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Programs Scared of starting Physics degree, advice?

  1. Oct 26, 2016 #1
    Hi guys...

    I am starting university in about two weeks.
    Last year my physics teacher was very good, and he caused me to be interested in physics.
    I started reading Feynman and he also made it sound really interesting.
    My parents are programmers so it was assumed I will study that. But I felt no particular passion for it (admittedly, I didn't program much) so when I had to choose my major, I chose Physics with a minor in programming.
    But now, I am registering for classes and I am so so scared.
    I feel that I am too stupid for physics and I'm going to fail.
    When I told my teacher I might sign up for physics he was happy but he said "remember, it is a very hard major" and I feel like he meant it is too hard for me.
    I don't know what to do, I don't know how to relax.
    I had a good grade in Physics but of course it wasn't university level!
    How can I succeed in this degree? Please help!

    *When I read reviews of previous students at this university, they all say it was very hard, someone even wrote it was "hell". I am scared to death. I feel like computer science could be way easier but I can't change my major at this point anymore. And I feel like maybe studying something just because it's easier is not so good.
  2. jcsd
  3. Oct 26, 2016 #2


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    You are worrying the wrong way. Physics is hard, but this only means (1) some courses are prerequisites for those Physics courses, and (2) studying will require focused, lengthy, highly attentive effort.

    Stop being scared. You will just need to work hard and work at it/study regularly, like nearly every day.

    Further, you do not need to choose Physics as your major field. You COULD choose something else or related, such as Engineering or Chemistry or Food Technology...

    Note, as if you did not already know: Physics and all sciences require significant amount of Mathematics knowledge (Algebra, Trigonometry, Calculus, some logic).
  4. Oct 26, 2016 #3
    Thanks for the reply.

    I will do my best to study hard every day. I made my schedule so I have some space between classes where I can go to the library because it's way easier to study there than at home.

    Oh yeah, the math courses in physics also seem a bit scary...
    This year, I have:
    Linear algebra for physics
    "applied" math (not sure how to say in English)

    I did Calculus I and II last year.
  5. Oct 26, 2016 #4
    Without knowing your school or an indication of your real preparedness for college (ACT scores, etc.), it is hard to know how hard it might be for you.

    I had a 32 on the ACT (96th percentile) and majored in Physics at LSU (nationally ranked 80 or so). It was hard for me. Really hard. I studied 50-60 hours per week, every week.

    I was also very anxious about success. My concerned worked for me, because I channeled it into organization and hard work. Channel your anxiety into hard work, give it a couple semesters, and see how you do. If you worked hard at high school math through Pre-Calc, you have a good chance of success. If you develop a habit of procrastination or partying, I do not foresee a favorable outcome.
  6. Oct 26, 2016 #5
    People tend to psych themselves out when it comes to physics classes. If you get a dollar for every time you hear "Wow, you must be really smart!" you'd be able to pay for college yourself.

    I agree with Dr. Courtney, same ACT score but went to a school that was ranked way lower. 50-60 hours per week is a normal week, but you will have 80-hour weeks sometimes. Are you okay with that?
  7. Oct 27, 2016 #6
    I am studying abroad, but my SAT was not that good (2070).
    Calculus was not too hard for me.
    I don't party, but I have this thing when I am anxious I just freeze up and stare at my homework and don't understand anything.
  8. Oct 27, 2016 #7
    Actually, part of what makes me anxious is like you said - when I tell people I am going to study Physics, they are like "wow that's heavy".

    I am already prepared to have no life, so yes, I am okay with the hours. XD
    Just scared of sitting 80 hours and not understanding anything...

    I have my first class next week so hopefully after meeting the other students I'll relax a little.
  9. Oct 27, 2016 #8


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    There are more important things in life to worry about than whether or not you'll be able to finish your selected major.

    Go to your courses, if you wash out, you wash out; conversely, if you succeed, you succeed. You shouldn't need some kind of reassurance beyond that.
  10. Oct 27, 2016 #9


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    That is like being scared to run 10 kilometers while you had not yet spent time developing condition to make 1.5 kilometers. You do not run the 10 kilometers on the first day; you run( even if slowly) maybe 1 to 1.5 km a few times a week, and build upward after a couple of weeks, and keep building...
  11. Oct 27, 2016 #10
    Active studying is much better than passive. I estimate that my learning was about 3X more effective if my pencil was moving than if I was just looking/reading. I didn't just review my notes after class, I recopied them. I didn't just read examples in the book, I either copied them, or copied the first couple of steps, closed the book, and tried to work them from there. And of course, there are problem sets: lots of problem sets.

    When you freeze up, the best way to un-freeze and start using time productively is to get that pencil moving.

    When you read a problem and are feeling stuck (don't know what to do), here are a few things you can always do to get started:

    1. Draw a picture or diagram of the physical arrangement. Identify given quantities and knowns on the picture. If there are forces, draw a free body diagram and identify all the forces. Use arrows for all the vectors. After you complete the picture, read the whole problem statement again and consider whether the picture is correct.

    2. Identify the general principle of physics needed to solve the problem. Think big and in words rather than "what equation do I need?" Vector addition, Newton's 2nd Law, Definition of Velocity, Definition of Acceleration, Constant g, Conservation of Energy, Work-Energy Theorem are examples of general principles in 1st semester physics.

    3. Write down a bullet point plan for solving the problem before writing down equations. Often your steps will look something like:
    * Convert given quantities to SI units
    * Choose a coordinate system and add it to diagram.
    * Compute (or express) x and y components of all the vectors
    --Compute means you have number and units Vxi = 3 m/s. Express means you have symbols: Vxi = Vx cos(theta)
    * Use Vyi to compute time projectile goes up
    * Use Vyi and time moving upward to compute peak height
    * Use peak height and final height to compute time coming down
    * Compute total flight time
    * Use total flight time and Vxi to compute flight distance

    4. Execute your plan with equations and numbers. Take care with units.
    5. Assess your answers: does it make sense? Are sign and magnitude reasonable? Are units right?

