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Physics degree - advice

  1. May 27, 2010 #1
    Hi everyone. First I'd like to say how glad I am that I found this forum! There's a lot of useful information but I still can't get rid of some fears I have.

    I'm in the UK. I left school at 16 after my GCSEs and went to college to study a higher computing course which I failed due to bad attendance (I was young, lazy, and found the course work too easy so I just stopped going. I turned up for all the major exams and still got the best grades in the class, but ultimately failed for not completing the coursework) I then got an okayish job as a network technician for a few years but after a while it just wasn't enough. I went back to college to continue my studies that I should have done years before and I completed my HND in networking technical support just last year. (The HND is half a degree) Now it's 1 year on and I just turned 23 years old, and i'm back in a similar networking job as before I got the HND. This career isn't enough for me any more so over the past 6 months I've really been thinking about what I love and interests me.

    My whole life i've been obsessed with the universe and learning about how things are the way they are and what they're made of, etc. It's the only thing in life I can truely say that keeps me up at night thinking about it. I'd love to get a degree in physics and study astrophysics or even particle physics which i've more recently became interested in. I know everyone says that with hard work and dedication it's possible for anyone to get a degree, but the math side worries me. I've never struggled with math or anything, I just wasn't that interested in school. Plus I'm 23 now so it was a few years ago... i'm really not sure how much I remember or if I'd even cope in a physics degree. I only studied math and physics at GCSE level. My higher level qualifications are my HNC and HND in networking (which did contain some numeracy, but i'm not sure if that's the same thing) /endbio

    So my questions are: do you think I will cope with only secondary school math and will I be able to catch up on it while doing the degree? Or would it be best if I took the next year to go back and do my highers in math and physics at college, then start the degree next year? Although I'd be 24 then, which is getting kinda old to start again... I know I can do this, I want it too badly to fail. I just don't want to be jumping in at the deep end and drowning. Are there any recommended books or things to bring my math up to the level needed to begin a degree in physics? Thank you for any help or advice anyone can give me :)
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  3. May 27, 2010 #2


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    It's 20years since I went to college and a few things have changed in UK education since then but -
    A level maths is probably a requirement for a decent physics course. The HND probably counts points-wise for a non-traditional-route-candidate entrance (or whatever they call people over 18 these days) .

    I think I have to persuade you not to:
    A physics degree doesn't teach you about how the universe was created/works. It is 2 years of differential equations and 2 years of vibrations and waves, atomic physics cross section calculations and a bit of wave equations.
    Astrophysics/particle physics/nuclear physics degrees are (IMHO) a bit of a marketing exercise (ie con) - they are the same 2years of PDEs with a final year option course of intro astrophysics, but they are designed to attract students who think 'just physics' is boring.

    Rather than spend 4years and 50K to discover this what about taking Open University modules in the bits that interest you?

    As I said i'm a bit out of touch, I haven't been involved in teaching for 10years so things might have changed, but some advice remains.
    Get the syllabus/lecture lists/etc for courses don't rely on the title.
    Realise you are going to do a lot of spade work to get to the cool stuff.
    Sometimes at the end of a PhD you still haven't got to the cool stuff!
  4. May 27, 2010 #3
    Thanks for the reply mgb_phys.
    Really? I thought these equations, calculations and fundamental laws were used to describe everything we see in the universe? How matter and energy interacts etc. That's what I'm really interested in.

    Oh I didn't plan on taking a specific degree like that, I planned on doing a BSc Physics and then see which field interests me the most. I don't find it boring - it facinates me, and the thought of learning excites me!

    I understand it will be a hell of a lot of work and I may enjoy certain areas more than others, but I know it will be worth it. And this is the syllabus: http://www.abdn.ac.uk/physics/undergraduate/honours/mathematics-physics/
  5. May 27, 2010 #4


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    Yes they do. I was just warning that people see a discovery channel program showing the Hubble Telescope or the LHC and think - "Wow cool - I want to do physics".
    That's great but your degree is going to involve a lot of sitting in lecture theatres listening to somebody drone on about PDEs and eigenvectors.

