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I love physics but having second thoughts on becoming a physicist- Need guidance

  1. Oct 25, 2011 #1
    I started having an interest in physics when I was in grade 10 (or Year 11 for the UK). Back then, I considered myself "gifted" in physics. I spent time reading books on popular physics, and spent very little time studying at all for the school's physics materials, but I would always get top grades in my class for tests. I took IB (International Baccalaureate) for my final two years in high-school. I put more efforts into my studies, but still got good grades without great effort. I ended up getting a 6 for higher level physics (the second highest score, the highest being a 7). This isn't spectacular but still pretty good.

    I then went on to study physics in university, as I wanted to be a physicist- I wanted to do research in physics. But then came the bad part- I found out that I wasn't as great at physics as I thought. In my first year of university, I mostly got slightly below the mean score for exams, and occasionally above the mean score. I was just a mediocre student in the bunch of physics students in university.

    I think part of the problem might be because of my relatively unsound math skills in comparison to most of my school mates. My university is in Hong Kong, where student's math abilities are rather strong, and my math skills is comparably weaker.

    Because of my results in university, I'm starting to have second thoughts on whether I should still try to pursue my aspiration in becoming a physicist. I absolutely love physics, and I can't think of any other job I'd want to do besides doing research in physics, but my abilities seem to be limiting me.

    What should I do? Someone please give me some guidance, point me in the right direction.

    Any input is greatly appreciated.
  2. jcsd
  3. Oct 25, 2011 #2
    I'm sorry but isn't it kind of obvious? All of us at some point or another were "limited" by our knowledge/skills.. that's why you learn and improve. Being a scientist doesn't mean you come in knowing everything; if that's the case then what's the point?

    If you're doing mediocre on exams, then I suggest you work harder to improve your scores. If you love physics like you say you do, you will work harder and improve!

    I don't know what specific classes you are struggling with so I can't really help- you should revisit problems you weren't able to do and figure out what concepts/knowledge you were missing to do the problems.
  4. Oct 25, 2011 #3
    I was and am still in the same boat as you(I was also in IB). I am an average student in my university program and I don't have a problem with it. High school was almost as big of a joke to me as middle school was, and I was never pushed enough to need to develop any sort of study habits. Well, go figure, I still have poor study habits. I am disorganized, I rarely take notes, and I jump back and forth between subjects when I study. A key distinction between us is that I plan on going into industry while you want to stay theoretical. If you want to pursue academia then you probably need to embrace new study habits, and really work on your methods for now not your results. I don't think class average should be the end of the road for you, I think you need to give it a good chance, and a dedicated chance.
  5. Oct 25, 2011 #4
    Most people are average. I've found that it's better to be average or even well below average in a place with high standards, than to be top at a place with low standards.

    If you are getting decent scores, then I think you are just experiencing cultural shock. Most people that enter physics are top in their class in high school, but when you put them into a group of people that are also top in their class in high school, then statistically most people end up average. Hong Kong has extremely high standards for college entrance. In the US, colleges are more open so you end up with people being outstanding in both high school and college and then becoming average in graduate school, and the longer you put it off, the harder it is.

    If you are "merely average" I wouldn't worry about it.
  6. Oct 25, 2011 #5
    Then again maybe not. One of the better advice that I got in college was to not work too hard at getting the top score. The problem is that if you tell everyone to work harder, then everyone does until people start going insane, and at my college, people were already working at their limits.

    One problem is that if you put too much effort at physics, then you can miss out on non-physics things that will help you later.
  7. Nov 16, 2011 #6
    Thanks guys for your responses. I've been pretty busy lately and forgot about checking back.

    Thanks for the very thorough reply. I'm wondering, however, if being average will get me to graduate school. I think getting average scores in my UG studies will get me a upper second honors at best. Will this even get me into a graduate school, let alone a decent one?
  8. Nov 16, 2011 #7
    In my experience in a US graduate selection committee (at what would certainly be called a decent institution), we had one recurring member who was very familiar with international applications (and would consult with faculty or researchers from an appropriate background if he was not familiar with the country/institution). Some programs were known to be more rigorous than others (as perhaps yours is). This factor was weighed in. Also, in many of these these cases, having a solid PGRE would be pretty necessary (although in some countries, it seems like EVERYONE had solid PGRE's... and programs/institutions really needed to be compared).

    Of course, admission processes always depend on who else is applying... and in your case, who else is in the international pool. Generally we offered admissions to "x" number of students and tried to keep a certain number of those US nationals, and a certain number international. Also: depending on the size of the university and how much of their research depends on "national labs" or "military labs".. and how much of that is restricted to US nationals, the numbers might vary.
  9. Nov 16, 2011 #8
    If physics is anything like math in terms of grad admissions, you need to have very high (mostly A's) grades to have a good shot at grad school. Most people don't apply, and many who apply won't get in anywhere. I concede that this may be more discouraging than the reality, though. Also, the more experimental/computational a field is, the more actual work in that area as opposed to plain GPA matters. A lot of people can get good grades and won't do interesting work, so they're more interested in predicting actual grad school success - this should be born in mind if you're not dead set on purely theoretical stuff.

    The other thing is that getting into physics grad school is a tiny step along the way, and you have to think about what you want out of your career. I think a lot of people consider a lot fewer options than possible.
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