research. I remember thinking that research wasn't for me and I'd never make it through a phd and I just wanted to run away. A couple of years and the right sub topic later, I'm so totally attached to my research that I can't wait to finish with my coursework so that I can spend more time on it.

I also picked up enough credits in psych for a degree in it 'cause I've always found people's behavior fascinating and took random electives along the way in things I was interested in just 'cause.
 
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  • #7
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I have sort of an off-the-beaten path story, so I'll play.

I went through my high school years as a rather pugnacious delinquent -- always in trouble, fighting all the time etc. I ended up getting involved with people similar to me and things only got worse. I had never passed a math course with more than a D in my life. This continued for about two years after high school, and I was making money doing assorted odd jobs and sometimes criminal activities.

I was always "philosophical", though. And I say that with quotations because I typically wouldn't describe myself in such a manner, but others have and do. I usually say that I just liked to read. Even though I spent my time on the street, I always was interested in writings about power, (anti)religion, struggle, the human condition etc... And it was my later readings that led me to want for a better life. Once I made the decision to "get out" I spent about 6 months trying to clean up the messes I had made out of my life.

Then, I met a girl. She served as extra motivation to stay on track and I was given a job at a warehouse moving bathtubs by her father. I spent about 6 months there until winter time came and I was laid off. Out of work, I decided I was ready to take school seriously and enrolled in an associates degree program for computer networking. I took to college very well and loved learning. After I graduated I became interested in science and enrolled in a bachelors program for molecular bio. My first semester out I had a calc I class and on the first day I can remember all the students jabbering about how the Prof. was the worst in the school and how hard he was and all that usual stuff. Than he came in and started teaching -- but unlike anything I'd seen before. He was showing us mathematics by doing proofs. I was totally enamored and intrigued. I spent all my time going through the calc book and realized that I didn't care nearly as much about bio as I did about my calculus. I took calc II, and loved it even more. I had this great Prof. again, he was a young guy just out of grad school and he wouldn't teach us like the other prof., but he agreed to show me a select amount of proofs and theorems and work with me during his office hours and it was just awesome. My school didn't have a mathematics major, only a minor. So, I took calc III and spent the semester trying to figure out a way to break it to my parents that I was going to transfer to study mathematics on what i knew they would deem as a whim.

I finished the semester and transferred to university as a math major, did pretty well my first year out and was enticed into a combined BA/MA program. I'm currently taking a mixture of undergrad and grad courses and absolutely loving every moment of it.

The moral of this obscenely long story is that I probably still can't do long division, yet when I saw the logic that proof based mathematics provides, something just clicked. If I hadn't, who knows where I'd have been. Another noteworthy point is the very radical perspectives I have now. I can remember being in my first classes as university and the class was filled with people who were math whizzes in high school, and to be honest, most of them struggled with topics like set theory and logic (which was, in my school, the first introduction to proof-based maths). I didn't have this problem, simply because I was never a good math student before. It just put a really interesting spin on things for me. I was very lucky, more than a few times in my life; I made a plethora of bad decisions, and (knock on wood) was able to recover from them. That's something that I can't explain. I had four close friends growing up. Two are dead, one's in prison and one has 3 kids with 3 women and a job as a boat yard. And here I am, studying mathematics at university. I'm damn lucky, if you ask me.
 
  • #8
311
0
My best friend's uncle owns an engineering firm and his family is basically forcing him into becoming an electrical engineer. Back in highschool, I did some research and basically realized that electrical engineering fell in line with alot of my interests and dreams. Plus I heard it was heavy on the math, which I've always liked.

I originally thought about being a Computer Science major until I realized EE let me work with the stuff I loved (computers and electronics) without being a mindless code monkey. I was always interested more in the insides of the computer rather than the software.


Havent really gotten into the the real engineering stuff yet ( still taking the physics and calc pre-reqs), but just reading the descriptions of classes I've yet to take makes me excited.
 
