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Is it always easy to pick up a new major

  1. Jul 10, 2012 #1
    You can skip to the third paragraph if you would like. So I'll be attending Rutgers University in the fall, and I have to say I am extremely excited. I will major in physics and minor in math or perhaps double major in math.

    Here is the thing-- I love too many things in science. I'm aiming to earn a research spot in physics in theory, my internship this summer is in the experimental side and I'm not completely fond of it, plus I like the math portion of things. I get the feeling that I'm also aiming to do theory in physics because it is incredibly competitive and I'm a stubborn mule that likes competition and wants to prove it to myself despite the odds.

    In the all likely chance that I'm not cut out enough to compete in theory, I am thinking of switching fields. And I've said before, I like many things -- things like optics, plasma physics, and a variety of interdisciplinary fields. One of the interdisciplinary fields that catches my interest the most is in the interface of biology, physics, neuroscience, and computation; which I hope to study in if things don't work out. Now the question is, how long is it before you simply can't opt for another degree? I don't mind too much of the time "wasted," it is all fun to me really. I'm just worried about the point where things start crashing down.
  2. jcsd
  3. Jul 10, 2012 #2
    I would have to say that if you don't mind "wasting" time or *MONEY*, then you shouldn't have to worry about things crashing down. The tough reality is, even though you may not care about these things right now, as time passes you likely will. In high school, I was planning on doing theoretical physics but convinced myself to try engineering, and guess what.. I like it! I found that I can only really focus on bettering myself and my studies when I have security in what I'm doing. As a biological engineering student I am working in a neurobiology lab making computational models based on the biophysics of neurons. You don't have to be a full blown theoretical physicist to work on theoretical problems. That's the cool thing about experimental sciences... they are very interdisciplinary and therefore you have many more options! Theoretical physics is what it is. It is very narrow and slow moving. People have been doing theoretical physics for a LONG time so it takes a while to get to the really cool stuff but with biophysics for example, the cool stuff is right there in front of you! :wink: (thumbs up for optics too!)
  4. Jul 11, 2012 #3
    Before you say that you like theory, and commit to it, try SELF STUDYING an entire class from a book this summer. I'd suggest Classical Mechanics even, since that is conceptually most familiar, from whatever book your school uses. Try to do every problem in the book for which there's an answer, usually those will be odds. Before you say this is impossible: I'm doing this right now for graduate quantum and math methods.

    Because here's the thing: self studying from a book with no teacher is pretty hard. Needs motivation, right? Needs strong will, right? Needs a strong background, and even then, you might have to constantly look at the answer to convince yourself that you're right, otherwise sometimes you get something, then you think it looks wrong, you change it, and it turns out you were right.

    Well doing theoretical research is like trying to self study very hard things (much harder than graduate quantum mechanics or math methods. That's why they're in books, and research is not). But there's no book and no solution manual so you can't peek to see if your answer is right.
  5. Jul 14, 2012 #4
    Time isn't a big factor for me, I'm young and I have lots of it. And plus, it all feels to be a great use of my time.

    Well that may very well be true, but I have always wanted to be satisfy my need in knowing a lot of things. So if it turns out that physics isn't for me, then no problem-- that is just what I wanted so I can go ahead and learn other things as well.

    For me the exciting part is knowing that there is not much security, so it makes me work that much harder.

    That is awesome!! That is something I might enter after physics.

    You make a very good point actually. I never thought about it that way.
  6. Jul 14, 2012 #5
    One of the things that scares me is the thought of going back and trying to get another degree -- only to be rejected because I am a graduate. When you get a graduate degree, can you always go back to get an undergraduate degree?

    Well I am. I originally started studying classical mechanics from Taylor, and it was a really interesting book with interesting problems. However, I stopped since I want to test out of differential equations and multivariable calculus next fall -- so I'm studying DE.

    Nice, what are you majoring in? What are you planning to enter once you graduate?

    Wow, thanks! I never thought about it in that manner. It is true, there are no answers in the back of the book for research.

    And actually I am doing research right now, and I found it harder than self-studying. Often I get frustrated and I find it hard to resist the urge of getting up [I actually found that stretching helps release the tension]. Especially since my adviser took me out of my comfort zone and made me program. :grumpy:
  7. Jul 14, 2012 #6


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    If you are interested in multi-discplinary stuff, just position yourself in a way to do so.

    You mention that you have a n advisor and you are starting to program: basically find the same kinds of opportunities that are not undergraduate programs.

    If you show other people that you're capable, they are bound to at least take a look and consider what you've shown in the past.

    By the time you finish a PhD, my guess is that you'll be so used to learning on your own out of necessity that learning anything new will almost be like breathing.
  8. Jul 14, 2012 #7
    Well yes, for one I'm planning to audit a couple of interdisciplinary classes to get a feel for it and to test my interests here and there.

    I'm not completely following, are you telling me to do research that is interdisciplinary-oriented?
  9. Jul 14, 2012 #8


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    Yes but not necessarily research: basically any opportunity thats available to you whether its research, or any part of your career.

    Once you have shown that you can do this kind of thing over a period of time, it will be easier for you to get more opportunities because of what you have demonstrated in the past.

    It's just the basic element of trust and reputation at work which are extremely important things for anyone in any kind of endeavor. If you can show people that you are good in interdisciplinary endeavors, can learn fast, have a good attitude in terms of learning things that you want to learn and also that you don't want to learn but have to, then people will see this.

    Remember that everything is cumulative and the results of accumulation of the experiences are things that can be transferred to future things in so many ways that people will not be able to think of in the past or even directly in the present.
  10. Jul 14, 2012 #9
    The thing I fear is that by doing research or other things that is not in physics, I am less competitive in physics.

