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Plan of action (undergraduate)

  1. Nov 15, 2014 #1
    Hello, I'm a freshman physics and math double major, and would like to eventually be a theoretical physicist, though, of course, it is still early so my career ambitions may change. At this point many of my goals are rooted moreso in what seems appealing to me than in practical considerations. As may be inferred, I've many uncertainties as to what may be pragmatic or at least realistic regarding my ambitions. Here, I will try to elucidate by giving some of my personal history and future goals. I hope I'm able to provide an accurate enough picture to acquire the most useful feedback possible. If anymore details are necessary, I'll do my best to provide them upon request.
    If any of the following seems a bit incoherent, I apologize. I find myself constantly readjusting my personal narrative.
    My history:
    As a young child, I was very interested about natural phenomena and mathematics and quickly developed skills in math and science. As I went through school, I became more concerned with my inability to fit in and consequently lost interest in pursuing knowledge. In response, I averted my attention to mindless activities such as internet and television to nullify negative thoughts. Over my 1st through 11th grade career I averaged at least eight hours per day on such brainless activities and ran on very little sleep. Scholarly endeavors didn't really become much a priority until senior year of high school. Since I had never read a book and was told by a previous teacher that my writing was barely at a 5th grade level, I made learning to read and write the main focus of that year, but also took the liberty to take my first advanced courses in math and sciences. Due to this big jump, my initial performance was very poor, but I've made good progress. I finished my final semester with a B average and managed to get into a good college on a contingency contract. I originally didn't have the mental endurance to study more than an hour or so per day, but I am currently studying about nine hours per day, seven days per week.

    As of now, I would say that my math and physics background is next to none, as senior year was such a large jump that it was much more about learning how to handle challenges and break my bad habits than an environment in which I could comfortably learn foundational material.

    I am enrolled in precalculus and conceptual physics this semester and am taking Calc I and my first calculus based physics course next semester. Since my skills are far behind, I 've only taken 14 hours this semester and 13 next semester, so that I may have time to independently study and develop fundamental skills and a decent knowledge base before taking on a more rigorous course load. I devote the vast majority of my free time to independently studying math and physics.

    Tentative future plans:
    I would like to get into a top tier graduate school, such as MIT, CalTech, etc.

    I would like to be a theoretical physicist.

    I am least certain about the practicality of this one, but I think it would be interesting acquiring Ph.Ds in both physics and mathematics.

    What steps should I take to ensure that I'm ready to meet these challenges?

    Thank you to all those who help. It is appreciated verily.
  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 15, 2014 #2


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    Staff: Mentor

    You might want to shorten this to be more specific. A long wall of text usually does not get replies.
  4. Nov 16, 2014 #3
    Thank you for the advice. I can't seem to find a way to edit the OP. Should I create a new thread with the revised version?
  5. Nov 16, 2014 #4


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    Staff: Mentor

    Try just re-stating your key questions/concerns in your next post in this thread. You can leave your first post with your history.
  6. Nov 16, 2014 #5
    I have very little knowledge of math and physics, and I've started my freshman year in college with precalculus and conceptual physics. I am willing to work hard and dedicate myself to study in order to improve, but I'm not sure how realistic/practical my goals are, so I would like advice regarding the best plan of action to take and a reality check on my ambitions.

    Here are some goals I've considered:
    Attend graduate school in physics and mathematics at a top tier institution.
    Pursue a Ph.D. in both math and physics.
    Get a career in either physics or math. As of now, theoretical physicist seems most appealing.
  7. Nov 16, 2014 #6


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    I don't think you can really know that you want to do theoretical physics or physics for that matter if all you have taken is pre algebra and conceptual physics. Theoretical physics is not at all like how it appears in popular culture and on television programs like NOVA with Brian Greene talking about string theory. Many people I knew in high school or middle school who claimed to be interested in physics only knew about topics like cosmology or string theory or trying to find the "theory of everything". Most theoretical physicists don't study these topics. In fact a lot of the most interesting work involving quantum phenomena and quantum field theoretic techniques is in condensed matter in fields like high Tc.

    Getting into a top grad school is difficult for anyone. If you aspire to do it, you will have to work especially hard since you are very behind in your coursework. Perhaps you should take an extra year in undergrad. Most people who go on to top physics PhD programs start with at least multivariable calculus and calculus based physics. I had actually already taken AP physics C in high school so I took an honors version of the introductory course.

    Getting a PhD is about becoming an expert in a specific area. People don't get PhDs in two subjects in general. There are some physicists who do very mathematical work (I know one who string theorist who does incredibly mathematical work and was at one point thinking about getting a PhD in math).
  8. Nov 16, 2014 #7
    Thank you for this. My interests, of course, are tentative and quite honestly I have no clue what I would like to specialize in. I figured it would be good to have a position named for some concrete goal.

    I've considered another year of undergrad, but would that help my chances of getting into grad school? I was under the impression that students who complete college in short periods of time maintain an advantage in applications.

    I wasn't sure about this. Thanks for the info.
  9. Nov 16, 2014 #8


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    Taking a another year won't be counted against you if you use the time well. If it allows you to do more research and take more advanced classes that will just make your application stronger.
  10. Nov 16, 2014 #9
    I think radium has nailed it right here. It is good to look ahead, to dream a bit, and to make very tentative plans, but I would discourage getting nearly as far into the planning at you appear to have already done.

    Let me tell you my story. I went off to college eons ago, planning to study mechanical engineering (although I really knew very little about it). My first physics course was in mechanics, strictly classical physics. I loved it, and I thought maybe I should be a physics major. This idea was promoted by the physics teacher who looked down on engineers severely. So I changed majors to physics, and later to math. It took me about 2-1/2 years to get back to engineering where I should have been all along. I have been doing classical mechanics for something over 50 years now, but I had to find my way back to engineering to do it (physicists don't do much today in this area).

    My point is simply look for the kind of things that really interest you, and go where that leads you. If it is graduate school, OK, fine; it is is automechanics training, that is also just fine (we need both).
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