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"Late Bloomer" wishing to become a physicist, engineer, astronomer, or comp-sci needs your advice

  1. Oct 5, 2014 #1
    So I need a bit of outside input.

    I am 20 years old, enrolled in my second year of community college (going for 3 years because I ended up starting late and going less than full time my first year). I did terribly in academics in high school, especially in math and science classes.

    Well, long story short, I got into college and fell in love with math and science. I read science textbooks and books in my spare time, taking notes and trying to understand. The problem is that I am in math 097, an algebra class below college-level math (so basically I'm not getting college credit until I enroll in my next math class).

    I was a "late bloomer" in math and science but fell in love with them both. I would love to major (and eventually get my doctorate) in physics (or some branch thereof), and get a second major in something like engineering, math, or computer sciences.

    I know that most people who excel in these majors/careers tend to begin young, taking advanced courses in high school. So I need a bit of advice...
    1. Any specific books or texts you would recommend to me to help me catch up?
    2. If you were to recommend to me any two science or math-related majors that would go well together, what would they be?
    3. Other than math tutoring and taking as many math/science classes as I can from here on out (already doing so), do you have any other academic advice to offer me?
    4. Any study habits or techniques that help/helped you achieve your goal?
    5. I am extremely behind; is majoring in math or science an impossible dream for someone in my position?
  2. jcsd
  3. Oct 5, 2014 #2


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    Hi m2m, welcome to PF!

    I was once in your place. I had to start at a community college with "Introduction to Algebra". It took a long time but I eventually got my BS in Physics. Some general advice:

    Stick to it. It's going to get hard, then it's going to get crazy hard. Don't be discouraged, though!

    Don't skip prerequisites just because you feel you're behind. Don't think that because you love a subject, it will come easy to you.

    Develop good, regular study habits now. Learn how to insulate yourself from distractions. Me, I had to go to the library, in a super quiet part, put earplugs in and stay there long hours.

    Get regular exercise and DO NOT skimp on sleep.

    Studying math/science/engineering is not at all an impossible dream for you - best of luck!
  4. Oct 5, 2014 #3


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    lisab's advice is perfect!

    Community colleges are made for people like method2madness.

    I also advise, learn something practical, like one or two "shop" classes. Reason is that both in school and in real work, people need to handle a few tools and instruments.

    College level mathematics credit does not start until Trigonometry; as lisab said, you MUST build not just the prerequisite credits but also the prerequisite KNOWLEDGE. Some people try to fool themselves AND OTHERS by "passing" some prerequisite courses and then say, "I am qualified for this course because I have the prerequisite course credit". When students think along this line , they are wrong.
  5. Oct 6, 2014 #4


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    I would add... stop thinking of yourself as somehow behind. It's easy to get caught up in the competitive nature of academia, in the bragging about how so-and-so completed university-level classes when they were fourteen years old, etc. But it's an error to think such things are necessary for success.

    You're 20. It's perfectly fine to take a couple years figuring out what you're passionate about. Lots of very successful people went through high school without taking advanced classes.
  6. Oct 6, 2014 #5
    I'm not sure how you would know if you've fallen in love with it if you are studying beginning algebra.

    There are a lot of pairs of majors that work well, but that sort of depends on what you want. As far as career prospects go, which I tend to emphasize, I would instantly point to computer science, as the best one. As one to go along with that, I'd say statistics, if you're interested in the latest big thing, which is data science, or alternatively, maybe engineering.

    Majoring in math and especially in science is not an impossible dream. Even the PhD is not *impossible*, but I wouldn't recommend it. One of my objections to the idea of getting a PhD in general is that the nature of your subject can change to a point where it's almost unrecognizable, even if you have a whole bachelors degree in it. So, by its nature, it's a risky proposition because it's incredibly difficult and there's no real way to know what you are getting into. I wouldn't judge it based on popular science books. I got a bachelors degree in math and thought I was in love with it, but it turned out I can't stand the actual research most mathematicians are doing these days, and I think it did some serious damage to my life, in terms of my career, mental health, dating, finances, you name it. My dissertation became almost like a physical weight that I felt like I was carrying around my neck, weighing me down and there was no way to get rid of it. It just about destroyed me. And supposedly, I was a promising student (ha ha).

    It's true that not everyone has the same experience that I do, but it's true that not everyone who flips a coin gets tails. The problem is that there is no reliable way to predict who gets the heads and who gets the tails. Everyone thought I was going to do fine, including my undergraduate professors and even my adviser, right up until I had to do research. So, that's why I see graduate school in math or physics as sort of playing Russian-roulette with your life.

    Also, I quit while I was ahead, so I saved myself the hassle of the next bunch of difficulties in postdoc land and beyond, which you can read about. I have former classmates who are now in postdoc purgatory. A couple are successful professors, too. A lot of professors say being a professor is worse than grad school in terms of the workload, so I don't think it gets much better. Early career in academia is really high-pressure because that's when you have to establish your reputation and teach many classes for the first time, which is extremely time-consuming. You are basically signing up to be a workaholic. It boggles my mind that I ever thought I wanted to do it.

    You don't have to listen to me, but just be very skeptical of grad school (especially for a PhD--masters is way easier and less time-consuming) and any sort of an academic career. And also be skeptical that anyone will want to hire you outside of academia or labs if you don't develop marketable skills along the way (and make sure you build a big network to find out about job opportunities).