    Fantastic - I was just playing devil's advocate. If you want to do it, go for it. Just don't assume that it's all "wonders of the universe" stuff.

    That looks pretty good. I like the first year intro course to just remind you what physics is all about.
    Were you specifically looking at the physics+maths course or was that just the link?
    Generally any physics+maths/theoretical physics course is going to want somebody with a reasonable maths background. In my day that meant maths+further-maths A level - don't know about today.

    ps. I know you're not an 18year old away from home for the first time - but you still need to consider what kind of town you want to live in.
    If you currently live in the middle of London/Manchester and like clubbing UEA probably isn't ideal. Similarly if you want to get out into mountains every weekend - don't pick Imperial.
  6. May 27, 2010 #5
    I know there will be long lectures about things I don't even know exist at the moment, but even the thought of that makes me more excited to do it. :)

    I'm Scottish and live in Aberdeen within walking distance of that university so things like travel and location are no problem. I was more interested in the BSc Physics rather than the Physics + Maths, but for some reason it doesn't show the syllabus for BSc Physics. Their website does say "We offer single hours degrees (e.g. BSc Physics), joint degrees (e.g. Maths-Physics) and combined degrees (e.g. Physics (75%) with Geology (25%))." So I'm going to get in contact with the University to find out more about the BSc Physics tomorrow. I'm hoping I can take extra classes to help with the math rather than having to take another year out to study it at A level.

    The other problem is that I'm not sure where to study only math and physics highers (scottish A levels), as the only course my college offers requires you to study for 5 or 6 highers at once rather than just the physics and math that I want. Depending on what the Uni says I may have do them.
  7. May 27, 2010 #6


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    I was going to say something about Aberdeen being a long way from anywhere.
    I don't know the uni but I have worked there a few times = I was one of the groups of guys sitting in the airport bar wearing fleeces with some offshore companies logo on them!

    That's becoming more common, the first couple of years is all background then you can pick what you want to specialise in. The thing to be careful of if there is particular speciality you are aiming for - is do they always have enough people to run it?
    If they offer physics + geology (for example) but in your year nobody (or not enough) people pick the geophysics option course then they don't run it. It means they look like a major department offering 20 different degrees but when you check they only have 15 students/year.

    Unis are generally pretty flexible when it comes to 'mature' students.
    The HND proves you can probably read and write so if you think you have enough maths they might just let you straight in.
    A level courses have been so watered down in the last few years (don't know about Scottish highers) that you might just be better going straight in. If you can't cope with the maths then either repeat the first year or drop out and do highers/international bac/AS levels to get upto speed.
    Try and talk to the the physics dept admissions guy/first year tutor/etc - if you are just around the corner it's easy to pop in and ask them.
    Don't worry too much if the recommended books/lecture notes seem out of reach if you look at them now - remember you are going to learn this stuff not already know it!
  8. May 27, 2010 #7
    Haha, It's not that far from places! It's relatively easy to travel from here to anywhere in the UK. Can I ask what you do for a living? It's nice that you get to travel like that.

    Good point. I never thought about that but I'll ask tomorrow.

    I hope that is the case. If I do really struggle with the math then hopefully I can take some extra classes in it where I have a choice of subjects. Thanks a lot for your help :)
  9. May 27, 2010 #8
    Heya mate, I'm just about to do my final exam and thus complete an MSci in Physics at a London Uni (endbio :P)

    Initially I have 2 things to say: firstly, 23 isn't to old for anything (except maybe playing with toddlers in the ballpit). I like your passion and desire, that'll take you a long way.

