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Parents Won't Pay for Physics Major

  1. Jun 1, 2012 #1
    My dad and I have been discussing my academic future lately, and he has said that he won't pay for me to major in physics because of the extra time it would take me. He also says that if I decide to major in physics or any field that will take me more than five semesters (from now, not from start to finish), I will have to move out.

    My biggest problem is that I started full time at community college when I was 16, and I had no idea what I wanted to do, so I just took the classes that looked fun, easy, or that I could get into for a particular term, and ended up with an AA in Language Arts. My math background isn't great. I took up to Algebra II in high school, but no geometry, and since I left high school early to attend college, that was as far as I went. In college, I took Intermediate Algebra and College Algebra. Looking back, I wish I'd taken at least through Calculus, but I didn't.

    Now, at 18, I'm transferring to Cal State Fullerton for the Fall semester, and I have a better idea of what I want to do. Due to the sequence of classes I have to take for my Liberal Studies major (with an emphasis in the depiction of science in mass media), I'll be able to take Pre-Calc and Calculus, as well as Fundamental Physics and the lab that goes with it, but that will be as far as I can go.

    I'm not allowed to work more than a part-time job, and this job has to pay for all of my extracurricular school expenses as well as savings and anything I want to do socially, so it's very difficult to save enough money to put myself through enough classes to get a second bachelor's degree, and even harder to find a school that will accept candidates for a second bachelor's degree, but I really want to do physics.

    Also, I don't qualify for any student aid because of the amount of money my dad makes, but since he is supporting my brother, my step-mom, and me without any supplemental incomes, money is really tight, and my brother is starting college either next year or the year after.

    A few other facts that may or may not be relevant: I haven't had any formal physics education because of how early I left high school, but I've read lots of mainstream physics books (Michio Kaku, Stephen Hawking, etc.) and I like to watch physics lectures online. I'm decent at math, but not great (pretty much all B's except for one F I got when I was taking 19 units of difficult classes, which I repeated and got a B in). I currently have Junior standing, and my dad has agreed to pay for five more semesters, but only if I can finish in five semesters.

    I would really appreciate any suggestions, even though I know that this is pretty much an impossible predicament. Thanks for reading!
  2. jcsd
  3. Jun 1, 2012 #2
    If you haven't had calculus yet, you don't know if you are good at math- everything before calculus is just accounting.

    Also, physics isn't like the popular books. The best thing you can do- get yourself a copy of Kleppner and Kolenkow's Intro to Mechanics book and Purcell's Electricity and Magnetism and start working through them. See if you actually like the subject before you dive in headlong.
  4. Jun 1, 2012 #3
    While I forget the exact rules: if you are no longer 'living at home' you do not need to claim your parents income when applying for aid/loans. Even if you do have your parent's income accounted for: you should qualify for unsubsidized, basic loans.

    If you don't mind answering: what reason has your father given for limiting you to 5 more semesters of school? (especially since you're only 18)

    Personally, when I started school my father highly suggested that I get an engineering degree because of the marketability (I wanted to do Computer Science and both of my parents are Engineers). When I was 17-18 and going to college, who was I to argue? 10 years later, I never graduated with an engineering degree and am fairly close to a Physics BS. Point being: don't be afraid to ask some of the 'why?' questions of your parents (always respectfully, of course). The other thing to ask yourself is WHY do you feel the desire to go into physics? If you haven't taken any college-level math or science, you will have a long road ahead of you just because of class sequencing (could easily turn into 5 years). Maybe your best goal is to complete a degree in a field that you enjoy and is attainable and work on some of the math/science on the way (I imagine that even an English or teaching degree requires some sort of math/science - just don't take the easy way out!).
  5. Jun 1, 2012 #4
    I've read some actual physics textbooks that I checked out from the library and I did enjoy them, not only popular books. My biggest reason for deciding which physics books I read is money. Popular science books are 10-20 dollars, while textbooks can be several hundred.

    You have to be 24 to no longer claim your parents for financial aid, and I'm still living at home, so it doesn't really matter either way.