    In your position, if you are genuinely interested in computer science or engineering, it's so much better as a career, I wouldn't even consider physics, if I were you. Physics is for people who very strongly prefer it to anything else. If you don't have a strong preference for it, it's not really worth it.
  7. Oct 7, 2014 #6


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    It's certainly possible for you to major in math or science, and I agree with Choppy that you should stop thinking of yourself as behind. You are where you are, and you're moving forward from here in a direction you want to go. That's all that really matters.

    If your school has a learning center, which it probably does, go there to become familiar with various learning strategies and then really try them out. A lot of students struggle in classes like physics because they simply don't know how to use their time effectively to learn. Just look at some of the posts here about people spending hours and hours doing tons of problems and still struggling. It's not only about effort.

    Some students I've tutored confessed they didn't read their textbook because they didn't find it helpful. It typically doesn't help because they simply don't know how to read the book effectively. This is one really important skill you absolutely need to develop. If you can't figure it out on your own, make use of the resources your school offers learn these kinds of strategies.

    If you do find you do well in a course and can be a tutor for that course, you might want to look into that. When you have to explain concepts to others, it will help reinforce your understanding as well. In subjects like math and science, which build upon what you learned before, reinforcing your foundation can really pay off.
  8. Oct 8, 2014 #7
    Hey everyone - I just wanted to say that I read all of your replies, and thank-you, all of you. Homeomorphic, that is a huge fear I have, actually, about going into any career, is immersing myself into something and realizing that it isn't what I expected it to be at all, or that I enter into the field realizing that though I enjoyed learning the subjects, I hate the job. I'll be sure to do way more research on the specific positions that people with the majors I have in mind actually end up doing, and thank you for that advice.

    Lisab, I'm in the midst of learning my effective study habits--strangely, not having a personal computer around me really helps because I don't get pulled away from my focus. And, funny you mentioned libraries, I found that I'm the same way. :)

    Choppy, thanks...I guess I've sort of gotten the impression that in order to excel in math/science you have to start as young as possible. It's reassuring to know that that's not always the case.

    Vela, I've just recently figured out how to read textbooks effectively, but it took me years. I used to be one of those students; I never touched any of my high school books (and paid the price with my GPA, needless to say).

    I do totally agree that I should probably take more math classes and wait to see if I like math rather than just liking algebra :P Having only really taken algebra, I guess it's sort of the only math I know. Thanks to whoever pointed that out to me.

    Once again, thanks everyone. I really appreciate all of your input.
  9. Oct 13, 2014 #8

    so inspiring! I'm in a similar situation, but haven't finished yet.
  10. Oct 14, 2014 #9
    I also suggest computer science. If you know a reasonable amount of computer science you can do useful things in all sorts of domains easily. Formatting documents, coding simulations or coding games (this is a really bad career choice since its so popular but its fun as a hobby!). And by "reasonable" I actually mean reasonable (not if you worked incredibly hard for 5 years during your PHD). If you take a decent introduction to Python programming you can immediately do useful and interesting things (not all intro python courses are decent, but good ones exist online).

    If you study pure math or physics the bar to "do anything" is extraordinarily high. In pure math "doing something" means helping prove a non trivial theorem. This cannot be done without either exceptional talent or tremendous amounts of background. Even if you don't go into pure math research studying abstract math has uses in furthering your understanding. But its not the most efficient use of your time by any possible stretch.

    Also imo when I knew less programming I was constantly uneasy when talking about math. There are many problems that can only be tackled numerically. And not knowing how to get answers and needed to ask friends to do it was embarrassing in some ways. Also limiting yourself to only thinking about situations where you can get analytic answers is very restrictive.

    If you want to understand the world mathematics helps. But coding is essential (unless you happen to really turn out to be a number theorist).
  11. Oct 14, 2014 #10
    great advice! I actually want to learn python myself, and I feel the same way as you were saying, sometimes feel a bit "dumb" because I'm so computer illiterate, especially compared to most (if not all) students majoring in a STEM field. which online course would you recommend?
  12. Oct 15, 2014 #11
    My first recomendation would be this course. http://ocw.mit.edu/courses/electric...computer-science-and-programming-spring-2011/ .

    The course has video lectures and problem sets (not so easy if you are new to programming!). Also included are the codes from the lectures and the lecture slides. The course was intended for MIT students with no real experience in programming. This is basically ideal, you want a course for intellegent people with little experience.

    advice: If you try this course make sure to give yourself time to think about the problems and the material. Its not the easiest intro to programming, but it gets pretty far and repays the effort.

    This is not free but its an alternative if you are unhappy with the MIT course.

    Nowadays there are many courses on python on things like coursera (you can get credit for this). But I have not personally reviewed those courses and I wonder if they have as a good a perspective as a course for MIT beginners (like them you are presumably hard working and smart). Still it may be worthwhile to ask someone's advice on those courses if you want some sort of credit.

    Last edited: Oct 15, 2014
  13. Oct 16, 2014 #12
    I'm 23, and only just got into studying high school level physics (Finland), in evening lukio (high school). I'd say I'm further behind than you are in terms of what I want to achieve academically. I wouldn't stress about it, if it truly is your passion. Get your act together, and get working on it. That's the only thing that is going to get you where you want to be.
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