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Should I Also Study Math? Also panic attack and "woe is me"

  1. Apr 27, 2015 #1
    Hello Physics Forums.

    So I haven't been on here for a very long time, so hello again.

    I am currently a first year at a university in Canada and am to declare my specialization in the coming months. I came into university expecting I'd want to do a degree in physics and astronomy, but over the course of the year I've learned that I'd rather do the combined honours in physics and mathematics, as I learned how much I actually enjoyed my honours maths courses. However, math was also my lowest grade, and overall (because of a plethora of personal reasons), my grades (especially the first semester) were awfully sub-par. I had ~10% over the average in all my courses, but this still only amounts to an 80% average (which could hardly be considered "competitive"). I should clarify that I know this isn't a god-awful average and that it doesn't mean the end of the world, but it doesn't seem to be the best for getting into a good grad school, research scholarships, etc.

    My questions are essentially:
    - Should I do a combined honours in physics and mathematics even though the (honours) maths courses here are notoriously difficult and GPA destroyers? I also discovered my love for maths a lot later than it seems everyone else doing a math major that I've met, so they've had time to nurture their interest and often have knowledge of some rather high-level maths via autodidacticism, so I feel behind my class. I want a realistic answer: what would this really do for me? What could I do with a physics and maths degree that I couldn't do with purely a physics degree? My highest mark this semester will likely be my experimental physics course (high A+), which is something emphasized in honours physics but not in honours physics and maths. Another option I have is honours physics and computer science but basically everyone I know doing this major turns up to work for some software company whereas I'd much rather emphasize the physics part of my degree (I'm not too interested in computer science, but I understand it's a very powerful major). I've also been told by my brother (who is a computer science PhD student) that it's a lot easier to pick up maths now and computer science later than the other way around. I want to know what I can look forward to after obtaining each of these degrees (and which ones are realistic for me). I would love to go into academia, but I honestly feel like my chances are slim, that I'm not cut out because of the fierce competition, etc... I never cared much about job prospects in high school when I thought about what I wanted to study (as long as I liked it), but I think reality has hit me in the face like a freight train in the past few months.
    I also don't know how competitive the physics and maths honours program is, so fingers crossed that I'm even accepted.
    - Engineering physics is a big deal at my school, and generally gets a lot of hype. With that comes an awful, awful pretentious atmosphere about this major. It's also the most competitive specialization at my school and I feel like the entire physics department sometimes gets overshadowed by them. I didn't apply for them because I didn't like the attitude that most people had about it and I just never in my life wanted to be an engineer (I want to be a physicist, dammit!) and the applications deadline is now past. In retrospect, I probably would have been declined anyway. I guess again my question is, what does a physics and maths honours (or even just physics) program have that eng phys does not? Engineering in the public eye often gets the visage of being able to do anything, so it's honestly hard to tell sometimes. There are also some companies here that primarily seem to attract eng phys students, like nuclear energy startups. I'm very interested in the theoretical side of such things (nuclear energy). Would I have any ounce of a chance getting some kind of internship at such companies against the eng phys students that inevitably apply there? Did I make a mistake by so stubbornly refusing to go into engineering? I sometimes wonder that, simply because they seem to get all the job prospects.
    - I'm sure I have others but I'll save the space so as to not give you too much of a wall of text. I'll ask later if I remember. But basically, I'm very much stressed about what I am going to do. I know I want to study physics. I know I love maths, but I'm also rather terrible at it. What should I do?

    Cheers, and sorry for the wall of text (and sorry for any melodrama),
    Last edited: Apr 27, 2015
  2. jcsd
  3. Apr 27, 2015 #2


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    You could go to math grad school and become a mathematician or mathematical physicist. That's about it.
  4. Apr 27, 2015 #3
    Well that's depressing. Not even anything in finance?
    Thanks for the response.
  5. Apr 27, 2015 #4


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    Most jobs in finance require a quantative degree, which means that people in physics can apply. Some posters in this forum have indicated they got into a finance job with only a physics degree.
    I'm also quite sure that you can study actuary with only a physics degree (in my country you can anyway), if you're willing to learn some (not so difficult) math.
  6. Apr 28, 2015 #5
    I wouldn't necessarily base my decisions on your current performance. Even if your competitors are ahead, you cannot let the vagaries of chance interfere with obtaining what you want.