    I've already taken two years of community college, and my dad told me that I can only take four years of school, but he gave me an extra semester in exchange for writing a book, so I have five semesters left.

    I have had college level algebra, just not calculus yet, and I've dabbled a little with the Calculus for Dummies book.
  6. Jun 1, 2012 #5
    The road to becoming a physicist is long and hard without calculus. It's like trying to do pull ups without muscles. It just won't happen properly. If you only have 5 semesters left, I suggest you bail now. Learning all the mathematical tools you need may take you well over 3 semesters. After that, you have 2 semesters to do actual physics, or to actually understand the physics that you were forced to push through because you lack the math to actually understand it.

    Why do you want to do physics? Why not take some other science that doesn't take as much math (for example, chemistry) and make yourself employable?
  7. Jun 1, 2012 #6
    If you already have been in college, I assume most gen ed requirements are done, right? Why would it take more than 5 semesters to essentially just cover the major coursework? Shouldn't be that hard to just take a bunch of classes if you can handle it.
  8. Jun 1, 2012 #7
    Why would he want you to leave with a degree in liberal studies which will earn you nothing? Even if it takes you more than 5 semesters to finish a degree that will get you a decent job (not saying physics does this).
  9. Jun 1, 2012 #8
    Why is doing it in 6 semesters impossible? You have the summer to learn calculus. Do it. Then start immediately with the books by Kleppner and Kolenkow or the Berkeley Physics Series. Kleppner has a "quick calculus" book but I'm not sure if this will be suitable for a first course.

    Now, I'm only a student myself, so I may be wrong but from what I understand, it's okay to just learn the math needed for your physics classes. That can be done fairly quickly. Then, later, you can come back and and re-learn the math in a more rigorous way.

    Anyway, you've already done two years of classes in liberal arts, which means that you probably won't have many general education requirements to take care of. Five semesters should be enough if you've already learned calculus and linear algebra on your own. The issue, though, is whether you'll be comfortable moving that quickly. And also whether it'll actually be a good thing. I've seen different extremes on this. I know of a college (in India) which uses Griffiths (E&M) and Goldstein+Landau/Lifgarbagez (Classical Mechanics) in their second semester, when most of those are junior/senior (and in some places, grad) level courses. There's also colleges who teach general physics I and II, followed by Classical Mechanics I and E&M, which they do again in the junior year, but with more sophistication.
  10. Jun 1, 2012 #9
    Just as a note - you probably have 5 semesters of math left, at least, before you could do much upper-level physics. Even if you have all of your composition and humanities fulfilled - there are still 90+ credits of math/science you'll need to do.

    Precalc/Trig > Calc 1 > Calc 2 > Calc 3 > Linear Algebra* > Differential Equations > upper division physics classes
    *Linear Algebra can generally be taken any time after calc 2 coincidentally with Calc 3 or Diffeq (opinions vary on this a bit and can depend on your school) and Diffeq can be taken at the same time as some intermediate mechanics (though I don't suggest it)
  11. Jun 2, 2012 #10
    Nonsense. I know tons of physicists (as in actual, practicing physicists) that never took diff eq. in college, did just fine. A lot of the math you can learn as you go.

    You need calc 1, calc2, linear algebra, calc 3, but you can take them at the same time as other physics courses. Do calc1 with kleppner level mechanics, calc 2 with Purcell level E/M.

    Then, calc 3, linear algebra, waves/optics. Next semester Griffith's level quantum, Griffith's level E/M (a cakewalk after Purcell), and Thornton-Marion level classical mechanics.

    Final semester, quantum 2, solid state, thermo, particle physics if it interests you.

