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Need Advice on Unorthodox Approach to Physics Education

  1. Apr 11, 2010 #1
    Hi. I recently graduated with a B.A. in Political Science. I've been accepted into a pretty decent law school and could head my life in that very comfortable and secure direction. However I've always had a passion for physics, I spend so much of my free time reading about it, watching online lectures... etc. The reason I didn't do Physics as an undergrad really was due to immaturity and complete lack of focus (nearly failed out my freshman year), and once I got myself back on the right track I wasn't accepted into science majors, so pursued a degree in political science.

    Now that I've graduated, I'm considering doing a complete 180 on my life plan and going back to pursue a physics education and possibly eventually a PhD. I'm wondering if anybody has any advice on what approach I should take, considering I have few undergraduate science courses, and graduated with a completely unrelated degree. Should I apply to an undergraduate program to receive a second bachelors degree in Physics? Or should i somehow (seemingly impossible) try to teach myself enough to do well on the GRE and attempt to seek admissions in a graduate school program? Or is there another option? I realize this is a very unorthodox approach and I'm wondering if anyone has ANY advice that would be useful to me. Thanks so much for taking the time to read this and help!
  2. jcsd
  3. Apr 11, 2010 #2
    There's a zillion threads from people who did god-knows-what in college (or never went, or never finished, or decided to quit and make cheese for a while...) and now want to do physics. If you use the search function, I can guarantee you that you'll find 20+ threads, all very related to your case. I don't think your case is so unorthodox that no current information on this subforum applies and it's been answered in depth many times. That being said, good luck!
  4. Apr 11, 2010 #3
    Thanks for your response! I've attempted to look through the forum, and keep finding situations where for example, a mechanical engineer is wondering whether to switch for physics. It is very possible that I'm just terrible at searching this forum, but if someone can post a link to a thread that relates very closely to my situation (attempting physics from a completely unrelated field) I'd greatly appreciate it! I'll keep searching on my own of course. Thanks!
  5. Apr 11, 2010 #4
    If you do really consider self-teaching your way through the undergraduate studies, may I suggest the following site dedicated to such people?


    Written by a Dutch nobel prize winner.
  6. Apr 11, 2010 #5
    [ZapperZ's guide, a classic]

    [Essentially the same position as you; some random dude who farted around for a while and is asking how to get serious about physics]

    [Dude with a sociology and French degree who now wants to go back and do a BS in physics. I think this'd be the most relevant thread but I just skimmed it a bit]

    [A simple test to see if your degree has even remotely prepared you for physics grad school or ever will]

    This was just a few I thought of off the top of my head, but there are many more. This is probably one of the most common questions on this forum and the answer is nearly always the same; if you think physics is going to be a never-ending stream of sparkly, awesome days where you're turning into some sort of scientific Ubermensch by mowing down problem after problem, the you won't get very far. If you think you like physics but hate math, you won't get very far. If you honest-to-god want to understand this strange but fantastic subject and are willing to put up with the pain of sharpening your mind against a slew of problems and ideas to gain proficiency, then you have a shot.

    I would NOT ever try to teach myself the equivalent of a full physics B.S. degree and then take the GRE. You will fail. I have seen one person in my entire life who has a prayer of succeeding in something like this, but he's nearly superhuman (and autistic, but that's a different story). There is a reason that people go to university for this degree, and it's not because they're too lazy to study it themselves. It is probably one of the most difficult degrees if learnt correctly and you NEED other people, in the form of teachers, classmates, mentors, whatever you can manage to get through it. Especially since it doesn't sound like you have much experience with the required math either. It's doable, but you need to be realistic. I'd treat you like a high school senior right now, in terms of your physics-readiness, and just apply to an undergrad program.
  7. Apr 11, 2010 #6
    Yea, that seems to be the most logical choice to me, seeing as how i'd rather actually get a good understanding of the material instead of just trying to pass tests. My math experience is not too advanced, got through Calc 1. A hesitation though for me is if I can finish a physics BS degree in hopefully 2-3 years from now, then I'd be around 31, 32 by the time I got my PhD. From reading these forums it seems most people get their PhD around 26, 27. Should I worry about being 5 years behind "in life" so to speak?
  8. Apr 11, 2010 #7


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    Yeah it's hopeless, at 31 your life is over and you'll never get a girl :eek:) On the other hand, you could become a lawyer, work 60 to 70 hours a week for a decade or more to make partner and hate what you do for the rest of your life. Welcome to Physics Forums, by the way!
  9. Apr 11, 2010 #8


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    How is it you've decided that you want to pursue a PhD in physics, and yet you haven't taken any physics classes? On what is your current interest based? The reason I ask, is that a lot of people are intrigued by reading some popular layperson books about physics and love them, but find that the rigour of a real physics class is not for them.

    Before abandoning what seems like a promising career path, it's probably a good idea to start with a physics night school class or something to really find out what you're in for.

    With respect to timing, my experience has been that people vary considerably in the time they take to finish their PhDs. The PhD is a long road. It's not uncommon for life to get in the way. Finishing at 26 would mean that you've essentially completed a four year undergrad degree and then after direct entery into a PhD program completed in in exactly four years. While this is possible, I think it's more the exception rather than the rule. Also, there's no prize for finishing early.