  • #9
901
2
I have sort of an off-the-beaten path story, so I'll play.

I went through my high school years as a rather pugnacious delinquent -- always in trouble, fighting all the time etc. I ended up getting involved with people similar to me and things only got worse. I had never passed a math course with more than a D in my life. This continued for about two years after high school, and I was making money doing assorted odd jobs and sometimes criminal activities.

I was always "philosophical", though. And I say that with quotations because I typically wouldn't describe myself in such a manner, but others have and do. I usually say that I just liked to read. Even though I spent my time on the street, I always was interested in writings about power, (anti)religion, struggle, the human condition etc... And it was my later readings that led me to want for a better life. Once I made the decision to "get out" I spent about 6 months trying to clean up the messes I had made out of my life.

Then, I met a girl. She served as extra motivation to stay on track and I was given a job at a warehouse moving bathtubs by her father. I spent about 6 months there until winter time came and I was laid off. Out of work, I decided I was ready to take school seriously and enrolled in an associates degree program for computer networking. I took to college very well and loved learning. After I graduated I became interested in science and enrolled in a bachelors program for molecular bio. My first semester out I had a calc I class and on the first day I can remember all the students jabbering about how the Prof. was the worst in the school and how hard he was and all that usual stuff. Than he came in and started teaching -- but unlike anything I'd seen before. He was showing us mathematics by doing proofs. I was totally enamored and intrigued. I spent all my time going through the calc book and realized that I didn't care nearly as much about bio as I did about my calculus. I took calc II, and loved it even more. I had this great Prof. again, he was a young guy just out of grad school and he wouldn't teach us like the other prof., but he agreed to show me a select amount of proofs and theorems and work with me during his office hours and it was just awesome. My school didn't have a mathematics major, only a minor. So, I took calc III and spent the semester trying to figure out a way to break it to my parents that I was going to transfer to study mathematics on what i knew they would deem as a whim.

I finished the semester and transferred to university as a math major, did pretty well my first year out and was enticed into a combined BA/MA program. I'm currently taking a mixture of undergrad and grad courses and absolutely loving every moment of it.

The moral of this obscenely long story is that I probably still can't do long division, yet when I saw the logic that proof based mathematics provides, something just clicked. If I hadn't, who knows where I'd have been. Another noteworthy point is the very radical perspectives I have now. I can remember being in my first classes as university and the class was filled with people who were math whizzes in high school, and to be honest, most of them struggled with topics like set theory and logic (which was, in my school, the first introduction to proof-based maths). I didn't have this problem, simply because I was never a good math student before. It just put a really interesting spin on things for me. I was very lucky, more than a few times in my life; I made a plethora of bad decisions, and (knock on wood) was able to recover from them. That's something that I can't explain. I had four close friends growing up. Two are dead, one's in prison and one has 3 kids with 3 women and a job as a boat yard. And here I am, studying mathematics at university. I'm damn lucky, if you ask me.
The reason many of the "math whizzes" aren't spectacular at understanding new concepts is that they wrote learn. They don't really understand the concepts but just memorize, thus they are unable to comprehend beyond what is presented - only some.
 
  • #10
My best friend's uncle owns an engineering firm and his family is basically forcing him into becoming an electrical engineer.
My uncle owns an engineering firm and my family is basically forcing me into becoming a mechanical engineer.

This is sad because my interests are torn between pure math, hard sciences and humanities. Not on applied stuffs. I'm in engineering now and I don't know what to do with my life.
 
  • #11
99
0
I've been interesting in astronomy practically since I can remember. I took an inspiring course (with a great teacher) in high school, and I went into college a doing a double major in physics and astronomy. I did not really take advantage of what college afforded me for a while, though.

Eventually, I started taking interesting upper level courses, and I got involved in some research. First was ionospheric physics, then a summer in condensed matter before I started my honors thesis. I had a choice between star formation and neutron stars, and neutron stars had captured my imagination since high school.