    I think that should be enough at most schools to cover the major.
  12. Jun 2, 2012 #11
    I too know lots of people who have never taken diff eq and get by. Infact, some don't even take linear algebra and just learn it as necessary. Of course, I'd always recommend taking both but if you were really on a five semester timeline you'd have to make some sacrifices.
  13. Jun 2, 2012 #12
    How is that possible..? I can't even imagine trying to do physics without a firm knowledge of differential equations. Its usefulness is beyond contestation. I sat an exam last semester, and I came across a spring problem. I couldn't remember the formulas, so I re-derived them from the differential equations. No way could I have done that without knowing the subject pretty well.
  14. Jun 2, 2012 #13


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    @OP: can you not pay your own way? I came from a very poor family, and by 1969 when I enrolled in college it was quite obvious that I would have to work my way through college - my parents just couldn't have afforded it. There was precious little financial aid awarded back then, perhaps because the Viet Nam war was in full swing, and lots of guys wanted to get student deferments. Still, I managed to work through college and pay my way. It wasn't easy, but it was do-able. My parents could not have done it. They helped as much as they could, but I carried the load.
  15. Jun 2, 2012 #14
    What a lot of physics majors do is take "Mathematical Methods for Physicists" or "Mathematical Physics" type courses. Here's a free one by James Nearing. On the page are a few more by other authors.

    Also, take a look at this. They may not be the best example, seeing as they seem pretty "hardcore", in that they move quite fast. However, the webpage is easy to navigate, with full course descriptions and textbooks used. Good resource, imo.

    So, some physics majors don't actually ever take a dedicated class to the math tools they use. They just learn them along the way or learn them from such "math methods" courses. A friend of mine, who's doing a PhD in HEP, suggests that one should go back and "formalise" the math they learned. Especially if they're working on highly mathematical stuff. In any case, going to back "formalise" would have been nice, whether it's useful or not. (provided one has the time)
  16. Jun 2, 2012 #15
    you can become a self-taught physicist using this forum and internet mainly wikipedia articles of physics.
    this is what I think. today, it is possible to become a self-taught scientist by the help of internet.
    I think acedemic degree gives only a social status.
  17. Jun 2, 2012 #16
    I put together a semester-by-semester list of the classes I need to take, and I added some foreign languages classes because I like to always be taking at least four classes. These meet all of the requirements, but with the necessary sequencing the best I could do was fit them into seven semesters. My dad will pay for five, but then I'm on my own for a year of schooling.

    I've been trying to get a job, but it isn't easy. I applied at Starbucks, several fast food places, a bookstore, a department store, and Best Buy, but so far, no luck.

    Semester 1
    Chemistry 115 Introductory General Chemistry (4)
    Math 125 Precalculus (5)
    Upper Division G.E. 1 (3)
    Japanese 203 Intermediate Japanese-A (5)

    Semester 2
    Chemistry 120A General Chemistry (5)
    Math 150A Calculus (4)
    Upper Division G.E. 2 (3)
    Japanese 204 Intermediate Japanese-B (5)

    Semester 3
    Chemistry 125 General Chemistry for Engineers (3)
    Math 150B Calculus (4)
    Physics 225 Fundamental Physics: Mechanics (3)
    Physics 225L Lab (1)
    German 101 Fundamental German-A (5)

    Semester 4
    Math 250A Multivariate Calculus (4)
    Upper Division Science Elective (3)
    Physics 226 Fundamental Physics: Electricity and Magnetism (3)
    Physics 226L Lab (1)
    German 102 Fundamental German-B (5)

    Semester 5
    Physics 227 Fundamental Physics: Waves, Optics, and Modern Physics (3)
    Physics 227L Lab (1)
    Physics 300 Survey of Mathematical Physics (3)
    Physics 380 Methods of Experimental Physics (3)
    German 203 Intermediate German-A (3)

    Semester 6
    Physics 310 Thermodynamics, Kinetic Theory and Statistical Physics (3)
    Physics 320 Classical Mechanics (4)
    Physics 330 Electromagnetic Theory (4)
    Physics 340 Modern Physics (4)

    Semester 7
    Physics 414 Physics of the Solar System (3)
    Physics 454 Introduction to the Solid State of Matter (3)
    Physics 455 Introduction to Quantum Physics (3)
    Physics 476 Atomic/Molecular Physics (3)
    Physics 481 Experimental Physics (3)

