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I'm an average physics student. Where to go from here?

  1. Apr 12, 2013 #1
    I would classify myself as an average second year student with middling grades (essentially a 3.55 both in major and cumulative). It seems to me that if you want to be a physicist of any kind, you need such monumental passion and focus that an average student perhaps should not even bother. I'm deeply saddened by the idea of not becoming a physicist, but the evidence would suggest that I'm too lazy to be one anyway, judging by my grades.

    What are my alternatives?

  2. jcsd
  3. Apr 12, 2013 #2
    Switch to engineering or computer science if its not too late. Or just finish up your physics degree and teach public school or get a graduate degree in something marketable.

    I think we went to the same undergrad institution (from reading your posts). Most of the graduates from my class went to grad school for a PhD or Medical Physics. The next biggest group ended up doing Teach for America. The superstar of our class went to England to do a PhD in EE... I think that only one of us is still on track for a physics PhD.
  4. Apr 12, 2013 #3
    That's significantly higher than my undergraduate GPA. You might need higher grades to get into an exclusive program, but you definitely don't need higher grades to do useful physics research.

    You do need a lot of focus and passion (or maybe more importantly, curiosity) about your specific topic. Even the most interesting research projects typically require very long hours doing boring calculations and/or tedious lab work. Worst of all, you'll probably have to work while handicapped by low pay, awful classes, and severe career uncertainty.

    Possibly the only common factor among all the competent physicists I know is this: they'll put an insane amount of effort into figuring out their subject if the effort seems necessary. That usually includes a willingness to fail at a problem over and over again with no guarantee of ever being rewarded with a solution. In my experience, that's much more important than the arithmetic mean of your undergraduate grades. I suspect the same is true for all researchers - whether basic or applied, experimental or theoretical, physical or social science.
  5. Apr 12, 2013 #4


    Staff: Mentor

    If you like it keep going. If you're burned out the consider changing. Physics gets much tougher as a junior / senior in college. Its when things move much faster than you can assimilate so if you're just bored because things are going slow then stick with it.
  6. Apr 12, 2013 #5
    What is the average GPA of physics majors in most good US schools?

    3.55/4 is way above average. At least in my university, 3.55 is at least top 10% of those that stuck until the end of fourth year. With around 80% drop rate at least.
    Last edited: Apr 12, 2013
  7. Apr 12, 2013 #6
    Switching to Engineering or Comp sci: Is this necessary? Although I'm technically a sophomore I'm a year ahead in my physics classes; I could graduate next year. How difficult is it to get into an engineering masters with physics? I do like the subject.

    @Negative: What tier school did you get into? I've heard a 3.55 is the bottom line or close to it for top 20. Not that I care that much about rankings but it would be interesting to get a ball park for where I can go. I'm honestly content with the top 50. I tend to agree with your comments about the character of physicists; it takes gigantic perseverance more than anything else.

    @Jedi: Well I'm a year ahead and in my freshman year I already took a graduate level maths course (essentially, it was labeled undergrad but taught with a grad text/covered the whole book), taken quantum etc and done ok. It's definitely a challenge for me, I struggle to get A's; I'm no natural. I like it, but if my prospects are poor, why continue pushing?
  8. Apr 12, 2013 #7
    Sorry if I sound like I'm tooting my own horn about the "grad" class, getting into it was basically an accident and I barely got a B-, I just wanted to make it clear I've experienced the universe of upper division math/physics courses.
  9. Apr 12, 2013 #8
    I went to a Master's program in Europe which, as far as I know, pays zero attention to rankings and tiers. They also use a radically different grading system and don't calculate GPA. They had a 100% acceptance rate for people with physics degrees from their own country, but a lower rate for us Yanks. The students were really advanced and it was hard to keep up, but I learned an enormous amount very quickly.

    As for my current program, PhDs.org gives it a quick rank of 100-something-th. I don't know how various American institutions define tiers, but I'm guessing my program is nowhere near "top" or "first."
  10. Apr 13, 2013 #9
    Interesting. Well, I might just take Modus' advice. I think getting a job with a physics degree is not so bad, but it really depends upon your interests; I'm just not interested in say, finance work. If I choose engineering, I might get some control (some!) over what I do...
  11. Apr 13, 2013 #10
    One extra data point: I was accepted to, but did not enroll in, an Applied Mathematics program which PhDs.org QuickRank lists in the top 20.