    The other thing to keep in mind is that academia is extremely competative. Getting a PhD will not guarantee you a tenured position.
  10. Apr 11, 2010 #9
    Choppy- I understand that a lack of formal education in physics makes my interest seem superficial. While I do agree that physics literature intended for laypeople is interesting, I've always found myself wanting to know the details- the mathematics that explains the phenomena. I've watched online courses that MIT and Stanford put on the web in an attempt to do so, which is great, but it doesnt really help me pursue physics further than a hobby. I mean, why when I spend such a great deal of my spare time reading physics would I pursue a law career (a subject in which I have little interest) lol. It's definitely possible I could end up being burnt out on physics 10 years from now somehow, but as of now I am very interested and have been for as long as I can remember.

    Regarding career in academia, I'm not by any means set on becoming a tenured professor or anything. I mean it might be nice, but I'm not anti-industry/government work.

    Also, this is completely off subject, but do you happen to be an online poker player?
  11. Apr 12, 2010 #10
    As a 27 year old still working on his first undergrad degree, I almost take offense to what is implied in this post.

    Go back and get a second bachelors, it should only take you 2 to 3 years out of an ~80 year life. Of course, I do like Choppy's advice about actually taking a physics class to make sure you like it.

    The fact that you think you can self-study the material quicker than learning it from professors leads me to believe that you're underestimating the amount of work that goes into understanding physics. Even if you were to self-study, it would still take you years.
  12. Apr 13, 2010 #11
    its tough... you can say that university is place for self study under some guidance and yes, the amount of work require to do proper physics is ridiculous, you really need a real degree or you need to be incredibly disciplined (to get a degree you need some level of disciplinary anyway)
    I guess that's why people like it
  13. Apr 14, 2010 #12
    Really, are you sure? From reading questions on Physics Forums I was completely convinced that life ends at 30. I was also sure that, if you take an extra 6 months finishing your undergraduate degree, you are cursed to live forever as a homeless street person!

  14. Apr 14, 2010 #13
    carboy79, though this isn't going to be a direct answer to your question, I did want to let you know I'm in a similar position and that you are not alone with such thoughts. Perhaps that will help you in making that final plunge towards a career change or steer you from it. I don't know how old you are, but I'm 24, and I actually have a Law degree already. However, although I did very well, I found myself in a position where, just like you, I started getting doubts on whether being a lawyer is what I want to do with my life. Since I decided it isn't, I applied for various undergraduate programs in Physics (UK and Canada), and have due to various unknowns and financial circumstances decided where to go. That said, I do believe undergrad is the way to go if you want to go for a career in Physics. I don't know what your experience in Physics is, but I learned it for four years in high school, and it didn't really cross my mind to go straight for graduate school. From what I can gather, that much Physics isn't the norm in US high schools, so I would be wary of trying to skip steps that are more than likely necessary for what you're trying to achieve.
  15. Apr 14, 2010 #14
    Ryker, thanks for your response. It's good to hear someone with such a similar situation. As for my age, I'm close to 23, so very similar in that sense. I think a lot of the repliers to this thread misinterpreted me as claiming that I could learn all of undergrad physics by self study. I of course don't think this, I was just wondering if graduate school admission would be possible by high GRE score, etc. I'm sorry, I should have stated that more clearly. And you are correct Ryker, high schools in the US do not require nearly that much study of physics. Only one year of basic conceptual physics was required for me. Then you have the option to take classes such as AP Physics. I opted to take AP Chemistry instead so my physics background is pretty much grounded in what I've researched on my own in the past years.

    I do agree that if I were to take this career path seriously, an undergraduate degree would be the best path. I applied to a state school and still haven't received a decision. Per chance does anybody know or have experience with applying for a 2nd bachelor's degree? As per my original post, I slacked off during my first year at college, and despite working diligently and getting A's and B's, I graduated with a 2.9 GPA. Does anybody know the likelihood of acceptance as an applicant with this GPA for a 2nd Bachelor's degree? If it helps, they asked me to send my SAT scores which were a 1420, but I dont know if they consider those heavily since I already received a B.A. Thanks again.

    P.s. Ryker, do you see yourself possibly returning to a law career? Or have you commited completely to becoming a physicist.
  16. Apr 15, 2010 #15
    Well, to be honest, I still haven't accepted any offers for a Physics undergrad program and have, on the other hand, an option to do postgrad studies at Oxbridge in Law. I am 90 - 95% sure of ditching the law career completely, however, and if I now do go study Physics in the UK or Canada, I do not believe I will return to law. This career change will namely require me to put all of my savings, plus a lot of my parents' money and then some into it, along with leaving a field where I was quite successful, at least from an academic standpoint. Though I really don't see myself as doing law anymore, I do see myself using some of the skills I acquired while studying it and working in the field as they can be quite helpful in any job.

    So basically, the answer to your first question would be no - by the end of April I will make a final decision on where to go, and if I ditch those last scraps of doubt that are holding me back in making that crucial step towards beginning Physics studies, then I think I will not look back.
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