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Junior year of physics degree. Financial and lifestyle question.

  1. Jun 28, 2013 #1
    This is my first post but I've lurked for awhile. I just finished a two-year AA degree at my local community college in physics. I'm transferring to a university in the fall and recently went to speak with the academic adviser there.

    A little background about my situation before I continue. I've been pursing my degree while working 30 hours a week. That's gone pretty well as I've complete the calculus sequence + ODE with A's and a pesky B+ in multi-variable. I took multi-variable and ODE simultaneously which was stressful but i managed.

    Anyway, I spoke with the adviser and he basically said that If I wanted to be a professional physicist I'd need to quit my job and basically eat and breathe physics. I have read this to be the case but he made it seem more of a reality than me just reading it online.

    So my questions are these: What is the lifestyle of a physics student really like in the junior and senior years? My experience thus far has been demanding, but not TOO demanding. Do you really just hole yourself up in a room and consume large amounts of physics daily? I assumed this to be the case. I'm okay with this I kinda just want someone to tell me that it's okay to replace most of the waking hours of my life with the pursuit of physics. Haha.

    Another question I have is about quitting my job and taking out loans to pay for my apartment and other expenses. What is the average amount of debt physics students normally accumulate? How much is too much? I qualify for subsidized student loans if that's important even tho congress is trying to make things more difficult in that aspect. Is it really true that I probably really need to quit my job?

    And finally, The adviser,(I might not have mentioned this but he was the head physics professor not some general adviser) asked what my plans for the future were. I told him I wanted to go to grad school and was specializing my physics degree in engineering physics so that i could get a job to pay for that bit of my education. He told me I didn't need to worry about that because normally grad students get paid a stipend and are helped out with tuition in various ways. Is this true? I read that you can apply for a P.H.D with just a B.A....does this stipend exist for all of this portion or just a part?

    Sorry about all the questions but your help is very appreciated. If you need anymore info let me know I'm pretty bad at using words to convey thoughts adequately.

  2. jcsd
  3. Jun 28, 2013 #2


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    I'm not particularly helpful, as I'm in the exact situation you are. I was told basically the same thing. Essentially the reasoning was not that the course-work itself would be too challenging on top of work, but that research would be.

    Wishing you luck, and I'm incapable of constructing concrete thought without sounding like a caveman. I'll be watching this thread closely.
  4. Jun 28, 2013 #3


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    "Do you really just hole yourself up in a room and consume large amounts of physics daily?" Yes, unless your an experimentalist then you hole yourself up in a lab and consume large amounts of physics daily. As far as working 30 hours a week, you might be able to manage a full load or 3/4 load. A part time job can be helpful in many ways. It is only worth it if is has at least one and preferably two of the following relevance to you future plans, good pay, or personal satisfaction. As far as debt old advice was to take on less debt than your first year income. This is hard to follow now as may graduates first year income is less that a semester worth of school. It is true that an undergrad degree in physics can serve as preparation for a graduate degree and physics phd students tent to be supported unlike law and med students.
  5. Jun 28, 2013 #4
    My advice isn't going to be useful because I was in a different situation compared to yours. But here goes:

    I went full time in college. Physics was about half my course load any given semester, with math being on average about one quarter more of my course load. I played football freshman through junior year, which ate up a lot of time as well. I did full time research the summer after my junior year. The whole time through college, I had a part time job of maybe 8 hours a week. I did not accumulate any debt.

    I went straight to graduate school for a Ph.D. They footed the bill and gave me a nice, livable stipend the whole time. I am an experimentalist. Throughout graduate school, I worked anywhere from 40-60ish hours a week, with a few weeks being more at certain times. Grad school took 6 years. First two years were classes and lots of studying, with a bit of research, last four were full time research in the lab. My advisors were pretty cool, so I wasn't in the lab 80 hours a week working; we kept a pretty 'normal' schedule.
  6. Jun 28, 2013 #5
    Thanks for the replies so far,

    My current part time job meets neither of your criterion. I literally only have it because I needed to pay for the apartment I have with my long-time girlfriend. (also a physics major) I actually dread going to it. I'm excited to be able to drop that stress and free up that extra time to really focus on my studies. So that is a huge plus. I'm looking at approximately 20k in debt to finish my 2 years. How does that figure seem to you guys?

    Also my first term schedule is: Modern Physics I + lab
    Mathematical physics I

    How does this look for a term? It seems like a lot especially to really absorb it and gain a good understanding of each subject. This is why dropping the job is seeming like an especially good idea.

  7. Jun 28, 2013 #6
    IF you can get into a graduate program and IF you can pay off that debt while in that graduate program with your stipend, 20k doesn't sound too bad. That might be possible if you pinch your pennies over the ~6 years it takes to get your Ph.D.

    A B.A./B.S. in physics doesn't get you much though in the job market. Neither does a Ph.D. So what might seem like a manageable amount debt now might not when you are unemployed for a year straight.