    I generally ignore rankings, so I just noticed this. PhDs.org stood out because it lets you create customized rankings by choosing your own weights for various measures.

    So it must be possible for someone with an undergraduate GPA lower than yours to get into a highly-ranked graduate program. I did it in an unusual (and expensive) way involving a European Master's program, so my example may or may not be relevant to your situation.
  12. Apr 13, 2013 #11
    I guess I'm just wondering why any of it matters. The purpose of this thread was mainly "I'm an average physics student, the bar to become a physicist seems super high, can I make the cut?" I guess there's no real easy way to answer this kind of question, but it would have been interesting to hear one of the super students/professors/ other characters on physics forums show up and say "Yeah, you're an average guy, you need x amount of passion to make it, either get it or get out." But nobody has done this, so I'm left a wee bit dissatisfied. Ah well.
  13. Apr 13, 2013 #12
    I'm an above avrage student and recently realized that I dont want to become a physicist. I will finish my program and then continue with teaching - both in high schools and as a volonteer. The reason why I'm wiriting though is because your situation is not to uncommon and every time I hear people in the same seat it sounds as if not becoming a physicist is equivalent to not having an interest or not learning more about math and physics.
    Me, you and most people on this page have found an interest that we enjoy alot. Yes, maybe it's to much competition, and maybe most of us wont be that great physicist that 90% of the students seems to strive for. But you will always have an interest that you can enjoy no matter what. Nobody our any society can take that away from you. My plan is to find a nice job where I can meet and inspire alot of people, not put 12 hours each day into it and lastly, without demands, sink down to a nice sofa and read about gauge theories on my spare time.
  14. Apr 13, 2013 #13
    Do a computer science minor. A lot of physics majors end up becoming programmers anyways.
  15. Apr 13, 2013 #14
    Good point Kont, I neglected to think of things that way. Just because I'm not an official physicist doesn't mean I can't enjoy the subject.

    Carnivroar, I'm doing some computational research projects in physics. Could that be enough background experience for a boost in the programmer job market?
  16. Apr 13, 2013 #15


    Staff: Mentor

    How's your math?

    Switching from physics to math isn't hard and when you are finished its excellent preparation for post graduate studies in many areas with good job prospects. I don't know where you are but here in Australia they now have these professional masters programs in all sorts of engineering areas:

    About the only thing similar to this I am aware of in the US is the 3+2 engineering programs offered by some schools such as University Washington - the US seems a bit behind in offering direct entry engineering masters.

    But with a math degree many other areas open up such as financial engineering and Information Technology postgraduatre.

    IMHO a math degree is the best preparation for people who don't quite know what they want to do. You can even go back to physics if you want - mathematical physics is a very interesting area.

  17. Apr 14, 2013 #16
    As a 4th year student trying to land a job, as much as I'd like to believe the contrary, I don't think so. If your programming background is anything like mine, you know quite a bit about numerical programming, solving linear algebra, quadrature, DE, PDE problems that model physical systems on a high level language. I did a project on polarized radiative transfer in relativistic jets, for example.

    Those skills are not really in demand in all the entry level programming jobs I've found so far, which require knowledge of data structures, miscellaneous stuff that is probably easy for CS majors but sound alien to me, and specific programming languages like Java and SQL.

    A 3.55 in the US is to my understanding not bad at all. I wouldn't let your grades be the sole judge your work ethic or knowledge, especially not with the grade inflation that goes on, just your ability to do what you are told to pass an exam. Let your research experiences and recommendation letter writers speak for you,. You could still have research-level knowledge of GR and fluid dynamics and fail a junior level QM exam for not following instructions.

    But if you want an easy, stable job I'd probably say stay away from research.
    Last edited: Apr 14, 2013
  18. Apr 14, 2013 #17
    Bill, just be careful, some of the Engineering Masters are not recognised by Engineers Australia as a professional accreditation.
    Last edited: Apr 14, 2013
  19. Apr 14, 2013 #18


    Staff: Mentor

    I am retired now so it doesn't worry me in the least personally. But just for the OP's info all those professional masters look as though they are accredited both in Australia and via various accords in many places worldwide:

    And I seem to recall University Melbourne has a pretty high ranking of about 40 worldwide so its a good school.

    However its only a suggestion - something to think about.