Now in graduate school (first year), it turns out I'll probably be doing research in star formation. Go figure. But I still carry a ton of other interests. Nuclear fusion comes to mind, and fortunately, fusion and star formation have plasma physics in common. So now I am raiding a bunch of libraries and reading up on things that catch my eye. And I think I'll take a trip out to the princeton plasma physics laboratory soon to tour their fusion facility.
 
  • #12
I was the kid who knew what ailerons were in elementary school. I was the kid who didn't need the pizza mnemonic to know the planet names. I was the kid who could identify half the jets in the military arsenal. I was the kid who would daydream about fluid flow problems (conceptually, of course).

As much as I like the hard sciences, I was always more of an applications kind of guy. If I can ascribe a quality to myself, it's that I can visualize things extremely well. Otherwise, I'd probably be a physics major with a long-term goal of an astrophysics Ph.D. Not that that wouldn't be appealing in its own right, but designing rocket engines is more my thing.

It was only natural to get into aerospace engineering. I've known my major since middle school. Nothing else really tempted me -- except nuclear engineering, but my brief tryst with that seductive succubus is now gone :)
 
  • #13
I was the kid who knew what ailerons were in elementary school. I was the kid who didn't need the pizza mnemonic to know the planet names. I was the kid who could identify half the jets in the military arsenal. I was the kid who would daydream about fluid flow problems (conceptually, of course).

As much as I like the hard sciences, I was always more of an applications kind of guy. If I can ascribe a quality to myself, it's that I can visualize things extremely well. Otherwise, I'd probably be a physics major with a long-term goal of an astrophysics Ph.D. Not that that wouldn't be appealing in its own right, but designing rocket engines is more my thing.

It was only natural to get into aerospace engineering. I've known my major since middle school. Nothing else really tempted me -- except nuclear engineering, but my brief tryst with that seductive succubus is now gone :)
 
  • #14
272
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My story isn't as interesting or touching as the others but I think its pretty unique, so I'll pitch in my two cents.

I was a bit of a delinquent at an early age like discrete*. I had difficulty doing basic algebra and math fundamentals were vague to me. However, my mom quickly straightened me out and sat me down one day and taught me what I needed to know about basic math. I don't remember how she taught me but since then everything stuck, I haven't had less than an A in any math course since then.

I had a huge interest in mathematics however I really loved science too. My country only has two (very small) universities on the island. I was lucky enough the newest one had a Physical Science Associates program, the only program with any decent math and science. (My country's economy is mainly banking and tourism, meaning all degrees are catered towards business and finance) When I enrolled I was one of only four students in the entire program, when I left I was the only one (that tells you how much math and science is valued there). I was also lucky enough to get a scholarship from the government also. During this time I was introduced to the wonderful world of physics by an awesome professor. He told me my nack for math and physics was so strong I should apply for my Bachelors at schools such as Caltech and Purdue etc... I thought it would be great because since math and science are not any priority in my country, nothing was really a challenge for me all these years at home.

The story gets a bit interesting from here. I was searching for schools but I was involved in track and field, so I was searching for schools with a great science program, a great track and field program and also close to home. I also wanted a challenging degree. That search actually ruled out a lot of those big names. So it turns out I applied to what I thought was a "smaller name" university and got admitted to their aerospace engineering degree program. Even more interestingly enough I actually got a scholarship from my government. That would place me as the first and only person from my country ever, doing this degree, which I'm really proud of.

When I finally got in and started doing all the preliminary math and physics courses I fell in love immediately. As for the engineering program I was still undecided since I loved exploring the wonders of the universe. However, I really felt that what ever path I chose I'd really enjoy seeing a final product after all my hard work. The light bulb went off when I took what students at the time considered the hardest 3 courses in the program: Dynamics, Solid Mechanics and Fluid Dynamics. I got A's in them all. At that point I was hooked. Aircraft and aerospace engineering seemed so wonderful to me. It was like there was a twinkle in my eye just from the word 'flight'. I knew thats what I had to do. However, I knew I enjoyed aerospace engineering but I didn't know what I wanted to do in particular.