    The course load sounds like a rough semester, but doable, depending on how well you pick up the material. I certainly wouldn't want all physics/math every semester, but if you have to do it one semester to get on track, you've got to do it. It really depends though on your school and you; since I don't know what kind of student your are or how rigorous and well taught the courses are, I don't really know if it's 'too much'. I'd talk to your academic advisor (in physics) at the new institution and express your concerns about the schedule and see if they think it's manageable.
  8. Jun 28, 2013 #7


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    Those course titles could mean anything. Are any of those into courses? You might be surprised by how much work physics courses past intro can be. I assume Mathematical physics I is one of those math review courses that might be helpful or not. I do not know how that school is organized, but most places it is important to take mechanics and/or electromagnetism first because they provide background for other courses.
  9. Jun 28, 2013 #8

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    As lurflurf just noted, those course titles alone don't say a lot.

    However, once you get into upper level undergraduate classes the long-standing rule of 3 to 4 hours of study for every hour of lecture or lab still stands. If you are at all smart / good with your time, you can skate by with a lot less than that 3 to 4 hour rule during your freshman and sophomore years. That's why you were able to do that 30 hour a week job while going to school. That's no longer the case once you hit those upper level courses. It gets even worse when you hit grad school, when 3 to 4 hours per lecture hour might not be enough.

    That course load looks like 13 or 14 credit hours. Multiply that by 4 or 5 and you get a 50 to 70 hour week just to keep up. If you're really smart, 40 hours might do the trick. No matter how you cut it, that's a full time job, plus some. There's no way you can add an additional 30 hours of work to that load and stay sane and smart. You *might* be able to do 10 to 15 hours a week or so as a part time job to keep the costs down. Thirty hours? No way.

    Once you get that BS you do have some options. You should never have to pay your own way to obtain a PhD in physics, or in any other technical field. Going straight from a bachelors degree to a PhD program -- that's standard operating procedure. In a technical field such as physics, having someone pay for that schooling and pay you a (tiny) bit extra to go to school is also SOP. That tiny bit extra will pay for a cheap apartment, a used car, and lots of ramen for dinner, maybe mac & cheese when you want to splurge. (It's not quite that bad, but it's close.) You have to *want* to be right on the cutting edge of research to make those five or so years of being a grad student bearable.

    Another option is to go after a paid internship after you get your bachelors. I mention this primarily because you mentioned engineering physics earlier. Add a 3 or 4 month paid internship every year to that paltry stipend and you're no longer poor. Do a stint or two 6 month internships and you'll be able to be debt free by the time you get your PhD.
  10. Jun 28, 2013 #9
    I am the girlfriend. The adviser seemed to think it is a manageable course load (without a job). He said Modern Physics I & lab and Mathematical Physics I were absolutely necessary to stay on track, and he strongly recommended taking both Thermodynamics and Optics. I believe he recommended those two courses because we are supposed to know a good amount about those topics for modern physics. But thermodynamics is taught at the end of Physics I here and optics/waves is taught at the end of Physics II, so those topics got very, very minimal coverage. He also recommended we buy the university physics book that they use and bring it to him so he can mark the sections we need to refresh on and the problems we should rework.

    From the course catalog:

    Modern Physics I
    - "Introduction to modern physics, theory of relativity, electromagnetic waves and photons, matter waves, quantum theory, atomic structure, quantum mechanics."

    Thermodynamics and Kinetic Theory - "Laws of thermodynamics, thermodynamic potentials, kinetic theory of gases, Maxwell-Boltzman distribution, introduction to Bose Einstein and Fermi-Dirac statistics."

    Mathematical Physics I - "Algebra of complex numbers, Taylor series, Fourier series, vector algebra and calculus, and curvilinear coordinates."

    Optics - "Geometrical, physical, and modern optics. Polarization, interference, diffraction, holography, and optical fibers."
  11. Jun 28, 2013 #10
    That should definitely be doable. Does the optics class have a lab? That might make a difference... My optics class last semester had a lab once a week and I spent on average 5 - 7 hours a week on the writeup alone. It's hard to say how difficult it will be because the particular professor teaching the class can make a HUGE difference. My optics professor was difficult to understand so I had to teach myself from the book most of the time. We used Optics by Eugene Hecht (I would recommend it).
  12. Jun 28, 2013 #11
    No lab for Optics, and we will be using Principles of Physical Optics by C. A. Bennett. According to its whopping 6 reviews on Amazon, it would be good if it wasn't filled with errors and typos (apparently in the tables and even the derivations). I imagine the professor will be difficult for us to understand as well--all I know is his name is Ujj.

    The course load definitely seems manageable without a job, but I don't see it happening if he doesn't quit. He works 3 days/week, 10 hr shifts, which mostly makes those 3 days useless for studying.
  13. Jun 28, 2013 #12


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    Having a roommate to share the rent helps a lot, which it looks like you'll have. When I was in grad school, I always had a roommate. During my last year, I had three of them, in fact (in a bigger apartment). I also didn't own a car, which also helped a lot with expenses. I bicycled, walked, or rode a bus almost everywhere in town. My apartment-mate(s) did have a car, so we loaded up on groceries together, and of course I helped out with gasoline.
  14. Jun 28, 2013 #13


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    I'll throw in my two cents.

    With respect to the workload, it's not likely to really be all that different from that of previous years. Sure it will be a challenge and it might be a little more demanding, but it's rare that it will go from day to night unless your personal circumstances change.

