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Plan to enter physics/math field in late 20's

  1. Jul 29, 2009 #1

    I'm in my late 20's and want to enter the field of physics or math. Just trying to get a general plan of how to go about accomplishing that.

    First, I'm good at math. Not only am I good at it, I love it. Physics too. I'm a qualified member of Mensa (I stopped paying the dues, seemed pointless) and am very familiar with at least undergraduate math (algebra, calculus, etc.).

    Money & time isn't an issue. I'm married and my wife makes very good money. She loves her job and is content to let me do whatever.

    I never went to college before. I accepted a decent job right out of high school and paid my wife's way through college & supported us. I suppose I could have gone part time or something, but I didn't really know what I wanted to do as a career back then. I never really found my love of math & physics until a couple years ago, I had a good job, at the time I didn't have a clue what I would study, so I figured why bother? In hindsight, a mistake, but what's done is done.

    Even though I'm good at math and have studied physics independently, I'm not under the delusion that I won't need an education. Therefore, my first goal is to acquire a bachelors of math and physics.

    I live in California, and the major university in my area I was considering (California State) isn't even accepting applications due to the California budget problems. So, I figure I'll go to a two year college and then transfer.

    What colleges have the best physics/math reputations in California? I'm assuming Caltech? I live a fair distance away from Caltech, and even though I did very well in high school I doubt they'd accept somebody like me who hasn't gone to college before, so I figured State was the way to go. Any other universities I should be considering?

    Are there any pure physics/math jobs I could get with a four year degree? If so, what kind? As I said, money and time aren't really an issue, so I could continue and get a masters or doctorate if need be. Would a masters or PHD be required for the true math/physics positions?

    Is there anything I'm overlooking? Any advice? Is there anything else I should be doing?

    Thanks, in advance.
    Last edited: Jul 30, 2009
  2. jcsd
  3. Jul 30, 2009 #2
    Are you sure Caltech would not accept someone like you? Do not assume anything, Perform an experiment and see if what you think is actually the case (a physics degree will get you thinking that way :-)

    In the UK many universities like to take on mature students, because they are are ..er.. more mature. They know what they want and life experience is always a bonus. Not sure if the US experience differs, but it's always worth trying...

    I've only flown into California for conferences, so I'm not really the one to give local advice! But from a long distance view -- Stanford, Berkeley, San Diego and Santa Barbara have good reputations for physics.
  4. Jul 31, 2009 #3
    I did the same thing, going back to math and physics....with a previous degree in kinesiology and no math since high school. I hope you stick it out, it has been very rewarding for me since I've gone back.
    I also independently studied math and physics some before hand. I consider my independent studies pretty rigorous..I was able to skip Calc I and take Calc II and Calc III at the same time my first semester, and my first Physics course was Modern Physics.
    But, even though I'm a big proponent of "it's the same book whether you read it or a prof tells you to," it seems that you always lose something on your own. Whether it be skipping over a section, skimming through a boring area, moving on even though you didn't quite master the last section, etc.

    Also...don't talk much about your self studies with your professors. lol I've never really mentioned it, just go to class and work hard. But from these forums and even from my time back in school....I've seen hundreds of people who've "self studied" and "want to be a physicist." The real bad ones are when the next sentence is, "I want to do string theory."
    I can only imagine how often Physics professors have someone barge into their office ready to work on M-theory without any education, or mail in their "theory of gravitation" without even spelling gravity correctly.

    One thing I really wish I would have done is REALLY understood algebra, trig, and college level geometry better when I started. I've done well in all my courses, but I can't begin to count how many times I've been stuck because of a basic algebraic manipulation that I wasn't quite sure was "legal," or some trigonometric identity that I didn't have fully ingrained in my head and I had to waste time on a test deriving it out.

    ESPECIALLY algebra. If you know algebra inside and out, backwards and forwards, in a different language, etc., etc., it makes things so much easier when you can just focus on the problem and have any algebra tricks go pen to paper with no extra thought.
    *This has been particularly apparent in my upper level courses. Once you get past Linear Algebra and Diff EQ and get into the abstract, proof focused courses, it seems that I'm using more basic algebra like "adding a well placed zero" by adding and subtracting an element or other algebraic shenanigans than I did in the lower level courses*
  5. Jul 31, 2009 #4
    first piece of advice: don't be so arrogant to presume you're "good at math." i'm sure any college student that has taken the calc sequence will run circles around you.

    second piece of advice: don't presume to be good enough for caltech.

    third piece of advice: go to class and study what they give you to study. then let the chips fall where they may when you apply to uni. you're very far removed from making a uni choice so it doesn't matter.
  6. Aug 1, 2009 #5
    Awesome, with this one paragraph you've proven you're not a crackpot.

    Ok, well there are pure research jobs you can take out of undergrad. You can work with a research group or, I bet, at a national lab or with the military. There are plenty of people who leave undergrad, go work with a research group for a year or two to strengthen their apps, and then apply to grad school. I don't know if this type of research commonly becomes permanent though. But it does happen from a student perspective.

    For undergrad, Berkeley has pretty sharp name brand recognition too, I'm assuming that comes with a great academic reputation and there's reason behind that.
  7. Aug 1, 2009 #6
    So lucky you are.:cool:
  8. Aug 2, 2009 #7


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    I am (or was) in a similar boat. I started school at 26, now I'm 29 and will graduate in December with a BS in math. Will be applying to grad school this fall/winter.

    Don't let the harsh comments here get you down; in particular ice109 seems to reply for the sole purpose of putting people down (does it make the slightest bit of sense to reply to someone who says "I doubt [Caltech would] accept somebody like me" by saying "don't presume to be good enough for caltech"???).

