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Majoring in Physics

  1. Sep 4, 2003 #1
    Do you guys think you need a natural ability to major in physics? Or can one simply study hard and understand it well in the end? I'm entering my second year as a physics major and am getting scared of the harder courses that are about to start.

    Just as a side note, I don't claim to be brilliant by any stretch of the imagination, but I would say my abilities are a fair amount above average. I guess the problem lies in the fact that I'm not used to having to study a couple hours every night to maintain high marks.

    Any advice is welcomed.

    Edit: Do you guys think going to a top tier school would have improved my education a lot? I feel stupid now for not doing all my high school homework and getting into a Caltech or some other high rated university.
    Last edited: Sep 4, 2003
  2. jcsd
  3. Sep 4, 2003 #2


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    Natural aptitude helps in physics exactly as it helps in any other subject.

    Like most other subjects, hard work and study can usually make up for a lack of natural aptitude.

    My suggestion on learning physics: do lots and lots and lots and lots of problems. Do every problem in your book, then buy a new book, and do all the problems in it, too. If you have more time, buy a third book. You can read your book backwards and forwards ten times and not recall as much as if you solved ten problems. Learn by doing.

    Generally, top-tier schools have better resources, which can help you get a better education. The diversity of research topics also can provide a lot of opportunities to learn things.

    On the other hand, the quality of professors is not really a function of the reputation of the school. Academia usually consideres the most productive publishers the best professors, and thus top-tier schools often attract those who are very capable of doing cutting-edge research. A professor's research ability, however, says nothing about his teaching ability. You'll often find that less-reputable schools have professors equally, or even better capable as teachers.

    - Warren
  4. Sep 4, 2003 #3
    This is very important advice from chroot. My sister currently is a senior at Univeristy of Madison Wisconsin for Industrial Engineering which is a highly reputable school. She has had some frustration because the professors are more interested in their research than helping and teaching students. So, the best thing you can do is research the schools, visit them and talk to students already in the program.
  5. Sep 4, 2003 #4
    Too late to be picky, I'm already at a school. :(
  6. Sep 4, 2003 #5
    does anybody have any input on which schools are best for learning undergraduate physics? I'm currently in the college search process and would like some input from the physics community
  7. Sep 4, 2003 #6


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    You can divide the schools into three categories; Large universities, small universities and colleges.

    With probably some notable exceptions in each category,

    - Large universities will have professors concentrating on research. Either you'll be a fly on the wall in a huge (100's of students) class led by a famous name, or you'll be taught by a TA (Teaching Assistant - i.e.. a grad student), a poatdoc (also obsessed with research) or an "adjunct professor" who teaches too heavy a load and gets paid peanuts.

    - Colleges won't have the courses you want. They emphasize liberal arts, and the first program cut is in the sciences. Physics for poets is not what you need.

    That leaves small universities. They are big enough to have the course variety, and small enough not to attract too many of the publish or perish crowd. My daughter took an Industrial Engineering program at Marquette University in Milwaukee. She was highly satisfied with the program and was able to get a good job straight out of school.

    Before anyone else says it, I'll admit this is oversimplified, but I think there is a real difference to be stated.
  8. Sep 5, 2003 #7

    Claude Bile

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    You may also wish to consider studying overseas, the United Kingdom in particular have some very reputable schools of physics, Bath, Oxford, St.Andrews etc. It is a different culture and different lifestyle, challenging, but very rewarding if you are looking for a change.
  9. Sep 5, 2003 #8


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    The single most critical factor is the student him/herself. At any point in your education, at any school you choose, you can get hit with a stinker for a prof or TA. It is then that the hard working dedicated student comes through. If you want it, you can get a useful education at virtually any school (that offers your choice of major) in the country.
  10. Sep 5, 2003 #9
    The comments by Claude Bile and Integral are important. My daughter stopped work at 38 yrs of age and attended two British universities hitting snags at both.
    At the first lack of tutoring ended with her going on a sit down outside the tutors office until he agreed to break off from other projects and see her, from then on it all went well.
    The second university was pouring all its resources into setting up a new (large and important) department. No sit down would work this time, instead it was a case of group help and determination, sympathy for a much harassed staff (large scale building works in progress) that saw them through.
    This said my daughter enjoyed her time at both universities and now lectures at one of them.
    The lesson surely is that universities are for adults. You have a contract with them which you are entitled to enforce, do not be over aggressive but do insist that they keep their side of the contract in a sound businesslike manner, make allowance for difficulties but above make the best of each and every opportunity.
    Be determined to learn.
  11. Sep 5, 2003 #10

    Chi Meson

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    I didn't read all the threads, so If I'm repeating someone I apologize.

    If you liked "high school "physics, then you might be an engineer!. Consider checking out civil engineering. THese are the folks who actually use the classical mechanics that you learned already. As aphysics major, you are going to go into a realm of "otherworldlyness." A physics degree (BS) is also nowhere near as employable as an engineering degree. ABSOLUTELY NO disrespect is intended to anyone here, but you know, in genreral, its true.

    Or...was it just me?
  12. Sep 5, 2003 #11
    thanks for the info chi meson, but I'm quite sure I want to persue a physics degree, it is the "otherworldliness" that most inspires me.
  13. Sep 5, 2003 #12
    I've considered engineering but I've always been intrigued by all the stuff teachers don't tell you in high school and intro college courses. I want to understand all the stuff they skip over, or at least I think I do.

    At this point I don't know if I could do every single problem in a physics text. I mean that's like 3000 problems...are you serious about that? Is that the sort of determination it takes??
  14. Sep 5, 2003 #13


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    No, meister, I was exaggerating a little. Some of the problems in physics textbooks get pretty monotonous, too.

    What I mean is less specific than "do 3000 problems." I mean, instead, that you should just attempt to do many, many problems -- all varieties -- and learn by doing. I have a number of books of intriguing, interesting physics problems (and their solutions, of course), and learn more from them than by reading any textbook.

    Also, I think doing your own derivations helps a lot. It seems rather boring to sit there and derive, say, the electric field due to a dipole over and over, but it really does increase your skill as a physicist. Each time you try the derivation, you'll get stuck on some step or another -- then you'll consult your book and get unstuck. Gradually the techniques used in analyzing physics problems will get burned into your head and you'll be able to apply the tools readily to any new problem.

    - Warren
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