    When I went through, yes, we more or less lived and breathed physics, moving from assignment to lab to assignment, but most of us also manage to get out. In my junior and senior years I had a regular volunteer position with my school's first aid team and managed to get out and socialize at least once a week. Some weeks were tougher than others, but overall, it wasn't too bad.

    Balancing a 30 hour work week will be tough, but it looks like you're only taking four courses, so that should compensate somewhat. The real issues come in when you run into a problem - say you get sick for a week or fall behind, catching up can be tough.

    With respect to the financial side of things it's hard to say how much is too much debt. $20k seems like a lot to me, but I have no idea what your tuition is or your reasons for deciding that was a fair price to pay. Once you get into graduate school, in most places you're supported in one way or another (stipend, research grant, teaching assistanceship, external scholarships, etc.). The money isn't a lot. In some cases tuition is waved, in others you're paid enough to cover it. You'll be able to live a modest lifestyle, but if you balance things right, you shouldn't be going further into debt through graduate school. I managed to hold down a part-time job doing ~ 6-12 hours per week as a graduate student (outside of my TA work) and that allowed me to save up some money over that period of time.
  15. Jun 29, 2013 #14


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    ^As I mentioned above 20k is a lot if it exceeds your salary and should be carefully considered, but 20k seems like a lot of debt to you for a college graduate? Canada has a sweet setup with the college, healthcare, hockey, and maple syrup. In the US as a condition of support for grad school it is common to sign an agreement to not work another job.
    Last edited: Jun 29, 2013
  16. Jun 29, 2013 #15


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    What I would actually do is buy books that cover those upper courses, cheap used editions of course, and read through them now, just to get a basic overview of what they are about, to see what you will be learning. Get a feel for what math is used where, what topics you will learn eventually. When you learn things, check where they are used, what applications do they have, how are they extended later, or how are they treated in more detail?

    A math methods book can definitely be bought now, Boas for instance that many people like. What I'm saying is, I would be hesitant to give up a good thing. And you have a feel for the material, learning it should go more smoothly, giving you more time.
  17. Jun 29, 2013 #16


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    ^I wish someone sometime would explain to me what anyone could like about Boas.

    Here are reviews of Ujj. Mostly about Conceptual Physics Online.
    His website
    Maybe that advisor knows what he/she is talking about maybe not (I now see mechanics is an elective there), it seems to me that you will want to take first
    mechanics (PHY 3220 Intermediate Mechanics)
    transition to physics (PHZ 3108 Intermediate-Level Physics Problems)
    physics math review (PHZ 4113 Mathematical Physics I)
    modern physics(PHY 3106 Modern Physics I)
    If you take the engineering physics option (like you mentioned) you can omit
    PHY 3220 Intermediate Mechanics
    PHY 4445 Lasers and Applications
    PHY 4604 Quantum Theory
    Like the options in many programs omitting those courses is scary. Lasers looks like a good course, though you could probably live without it. Mechanics and Quantum are classes I would think you would want to take. The people I know skipped them were only glad they did if they had a strong background and/or knew they were not using it later. In fact depending on your interest and background mechanics might be more useful that optics or math review.
    It seems that you might be able to push back if needed
    PHY 3106L Modern Physics Laboratory
    PHY 4513 Thermodynamics and Kinetic Theory
    PHY 3424 Optics
    Try to get a second opinion from someone on the ground there.
    Also be sure (if you have not already) to take at least one course each in computers/programing, numerical methods, and electronics/circuits you will be glad you did (maybe).
    If you want/need to,be sure to ask for some waivers/substitutions. They are often not offered is you don't ask, the worst that can happen is you will be refused.
    Last edited: Jun 29, 2013
  18. Jun 29, 2013 #17
    This is the advise that the adviser gave. I've ordered the books I'll need so that I can get a head start and with enough time that I can review some of the basic knowledge that i might have let slip since University Physics I+ II

    As far as the scheduling goes, I believe he has optics and thermodynamics going before mechanics or other classes; because he believes no one learns those topics very well in university physics and the concepts in them are needed in the later course more so than the others. Also the Lab is scheduled for a six hour block... Is that normal? My previous labs and only been 3 1/2 hours long.

    With the advent of privatized space exploits my interests lies in propulsion. I'd like to work with putting things and people in space. (I might have watched too much star trek)

    Thanks for all the replies this has been helpful in giving me some more perspective on my decisions.

  19. Jun 29, 2013 #18

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    Putting things and people in space: Physicists don't do that, at least not as physicists. Putting things and people in space is the purview of aerospace engineering. You might want to rethink your goals, what you want to do in college, how far you want to go in college, and what you want to do when you finally graduate.
  20. Jun 29, 2013 #19
    I suppose my start trek reference didn't quite sum it up. I want to research new and better forms of propulsion? "warp" theory. Is this what a physics major might do? If not you may be correct.
  21. Jun 29, 2013 #20


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    I'll be tacky and point to you the essay that I've written, since it addresses and answers many of your questions here, especially on grad student assistantships and Ph.D enrollment from a B.Sc degree.


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