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One tip to current/future physics major

  1. Feb 1, 2016 #1
    For those who have a physics degree, what is one tip you'd give to a current/future physics major? You can put it this way: What would you go back and tell yourself day 1 freshman year?
    Last edited: Feb 2, 2016
  2. jcsd
  3. Feb 2, 2016 #2


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    Go to class.

    (If I'm allowed more than one tip, I'd add:
    Do the homework early.
    Do extra problems.
    Find a study group. Having a study group really helped me, and at least at my university, doing assignments together was encouraged. YMMV.
    Do research as soon as you can. Do different research topics every semester, don't stick with one subfield.

    ETA: My "Go to Class" tip also covers tutorials. Often they're even more useful than the lectures.
    Last edited: Feb 2, 2016
  4. Feb 2, 2016 #3
    Do the exercises you're supposed to do as soon as possible. Don't let things to the last day.

    Just sit your damn ass and start studying. Starting is the worst part.
    Last edited by a moderator: Feb 2, 2016
  5. Feb 2, 2016 #4
    Real physics is not like you see in the documentaries from Michio Kaku, Brian Cox, Stephen Hawking , and the like.

    I'd probably buy Cal Newport's book, which goes into detail on study habits.: https://www.amazon.com/How-Become-Straight-A-Student-Unconventional/dp/0767922719.

    Learn your math very well!

    Take careful notes during lectures.

    Use resources beyond your textbook and lecture notes (Schaum's outlines, khan academy, Coursera, other/more rigorous books, etc).

    Start your homework as soon as it's assigned.

    It's a waste of time to do extra problems for the sake of doing extra problems.

    Anything beyond your assigned homework (which is plenty in and of itself) should be used to fill gaps in your knowledge/skills about a specific area you're having trouble with.

    Use solutions manuals intelligently, simply copying answers is a plan to fail, but they can be used to fill in gaps when you get stuck.

    Study for your exams using exam-like conditions (with the appropriate amount of problems and the allowed time period, up your problem solving speed).

    Get involved with research as early as possible; develop a broad skill base besides solving math and physics problems on pen and paper(programming, electronics, numerical and data analysis, technical writing).

    Learn to do technical writing well (LaTex is also good to learn early since you'll eventually be writing papers in it).

    Get the highest grades you can; someone who has A's does not necessarily understand the topic they got an A in very well but you'll need high grades for scholarships, grad school, jobs and the like so play to win.

    Get involved in your local Society of Physics Students chapter.

    Computer programming is essential, you will not escape it. Python is probably the easiest language to learn followed by C or C++. A graphical language like LabVIEW is nice to learn too since lots of data acquisition is done using it.

    Look for scholarship programs that come with research opportunities as well as opportunity to publish and showcase said research in journals, conferences (go to APS conferences btw), and the like. The McNair Scholars program is a great example. (http://mcnairscholars.com/).

    Do research on physics you like; but don't necessarily marry yourself to one area (don't necessarily marry yourself to pen and paper theory on that area either); be open minded and scientifically curious.

    Good luck and have fun!

    Edit: Whoops! This turned into multiple tips!
    Last edited by a moderator: May 7, 2017
  6. Feb 2, 2016 #5
    You're not smart enough not to do all the homework problems. No one is.

    Lots of great advice above, but it I had to just make one suggestion, there it is.

    My second point would be:

    Your professors know more about learning physics than you do. Listen to them.
  7. Feb 2, 2016 #6


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    Work on your social skills. Regardless of what you do once you graduate you WILL have to work with people and you also need to be able to present your work.

    Also, in ten years no one will care how well you did in your exams: what they will care about is how well you can do your job. This means that skills that they will NOT teach you in any of your courses can turn out to be just as valuable as your coursework. Good examples might be a bit of programming, electronics etc.

    Lastly, take any chance you get to do summer internships etc.
  8. Feb 2, 2016 #7


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    If there is an assigned/required textbook for the course, get it (buy it, rent it, or whatever) and study it. Don't rely solely on the professor and your lecture notes. Don't use it just as a source for the assigned homework problems.
  9. Feb 2, 2016 #8


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    Be mindful of the classes you're taking and not the ones you'd like to take because they are more interesting.