  20. Apr 15, 2013 #19
    bhobba: My math grades are pretty atrocious (3.0 gpa) but I THINK my skills are actually not that poor, I just took too many very hard math classes at once and did not do so well. It's hard to judge without the grades. I'm already pursuing a double major in math and physics, so I think I can pick them both up before I graduate. However, I do have a tangential question: I'm a New Zealand citizen since my dad's from there. How would this affect my ability to get into an Australian school? I like Oz, and they seem to have some pretty awesome universities.

    Lavabug: My programming experience is more along the lines of using Monte Carlo methods to derive observables for large ensembles or solve QED equations, although I will confess immediately that I'm not any where near a professional in either subject. Do you know if there is any transferable skill set developed with those two fields? How difficult is it to obtain some of the CS knowledge you mention? I wonder if a class or two would get me where I need to be.

    I concur that my 3.55 is nothing to laugh at, and I'm not necessarily ultra concerned about say, getting into a prestigious top ten school where something like a 4.0 appears to be nearly requisite. Most top 50 schools seem perfectly adequate. The question is whether or not it can be judged that I have the aptitude to become a professor; if that chance is significantly worse than other students, then I figure I may as well not waste my time. That was the career I was interested in. I understand already that few of even the best students obtain such positions, but if it's a 20% chance, I think it's worth a gamble... if it's a 5% chance, I think not. However, it's become clear to me that this is probably too broad of a question for physics forums to judge easily.
  21. Apr 15, 2013 #20
    Chances are extremely low for everyone, period. 5% is a reasonable estimate, but that excludes all the phd's that leave science tracks voluntarily even before the first postdoc or after the first one (over half in total, go see AIP's statistics). Make no mistake, science a very high risk career choice for everyone.

    What you did is essentially what I was saying, by numerical programming I was including Monte Carlo methods (I used this to model inverse Compton scattering in plasmas and build synthetic spectra). I suspect a potential employer looking for someone with data, webdesign, and java/SQL skills would be pretty unimpressed/uncaring for it. I doubt we can compete with a programmer-by-trade for these positions unless you have more serious industry-relevant programming experience.
  22. Apr 15, 2013 #21


    Staff: Mentor

    I am not really up on that area but what little I do know is its a pretty common thing for New Zealanders to go to Australian universities and you do enjoy very similar advantages such as paying fees etc as Australian Citizens:

    The only difference, again from what little I do know, is while you pay the reduced fees etc you cant defer payment and pay later via money through extra on your tax - that's called fee help or something like that. I got it for a graduate certificate I did in philosophy and its a two edged sword - yea you defer it but if you get some kind of payout like I did when I formally retired and got my superannuation money they whack you - having been through it I would have paid up front in hindsight.

    Just as an aside I didn't really like the philosophy course much - I am not really into philosophy but thought it would be interesting discussing philosophy issues and that part was OK - however it really was a course on the history of philosophy - as the lecturer kept on saying - stay on track and discuss stuff in a historical philosophical context. Always wise to know exactly the slant the person doing a course wants to take it.

    Last edited: Apr 15, 2013
  23. Apr 15, 2013 #22
    A CS degree hardly scratches the surface of what's out there in the industry. Two classes will not suffice, unless you are extremely motivated and can keep going by yourself.

    Fortunately, big IT/software companies do not care about specific skills when you're fresh out of college; however, you need to know about data structures, algorithms, big O notation, object oriented programming, functional programming, networking, databases, etc...

    If you're concerned about getting a job, can't you do a minor in CS? If you're a decent programmer, employers might even value you more than typical CS majors because you have a much stronger background in math. Have you thought of video game programming or video game engine design? Simulations?
  24. Apr 15, 2013 #23


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor

    I would not suggest video game programming (I am saying this coming from the background myself) given the OP's experience and history.

    You have to be very dedicated to get into the industry and you will be competing against a lot of other people who are equally if not more keen on you trying to break in.

    Chances are if you haven't already been spending years of your own free time already, then you won't stand a chance and you won't have a clue either.
  25. Apr 15, 2013 #24
    There are a lot of niches in VG programming, especially for physicists who are needed to implement realism in game engines. Now I sound like I am giving advice to myself since I also got involved into this whole CS & physics mess. :tongue:
  26. Apr 15, 2013 #25
    What, exactly, is an average physics student with introductory level programming knowledge going to offer to the video game industry? You know that there are many commercial physics engines that you can just buy, right? (some are even free).
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