So as time progressed, another of the "hardest" classes came around Flight Stability and Control. It was truly a hard class, however I persevered and came through ok in the end. I was hooked, I had such a wonderful professor, everything just clicked and was so interesting. Stability and control was all I could think about. I ended up doing research the same summer with the same professor. The follow up class to that approached the same fall, again as luck would have it, he was teaching the follow up class for the first time in 15 years: Aircraft Dynamic Stability and Control. I just completed it and it was the most wonderful thing I have ever seen. Aircraft controls simply seems to be one of the most beautiful subjects. It has everything I've ever wanted in a future job: lots of math, engineering and very challenging. Not only that, I get to make some of the coolest systems ever.

So basically now I'm excelling in my studies. However, I didn't know jack about aircraft when I first came. Everyone was light years ahead of me in aircraft knowledge. Now, I'm being asked to lead senior design projects and tons of other projects. Professors look to me with respect.

Now I know exactly what I want to do. My path has been mainly about luck and being at the right place at the right time. I'm not even sure how I did it, since I was like the ugly duckling within the system. Back then I thought I was going against the grain, however, I've had so much luck to end up here it seems as if I was going with the unlikely flow. I think I'm so lucky that I didn't end up some accounting slave doing mindless work like many of my peers. I'm actually doing something that can contribute, not accommodate.
 
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  • #15
410
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It was only natural to get into aerospace engineering. I've known my major since middle school. Nothing else really tempted me

Haven't met many people like this to be honest, wow.


A lot of the stories are very interesting and touching.
 
  • #16
chiro
Science Advisor
4,790
131
Great thread deRham!

Well I guess it all started back in 6th grade (11 years old). When we got computer time I was introduced to some of the BASIC games like Gorilla and Snake (they came with standard DOS installations). The thing was that we always ran the game from the interpreter and not as an EXE, since QB 1.1 had that requirement.

When I saw the code I was like "wtf?" and I was curious about it. Someone who had just come to our school showed me a program he had written which was just a simple guessing game. Then the lights started lighting up in my head and the first thing I thought was "holy crap you can make the computer do anything you want!".

Since I spent a lot of my time playing games, I gravitated towards learning how to make them. My first attempts were pretty laughable and I really (and I mean really) sucked at making things that had any ounce of design, flow control and so on. Some of the first projects included writing cutscenes entirely based on the QBASIC DRAW command and porting Metallica songs to the PLAY command that blurted beats out to the PC Speaker.

From that point on I got exposure to many different types of programming the first being assembler. Due to the necessity to do things in assembler for speed I got up to scratch writing device drivers for sound, keyboard, joystick, CD-ROM, memory (XMS and EMS) and doing other things like VGA and SVGA as well.

After high school I enrolled in a computer science course that was dead boring. Got a job in second year so I left the course. Did a diploma in games development which was a great moment in time.

The thing was though that during all this time, math was something that was nagging in my mind. It was useful in learning how to do 3d simulations used in games, but the splinter in my mind wanted me to understand mathematics in a perspective that deviated from just greek symbols on a page. I had done some math in the comp sci course, but my knowledge was very superficial and I would say very non-existant.

So basically to even this day, I try to learn about what the math really means and how it could be further developed, further abstracted, and how to come up with different perspectives on how math can be seen to give answers, and how it can be used.

Gladly the different perspectives are coming, but it is a slow process. Its like say when you see calculus for the first time and you think "wtf!" but then later realize that its used to model any kind of system where you know properties of infinitesimal change to calculate some kind of measure whether it be length, area, volume, flux where we can have form of infinitesimal change. Its realizations like that that kind of spark a "wow!" moment for me, and those kind of things that draw me to math.
 

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