    If you get stuck and do not know what to do, take the first few steps and at least do the things you do know how to do.

    Delay considering "What equation do I need?" until after you have drawn a picture, identified important principles, and computed components of all the vectors. Avoid formula roulette in favor of understanding.
  12. Oct 27, 2016 #11


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    It's important to know yourself, your strengths and your limitations. I would be cautious about getting drawn into a long-hours culture. Some people thrive on long hours but others, and I'm speaking more from experience in a working environment than university, do not. Especially if working continually long-hours is affecting your health and well-being, you need to back off and accept your limitations.

    Personally, I could never work 80 hours a week. And certainly not try to learn for 80 hours a week. My personal limit, I've found, is about 48 hours. That's six 8-hour days with a day's complete mental rest per week.

    Now, that doesn't suit everyone either. But you need to be careful not to judge yourself but what others can do. If you're still working at 10pm and enjoying it and still taking it all in, then why not? But, if you are getting increasingly tired and muddled and even starting to unlearn what you learned during the productive part of your day, you need to stop and call it a day. Try to judge by your productivity not by the number of hours you have sat at a desk.

    Finally, I'd just say good luck. If you give it your best shot, what's the worst that can happen?
  13. Oct 27, 2016 #12
    Last edited by a moderator: May 8, 2017
  14. Oct 27, 2016 #13
    I think you will be fine. I don't know a single person who put in the work necessary for a physics degree and didn't do well because they "weren't smart enough".
  15. Oct 27, 2016 #14
    I share a bit of what you are feeling. I had a SAT score of 1100 ( which is really bad compared to yours) and i was never close to a smart person. But here i am a sophomore of physics at the best university in the region. Okey they load us with a lot of work to do but i manage it and i am doing pretty well for now.
    If you can spend some time studying, it would be really easy.
    I have a bad habit of procrastination( for example browsing PF while i have a physics exam that i did not study for ). So last month we had a physics exam on the hardest part of the course( that's what he prof. said) and i studied it all in one day! I did nearly no exercices, knew only haalf of the material and got a 50, which is a failing grade but i learned the lesson and now i am studying prior to exams and doing really well.

    That post is not here to make you worry, just two points:
    _ physics is not only for geniuses
    _everything is easy if you put some time for it.

    Good luck.
  16. Oct 27, 2016 #15
    Unfortunately, no. You can spend 100 hours studying a week, and physics will still be hard. However, I'd say that understanding is attainable if you put time for it.
  17. Oct 27, 2016 #16
    I totally agree. Sitting there and solving just the easy parts of the material is just a waste of time. You have to concentrate and try to understand everything.
  18. Oct 27, 2016 #17
    Some physics will not be easy no matter how much time you dedicate to it, or how hard you try to understand it. Maybe as a sophomore you haven't encountered anything like this yet, but you will.
  19. Oct 30, 2016 #18
    What areas did you find hard. I don't think that understanding something can be that impossible. What if i spent a total week or month studying this idea? I think that whatever it is i would be able to understand it at least.
  20. Oct 30, 2016 #19
    Physics is not about "understanding" as most people internalize the term. Physics is about being able to work challenging problems. You may think you "understand," but the reality is your level of understanding will nearly always be assessed by your ability to solve quantitative problems in a discipline.

    The value of weeks and months "studying this idea" depends on how many practice problems you work correctly in that time and the difficulty of those problems.

    In Physics, if your pencil is not moving, you are not really growing in your "understanding."
  21. Oct 30, 2016 #20


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    I don't think Dishsoap is claiming that said parts are "impossible" to understand - just very difficult. And that's compounded by the fact that with a full course load, a part-time job, a handful of extra-curricular activities, and generally taking good care of yourself, most students don't have a month to exclusively dedicate to one particular area.

    The biggest problem, in my experience was that you can encounter situations where due to time restrictions or other obligations you don't get to master the material to the degree with which you are comfortable. The understanding can come later with persistence, reflection and continued work in the field, but unfortunately it may not always be there when the mid-term roles around.
  22. Oct 30, 2016 #21


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    One thing I've noticed is that people who tend to take the time to write such reviews often have something to complain about. If you are enjoying your major and doing well in it, there is often less impetus to make such a declaration.

    Not to mention some students tend to exaggerate. I don't mean to suggest that one should not pay any attention to reviews. They have value. But look for specifics. If you have multiple people in agreement that the time required to complete assignments in a particular class is unreasonable - that's useful information and maybe something that you can bring to the attention of the professor. If one guys says that the class is "hell" that's not very helpful - since he could have arrived at that conclusion because he skipped one of the necessary prerequisite courses, or was still trying to get through it by cramming the night before his exams.

    Also, what do you mean that you can't change your major? Most schools in North America will allow you to change your major pretty easily. And first year courses are reasonably common for STEM majors, so once you get through the first year if it's not working the way that you expected you can change without having to stay for an extra year. If your school does not offer this kind of flexibility, you could consider enrolling elsewhere.
  23. Oct 31, 2016 #22
    well i am still in my first semester so my judgement is not that accurate. But I am starting to feel what you are talking about. To the OP , if you can, try talking the least courses you can first year or load it with some easy electives. I am taking an introduction to psychology as an elective and a course on programming which ar really sucking all time from my week (i have 50 pages to study each week in psych. and the programming course needs a lot of practice and challenges us with hard assignments). So really go around and try asking juniors and seniors about what courses go well in one semester.
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