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Physics major general career and academics help

  1. Sep 20, 2014 #1
    Hello everyone,

    First post here, so let me introduce myself. My name is Cameron Roberts, as I believe will show next to my post. I currently study at the University of Alabama as a Physics major with a somewhat undecided minor. I intend to get my Ph.D and work on the Bose-Einstein Condensate.

    On to my questions now: I was wondering what minor would be most beneficial for me, what I should be doing during my undergraduate years to prepare for graduate school, and what I should be expecting as far as graduate admissions. For the minor, I've told my advisor I want to minor in Computer Science. I love the field, thought about majoring in it, but like Physics much better, and so went with that. That's still capable of changing as far as I'm concerned. Having a working knowledge of algorithms and implementation, if not a full knowledge of coding, would be helpful to a Physicist, but I'm not certain it's the best. Does anyone have a better suggestion with a reason why? As to my undergraduate activities, I want to know what societies, clubs, internships and such I should be trying to do. I'd heard there was a test, whose score will help place me in a graduate program (or bar me therefrom) and was wondering what the scores I need would be, and the relative difficulty of the test. Finally, as to what to expect from graduate programs, I want to go directly to work on my Ph.D, but would like to hear about the Master's degree as well, and what to expect from both in forms of coursework, theses and such.

    Any information at all is much appreciated. I can add more information about my current situation or goals if required.

    Thank you all very much!
  2. jcsd
  3. Sep 20, 2014 #2
    Hello Cameron! First post of mine as well. Pleased to reply to your first thread! I recently just came out of the undergraduate realm of physics myself so I hope I can be of some help. Let's get down to the fun stuff!

    If you can handle the courseload I can say that a Computer Science minor would be extremely helpful. An understanding of programming will immensely help you in the long run if not immediately. You can also, if you are so inclined, write programs to further your understanding of physics (along with programming) by testing the limits of a physical situation. Something to keep in mind is, like anything, if you don't continue to flex your computer science muscles after taking all of the classes, you will gradually forget techniques and syntax. With that in mind, I would perhaps take a single computer science course to test the waters and make sure you are genuinely interested in it enough to devote the time to it while performing to the best of your ability in your physics courses. If you believe in any way the computer science courses could lower your performance in your physics courses, my advice would be to learn programming on your time later.

    To be a successful physicist you are by no means required to have a minor. It is much more important that you focus and perform well in the more difficult upper level physics courses.

    As far as the big ole' test if you want to go to graduate school specifically for physics, that would be the Physics GRE subject test. I wouldn't even think about it until you start the upper level courses. That test requires a different sort of studying than normal in that you study specifically for that test as opposed to studying for an understanding of the physics involved.

    As far as activities, get to know people! This is a HUGE advantage that college has. The amount of knowledge in any physics department is staggering. Talk to the professors, ask them about their research even if you aren't interested in it. Talk to astrophysicists, biophysicists, high energy physicists, etc. Learn about the field you love so much and learn why others love their specialty. It can inspire and help you find out why exactly you love what you love which is an important thing to know for Statements of Purpose but again that's a little down the road.
  4. Sep 20, 2014 #3
    Glad I can spur your first comment as well! Thank you for responding :)

    The courseload already is a bit difficult, but I'm attributing a decent amount of this to the fact that I've never had to study for classes, nor had such large amounts of home work. As this year progresses, this should hopefully ease up. As it is though, I use my knowledge of java to help with homework and to model situations (I have a simple program that computes net forces and gives me the acceleration resultant, for instance). I definitely understand the need to flex the knowledge after the classes.

    Okay, it's good to know that the GRE shouldn't be looming over my proverbial horizon just yet, but in the mean time, should I be creating tutorials and lists of equations for the work I do now, so when I do begin studying I can go back over the basic information if necessary? If so, I'll end up compiling this list as part of my studying for my final (two birds, one stone).

    I'll certainly get to know people. My PH105 professor, while probably not the most devoted to Physics in the department, is still a great source to start, so I'll begin with him. High Energy physics is also fairly interesting, I'll make sure to track someone in the field down, and attempt to interact with them (neutrino joke, couldn't help it).

    Any other helpful information for me while I'm still early in the game? :)

    Thank you again!
  5. Sep 20, 2014 #4
    Holding off until you get used to the courseload I'd say would be the best idea for now. The worst thing you could do is overwhelm yourself to the point where your enjoyment of the material and your emotional health suffer. I did that to myself early on and it was a terrible experience. I'm not saying that you'll have the same experience as me but it's still a good idea to take it slow in the beginning to get used to the amount of work required.

    Awesome job already writing programs to help with your physics study! Incredibly useful tool to nail down the concepts. As far as should you create tutorials or lists of equations, I would say if it cements your knowledge of the course material then absolutely. On that list you can mark which equations the professor seems to put significant emphasis on because chances are those are ones that will be tested.

    Getting to know that professor would be a good start definitely. If they are also part of another department you could ask them how their interests and research are relevant to both departments. That would give you a better idea of how physics is related to other fields. One of the most valuable things I learned while going through my education was that physics is not an isolated field. All scientific fields are relevant to physics and vice versa. No field is isolated and I think it would be a disadvantage to anyone working within a field to think otherwise.

    Only other thing I can think of at the moment is to remember to have fun with it. Find other clubs and students who share your other interests as well. Just because you love physics and want to be a physicist doesn't mean you can't enjoy the other areas of life. Learn an instrument, draw, read fiction, play sports. Even though those seem irrelevant to physics, they actually make life more enjoyable and by extension make you enjoy physics that much more!
  6. Sep 21, 2014 #5
    Well so far, my roommates are all very good about getting work done on time, so I've caught a bit of their better habits and am handling the work load well.

    They're very useful, and the syntax isn't very hard for them (as opposed to sorting algorithms D: ). I was thinking of using the lists and tutorials more for the GRE, and their compilation as studying.

    Ill definitely look into as many fields of physics as possible, I'd noticed the bleedover from bio and chem at the least, but it would make sense that it was more universal.

    Thank you very much for the advise, Vannay, you've been extremely helpful :)
  7. Sep 22, 2014 #6


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    Staff: Mentor

    "Extracurricular activities" are not a significant factor in graduate school admissions (unlike for undergraduate in the US), so don't pile on activities just for the sake of buffing up your applications. The only exceptions are things that are directly related to things you'll be doing in grad school: research, tutoring (because most grad students work as teaching assistants for a while), etc.

    If your university has a Society of Physics Students chapter, that would be helpful just from the point of view of meeting other students, and hopefully doing some fun/interesting activities.
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