    Any new advice based off of this plan? I think I can test out of pre-calc if I study over the summer, but I'm not 100% sure. I don't think I can get out of any of the other classes, except depending on which upper division science elective I pick, it might double count as one of my upper division G.E. classes.
  18. Jun 2, 2012 #17


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    The reason is that most differential equations which show up in undergrad physics problems are either a) ones you can write down the solution to immediately (SHO, for example), b) those you can integrate fairly straight forward, c) those which have a known solution, but you're not expected to derive (bessel functions, etc.), or d) those which aren't solvable analytically. It's nice of course to know how to do a) and c), but it's not really strictly necessary. As for practicality, I certainly haven't used the method of integrating factors or characteristic equations of second order equations ever in my undergraduate physics.
  19. Jun 2, 2012 #18


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    Just eyeballing, this looks really inefficient. Your first two semesters are spent, in essence, just taking precalc and calc. I realize that the math background is a bit of an issue, but really this is where you can maybe cut down two semesters. If, for example, you self-studied these topics before hand, you could really start in your semester 3 without losing anything towards the physics major. It might be difficult since likely your grasp of precalculus and calculus will be weaker than if you took a formal course, but if you are determined to get it done in five semesters this is an option.

    (Or are three semesters of chemistry required for your physics major? If so, this changes a little, but you can still likely trim a semester out.)
  20. Jun 2, 2012 #19
    The first chemistry class is a prerequisite because I didn't take it in high school, and the others are degree requirements. Pre-calc is a similar situation, but the other calculus classes are also degree requirements. None of the foreign languages are required.
  21. Jun 2, 2012 #20
    Then you can cut down on the language classes. Choose one of German or Japanese and then pick up the rest on your own, when you find the time. Look up the website "AllJapaneseAllTheTime" or "AJATT".
  22. Jun 2, 2012 #21
    The problem is that cutting down on language classes won't cut semesters because of the sequence required with the calculus and physics classes. I only added the language classes after I made a schedule of the degree requirements and prerequisites to fill in gaps so that each semester has at least four classes.
  23. Jun 2, 2012 #22
    Having one class less means you have more time to study the physics and math. It also means you can find more time to rest, since you will also be working part-time.
  24. Jun 2, 2012 #23
    Consider doing the first two semesters at a community college on the cheap, then transferring it to a university. Ask your father to pay for the five semesters at university, and you can work/get aid for the part done in community college. Presto!
  25. Jun 2, 2012 #24


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    This is nonsense. I would ignore this advice.
  26. Jun 2, 2012 #25
    Your schedule looks much more plausible than the "5 semesters" you were talking about earlier. What kind of physicists are you going to be? It seems like you're taking a lot of single classes on unrelated physics subjects. Why are you taking "survey of" classes? Are they required? Also, what do the classes called "experimental" physics encompass? You should always try to take labs one semester after you take the lecture for the class (or concurrently, if you think you can handle it).

    I'm not the first to say this, but cut either Japanese or German. There's no point in taking more than one language. Ideally if you didn't have to take a language, you shouldn't. You're going to forget it all in a few years anyways, and you're paying money to learn it when you can learn it for free at home, by traveling to the country and living there, or by talking to friends. You're also being graded on how well you learn the language, which I personally think is stupid, but that's how universities rip you off; by selling classes that you don't need.

    Did you really put it in to make your schedule four classes per semester? Because it seems like German makes five every time. If you really want to take more classes, you should be taking more physics classes in specific areas of concentration so that you can prepare for research or some other physics-related job rather than an extraneous language.

    This is very difficult to believe. You were a physics major? The SHO, which you specifically mention, requires the use characteristic equation. Have you tried to solve the DE for damped harmonic oscillators? Have you come across the E/M differential equations for LRC circuits? Have you never brute forced your way through the Schrodinger equation? These are not only undergrad problems, they are lower-division undergrad problems.

    Unless you're exaggerating and giving bad advice.

    I lol'd. It's possible, but highly improbable and implausible. Also, Wikipedia is crap for learning.
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