    True, thanks.
  11. Jul 14, 2012 #10


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    I'm not suggesting that you should deviate from the main focus as it would jeopardize later opportunities in relation to that focus, but to take opportunities that retain the focus but also offer opportunities to develop in other areas and build experience in those areas.

    As you may be aware of, we get threads from physics PhD's who spend a lot of time programming and while the focus is not programming, part of the focus requires the necessary development of skills to get what needs to be done, done.

    This is the kind of thing I recommend paying attention to: to look at opportunities in terms of not only what the main focus is, but what is also needed required to meet and support that focus. The stuff needed to support the focus is what you want to look at because it means that the focus doesn't change, but the opportunity to learn a lot of supplementary skills is now made clear and easy to analyze.
  12. Jul 14, 2012 #11
    Well true, there are some skills that are always important in many fields. Things like numerical analysis, programming, knowledge of hardware, mathematical techniques, etc. are needed across a number of fields.
  13. Jul 15, 2012 #12
    I am a grad student in physics. Nice to see you studying independently. It requires such strong will. At the grad level, the things you study are very theoretical (as in, little connection to experiment, and with great amounts of formalism). I think the undergrad physics curriculum is very useful and interesting, but the grad level stuff is, at least in quantum, is sort of very unconnected to concrete experimental results in terms of actual problem solving.

    I also recommend frequent physical exercise.
  14. Jul 15, 2012 #13
    Can you expand on your experience with this. I'm becoming concerned about not getting enough exercise and I'd like to be aware of some of the "warning signs".
  15. Jul 15, 2012 #14
    Well part of the will comes from the fact that I'm not happy that I didn't pay attention to school for most of my life and that all I did was play video games and day dream in class. So I'm playing catch-up. The other part come because I find studying enjoyable and relaxing -- at times. Though I have to admit that many times it is frustrating and I would rather get up and do something else--but there is something pushing me from the back telling me to keep going.

    I used to work-out a lot, in terms of lifting weights-- but I've stopped. I found the whole atmosphere of gyms incredibly egotistic -- as much as everyone liked to deny it. All I saw was envy or feelings of superiority in most people. Some people envied me and I could have continued on that path for the rest of my life, piling up more feelings of superiority and "confidence". But at one point I noticed it was all rather superficial and silly -- I would rather flex my brain muscles -- which is orders of magnitude stronger than other muscles.

    But anyways, I'm going off on a tangent. Is frequent physical exercise really that important for your mind, as some have posited? How often is "frequent?"
  16. Jul 15, 2012 #15
    Since physics is so ridiculously theoretical and far away from concrete experimental results (EM and statistical mechanics is sort of OK, but quantum is the worst offender in this aspect by far) you need to stop thinking about it sometimes and focus on other things. That's why I say you need frequent physical exercise.

    What is frequent? Just little things like do 10 reps of curls every 90 minutes, or say 20 pushups every hour, like a reset on your brain, or even take a walk outside. Nothing big. Don't need to go to the gym, just buy or even make your own weights.

    The important thing is to stop thinking, get out of physics/gaming/writing/whatever, and clear your head. Otherwise, the pressure will build until you crumble. Do not work straight for hours, that just burns you out. It is far better to put in half effort, barely pass, and keep at it for years, than to go all in, burn out and crumble.
  17. Jul 16, 2012 #16
    I went and played tennis and spent most of my day outside today. =D I got to say though, I usually feel guilty after it all :bugeye: . It is a mixed feeling of guilt and contempt-- quite weird actually.
  18. Jul 16, 2012 #17
    Don't feel guilty. If you have to play tennis to stay awake and focus, just do it. Anything relaxing that prevents a mental crash and doesn't affect your work too negatively is good.

    If you are doing theoretical work, remembering to rest is more important, because there's no unambiguous "break time". When you're working in the lab, and say, the X-ray diffractometer is taking readings. That is break time. There's absolutely nothing you can do while thats happening other than prepare other samples or read journals or analyze data or screw around or something, so you are forced to take a break, at least momentarily to walk back to your desk.

    In theory, you can "theoretically" work 24/7, and if you don't remember to relax, you WILL be working 24/7, you'll burn out and crash.
  19. Jul 19, 2012 #18
    Hey, I'm really sorry for the late reply!

    I've took a huge break this week actually due to a couple reasons-- felt pretty good. :D

    Also, I would like to change what I've said about experimental work in physics. It is rather fun once you get to the meat of things, I just had a negative initial experience.

    At any rate, I don't feel that my question has been satisfied, so to speak. I realize that interdisciplinary fields (let us say neurophysics for example) may give you a job if they see you are competent-- but are you really competitive enough to get one if your only have experience in math and physics?

    How about getting another degree once you get a PhD, can you always go back and get a bachelors in say neuroscience? What are some problems that can spring in the way? I can imagine scholarships and money being one.
  20. Jul 19, 2012 #19
    Im not entirely sure, and this is basically things I've heard from professors and family, but it seems that it looks bad to get too many degrees. I think its viewed as a point where the person just didn't know what to do. Also if you have a phd in physical, one could theoretically be able to self teach an undergrad curriculum.
  21. Jul 20, 2012 #20
    Oh yes absolutely, you should be able to independently learn the material -- but what about convincing people that you know the relevant material enough to be employed in said field? Saying I independently learned x,y,z is usually meaningless in that context.

    I suppose I can go for my PhD and hope for the best. There have been a few physicist who ended up researching in biophysics for example, even with little to no background in biology -- just shows how flexible we are.
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