    Self study is tricky business. Personally, I find it MUCH more valuable than classes. If I had taken ice109's advice to "go to class and study what they give you to study. then let the chips fall where they may", I would be going nowhere fast. But, a lot of this has to do with my particular situation: I'm at a school that's not so hot and my advisor is not very knowledgeable, but I personally have a lot of motivation. (And even so I have time management issues.) Different people in different situations get different results. Of course the (pretty big) drawback is that all this self study I've done doesn't show up on my transcript and will be invisible to grad school admissions people (unless I mention it in my personal statement, where it probably still won't count for a whole lot), but I can deal with that.

    For what I would consider a "true" math/physics position, yes, a PhD is necessary.
  9. Aug 3, 2009 #8
    wow this is great im in a similar situation i actually put up a post for help but this is great! im 22 and am thinking about going into astronomy after working for a bank for 5 years then let go. MRB thank you for that reply
  10. Aug 4, 2009 #9
    If by "going into astronomy" you mean "becoming a professional astronomer" that's a bit like thinking about going into major league baseball. If you are prepared to work 12 hours a day, for ten years, at studying astronomy then you might just make it, if you have the talent.
  11. Aug 7, 2009 #10
    Whoa....you sound like my twin.

    Im 30, married to a wife that has a great job and is content to let me study whatever I want. My story is this: I was great at math right out of high school (took Calc I to III, Lin Algebra and Diff EQ while in high school at a local CC), I got into UCLA as a freshman and was set to do math in two years or double up with astrophysics in three to four years.

    But my freshman year was met with my first exposure to partying, alcohol and weed and I ended up getting put on academic probation, the I was subject to dismissal and finally dismissed from UCLA after the fall quarter of my sophmore year. Hell, I never even completed an upper division math class!

    I dropped out for three years, did odd jobs during that time and eventually worked my way back into UCLA and ended up one course shy of completing my BA in Sociology and Psychology (after 3 years of hard partying, etc...I just didnt feel like I retained enough math to continue with a science degree). I then went into sales for the next 3 years or so.

    At age 27 I realized that while sales was providing with a solid income, I just did not feel like I could do this for the rest of my life and really wanted to go back to school and do science. I originally went back to school with the idea of going into Pharmacy because drugs and the human body always fascinated me, but one summer and fall semester into my pre-pharm studies I had to "retake" Calculus 1 and trig based Mechanics (by this point it had been almost 15 years since I last took a math class), when that semester was over, I found my love for math and physics again.

    I was still taking bio and o-chem courses to try to get into Pharm school, but inside I was always kinda hoping I would get rejected so that I could continue with math and physics. I never finished taking the pre-pharm req classes and dove right into math and physics again, and now I'm accepted as a transfer student at UCI as a Math major and plan on picking up physics as a second major.

    My eventual plan is to go into grad school and getting a PhD in Physics and becoming a professor at a university and doing theoretical physics. Firstly, let me tell you that I think its benefited me to be the age I am now because not only am I more mature my mind is more mature than I was in my late teens. Retaking those lower div math and physics classes, I have been able to truly see what this all about (though I always did well in these classes when I was in high school, I felt like I did well because I was like a robot, just being able to 'mechanically' punch away at the problems and not really understanding why I was doing what I was doing), how it works and can appreciate it much better.

    I am so excited to start my upper div math courses next semester (I am taking junior level Linear Algebra, Abstract Algebra, Elementary Analysis and a course on writing proofs) and am really looking forward on starting upper division physics in future quarters.

    So extremely long story kinda short: if you have the opportunity to follow this, dont be intimidated by your age, go for it.

    I think you shouldn't discount the Cal State system because of the budget issues. In addition to getting into UCI, I also got into CalPoly and Long Beach State for Fall 09. If your looking to stay in so cal, my professors at my old community college tell me that Cal Poly, Long Beach, UCLA, UCI and UCSD are all great undergrad schools for math/physics
  12. Aug 22, 2009 #11
    Hi Hitmeoff,

    We're in the same situation, sort of. I loved math and science, going into college. But I was scared off from doing a major in it after having gotten a C+ in calculus III as a freshman as a result of being misplaced by the university placement exam. I had not even taken pre-calculus for God's sake!

    I came from a poor family and wanted to study business/law to make a lot of money so I could become a philanthropist and help poor families like mine, and I was afraid that if the C+ was to become a trend by studying math and science, I would never have a good GPA to get into business and law school.

    The irony of course is that I never went to either one! I never took another math class again, aside from being traumatized by my treatment in physics and chemistry. What I did not know at the time is that there are people who take advanced courses in college while in high school or at prep schools. Had I known the former, I would definitely have done it.

    Instead, I ended up getting a BA and an MA in economics and a PhD in industrial engineering. I liked economics because it entailed a lot of math, but they taught you the math you needed to do well in the classes. The same applied for industrial engineering, which is econ-based.

    In any case, I am about to complete my PhD in industrial engineering, and now I have decided to go back and study math and physics so I can become an electrical engineer. I am 35 and also have a very supportive spouse.

    I am going to have to start taking all the college math and physics courses that I dropped way back when. But I agree with you: Back then, I loved math and physics, but I was like a robot doing problem sets. Now, I truly understand the reasoning behind these classes, so I have a lot more perspective.

    I'm thinking of starting with the BSc, then going on to the MSc, when I complete the prerequisites, and maybe even doing a PhD. I know I will be in my early 40's when I am done. But what good is there in spending your life doing something that's OK, when you know you could be doing something that you love but may have given up for whatever reason?

    As far as we know, you only get to live once...

    [As an aside: For those of you who may not know, economists don't study the economy. They are mathematicians. In fact, they frown upon "practical" economists, those who use statistics to study economic behavior. If you want to learn about economics, you are better off in sociology / psychology / business / law.]
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