    Secondly, regarding your maths, the maths you will encounter in a Physics degree is, in my experience, far easier to digest than pure maths simply because by definition you can see the use for it in its application to modelling nature. In terms of books to do a bit of prep I would strongly recommend 'Engineering Mathematics' by R. A. Stroud. It covers pretty much all of the maths you'll come across in your first 2 years and is very accessible. Perhaps check it out of a library before buying a copy (unless there's a cheap one going on amazon ;) )

    I would say go for it, sounds like you'll really enjoy it. Ps happy to answer any other specific questions you might have :)
  10. May 27, 2010 #9
    Nope. The basic undergraduate physics degree is designed to teach you a language so that you can make statements about how the universe may or may not behave.

    You will likely leave the degree more confused about how the universe works than when you entered.
  11. May 27, 2010 #10


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    Used to work in technical consultancy, one client built DP systems and had their HQ up there.
    In that job I did everything from laser eye surgery machines to oil rig positioning.

    Thats the nice thing about physics, you can do everything from a Wall St to software to engineering.
  12. May 27, 2010 #11
    I'm sorry if I have missed anything from your posts - I just wanted to post as someone who has been all the way through the Scottish system.

    Firstly, are you applying for this year? If so, you're late - applications for undergraduate positions are normally submitted ~january, though clearing will open in August. Second: from what I know of applying to undergraduate - they require a B or greater in Higher Mathematics, unless you have equivalent mathematical knowledge from your HND, which I would guess is unlikely.

    If you're applying for a 2011 start then I would contact a local college about taking higher maths as an evening class. If, however, you're applying for this year, it would be worth looking around local colleges and seeing if any of them offer equivalent mathematics courses over the summer - and asking the university admissions group if they would accept this.

    Feel free to PM me if you ever have any other questions.
  13. May 27, 2010 #12
    23 is certainly not too late to get started. I finally got serious about getting my degree at 28 and just finished my Associates (I'm in the USA - it's a 2-year degree) and am starting on my Bachelor's degree in Physics this summer.

    I would definitely recommend that you at least brush up on your math. I'm not sure how much algebra/trig/calculus you know, but from my understanding here in the US, you need to know calculus in order to do Physics. I had to start over at algebra just to make sure I had a good foundation for doing the rest of it. If I were you, I would start reviewing/learning this stuff on my own or get classes going to review it. Trust me, if you don't use it you lose it, and something tells me you haven't been using it, since you are concerned.

    I have been impatient to get my degree and having to pretty much start at the beginning of the math was frustrating, but now I am so much more determined. The math classes have really helped my logical and problem-solving abilities, and I feel very confident now that I will be able to really succeed at my Physics classes because I will have that strong foundation.

    Good luck to you! Just keep your long-term goal in mind and keep going in that direction! I feel just as excited about learning about the universe as you do. Keep that enthusiasm!
  14. May 27, 2010 #13
    That book looks like exactly what I was looking for, thanks man. And good luck with your exam!

    I was hoping to apply for this year, but depending on what the Uni advises me it could be next year. If it is next year then that gives me plenty of time to work on my math and maybe physics too, also I'd be able to continue working and save up money for when I do start.

    Thanks for the advice. You're right about if you don't lose it you lose it! I think it will be easier than learning everything again from the beginning though as I'm sure things like trig/quadtratic equations are still in my head somewhere. I wish I had this enthusiasm a few years ago when I left school. I believe anyone can learn anything if they're interested and care about it enough!

    Our two descriptions seem to be the same. :)
  15. May 27, 2010 #14
    I agree with twofish-quant, it is just really mundane mathematics, not much exciting theories you see on science channels. Unless you are able to see the beauty of the mathematics behind it, it is really a waste of time.
  16. May 27, 2010 #15
    I think it is easier second time around. However, sometimes I found that I remembered just enough to get myself into trouble, so be careful to practice something a few times before you say "oh, sure, I remember how to do that!" and move on. Good luck to you!
  17. May 27, 2010 #16
    My drive to do this isn't coming from watching a documentary on discovery science last week, if that's what you think. I do really want to learn the 'science' behind it and have done for years.
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