    My first year, I and my fellow physics majors were in a hurry to learn more advanced stuff. We tested out of classes and pushed into harder courses. When we hit roadblocks (ie problems we couldn't solve) we'd daydream about getting over it and learning the really interesting physics.

    What we didn't realize was that the more advanced physics courses were predicated on the basics and that we should have been more patient. Also one side-effect of testing out of courses is that then your grades will suffer as tougher courses mean more work, greater expectations and more often lower grades.

    The Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh wrote a little book called the Miracle of Mindfulness where folks "washed the dishes to wash the dishes" staying in the moment and enjoying it as it is and that's what you should master.


    Another way of putting it is to learn each course you take so that you can teach to anyone who asks you at any time in any environment.
    Last edited: Feb 2, 2016
  10. Feb 2, 2016 #9
    Do the math. If you can't do the math, find someone who can, and learn to do the math. Do all the math.
  11. Feb 2, 2016 #10
    Really pay attention in Thermodynamics.
  12. Feb 2, 2016 #11
    Sometimes it's better to fail and re-take the course next semester/year than to barely pass.

    Unless it's that as$)"(#/"#(" of a professor.
  13. Feb 2, 2016 #12
    When you study don't be satisfied with just following the material. Involve yourself actively in the development of the concepts. Study with pen and paper in hand. Fill in missing steps. Draw the diagrams and see if you can use different examples than the text. Study and learn the subject matter so that you can express the concepts in your own words. Make the subject matter your own.
  14. Feb 2, 2016 #13
    I begin my degree in Fall 2017 as an adult student, and I appreciate all these helpful tidbits of advice from everyone! I'm definitely going to keep these in mind.
  15. Feb 2, 2016 #14
    Cement your knowledge and always ask yourself: "Have I truly learned something, or only achieved the illusion of understanding?"
  16. Feb 2, 2016 #15


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    Wow, this thread is so depressing. It's a huge list of everything I didn't do in my freshman (and indeed, 2nd & 3rd) years.
    :H :cry: o:)
  17. Feb 2, 2016 #16
    Well I've learned alot about what to do by becoming an expert on doing the opposite, lol!
  18. Feb 2, 2016 #17


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    My one piece of advice was "go to class", but if I'm honest, I only went to the first lecture of a vector calc course in second year before just studying from the textbook. I wasn't the only one, it was only one class a week (subset of a bigger course), and the person setting the assignments wasn't talking with the lecturer, it seemed, but still: o:)
  19. Feb 2, 2016 #18


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    I guess that's one way to force students to study a textbook as well as attending lectures. :wink:
  20. Feb 2, 2016 #19


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    Well that's true. There were other factors at play here, but in any case, I'm pretty sure my grade was worse than it would have otherwise been had I turned up to class more! Now at the other side of things, teaching rather than attending classes, the students who do the most poorly are invariably the ones who don't turn up.
  21. Feb 2, 2016 #20
    Do what I would have done given the opportunity... apply everything you learn to real world situations and take charge of your future! The sky's the limit. (universe for physicists)
  22. Feb 3, 2016 #21
    Figure out what your skills and weaknesses are, and plan accordingly. If you aren't any good at getting up at 7:30 am, don't pick physics classes that start at 8. Whatever time of day you're most alert and engaged, that's when you should put your most important classes. Take night classes if that works better for you.

    If you think a class might be challenging, find someone who's already taken it and ask them for advice/help.

    Pick electives that you'll enjoy, that will be good distractions, and that will jump out to employers looking at your resume.
  23. Feb 3, 2016 #22


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    Of course, that works only when you actually have a choice of times. I bet it's rather rare to have multiple sections of e.g. upper-division E&M or QM courses. :oldwink:
  24. Feb 3, 2016 #23
    That was my problem.
  25. Feb 3, 2016 #24
    Once you get passing marks, think about which of your fellow students you would hire to work for/with you. Then think about why them, and why not someone else.

    Then, who of them would pick you, out of all the people, to work for/with them.

    Kind of an eye opener. Often you would not pick your best friend and you would also not pick the person with the highest marks, but someone in between.

    For 90% of the job applications, you only need to be competent enough. Then the main deciding factor is how likable you come across and how compatible they think you will be with the people already there.
  26. Feb 4, 2016 #25


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