    Becoming a professional physicist is pretty challenging and luck dependent. For the majority of physics subfields, it seems that borrowing from the CS department adds more to one's research than borrowing from the math department; in fact, the latter only seems to have much influence on a tiny sliver of subfields. Nobody has a silver bullet for becoming a professor, but at the very least it seems that one needs to make a major contribution. These days I see more groups getting results for introducing something like machine learning into their work than something like differential geometry.

    So if your goal is to be a physicist, aim for it, accept that you will probably fail, and still try to optimize your chances as best you can. I started with mathematics and quickly switched to CS as my main source of non-physics knowledge for this reason. I don't know yet how it will pan out.
    Last edited: Apr 28, 2015
  7. Apr 29, 2015 #6
    Thank you for the response, Arsenic&Lace.

    May I ask if you completed a degree with mathematics and did a CS program after or if you are switching your undergrad to CS?
    I've thought about it a bit and since I took CS, did reasonably well but hated it (though I have learned some CS by myself, and some of it is all right), I'm wondering if it would be reasonable for me to continue with a combined degree in physics and mathematics, but take a handful of software construction electives and one in numerical approximation and discretization (CS course). If after my undergrad I get a place at a good university/advisor to do a PhD in (mathematical) physics, I'll pursue that, but otherwise will do something in CS (there are accelerated programs here that take about a year to get some form of a CS qualification for those with quantitative science degrees).
  8. Apr 29, 2015 #7
    I started with a dual major in physics/mathematics, but then rapidly dropped the mathematics major as I had no interest in taking more proof oriented courses, since these are not useful to a physicist. I chose to work in a computational physics lab which is where I obtained all of my CS skills as an undergraduate, and will take CS courses in graduate school (machine learning for instance). I would recommend that unless there is a chance that you will pursue graduate studies in a mathematics or CS field that is not closely related to physics (e.g. number theory, artificial intelligence) that you avoid the double major since you will need to sit through core courses in the subject you might not be interested in. I took a course in applied partial differential equations and could have done so without advanced calculus or a basic proof writing/mathematical structures course, for example, and I would have been much happier had I not taken the latter courses (I am the sort of person who dislikes working on anything he is not interested in. I don't know if you're like that). The actual degree is not worth it unless you intend to pursue math or CS for graduate school or want an industry job only obtainable with a CS degree. Better to focus on research and pick only courses you really want out of math or CS like applied PDE's or data structures (a course I wish I had taken).
  9. Apr 29, 2015 #8
    To be honest, this year I have enjoyed my maths courses even more than my physics courses (but the actual concepts in physics fascinate me more). I'm not particularly interested in computer science, but I think it would be enormously useful to me regardless. Maths, however, is the opposite: I am currently infatuated with maths, but am uncertain how much it would actually benefit me. If I do pursue graduate studies in maths, it will almost certainly be in something related to physics, though. Thanks for the advice; I shall consider purely a physics degree.

    P.S. If it makes any difference, it's a combined major/honours, not a dual major, which has a fair distinction, at least at my school. Perhaps think of it less as a dual degree in physics and mathematics and more a degree in mathematical physics (not sure if this does it justice). Many of my math courses will require proofs, but I am not actually required to do a mathematical proof course. The courses I would take in comparison to if I did a straight physics major would be that my math courses would be much more abstract, a little less applied, and a hell of a lot harder, basically. The actual material being covered doesn't change a heck of a lot, though physics majors are not required to take real analysis, whereas physics/maths takes minimum two theory-based courses and one applied analysis course (they both do minimum one complex analysis course).
  10. Apr 30, 2015 #9
    Well if you enjoy it then you may as well do it, right? For me I enjoy research vastly more than courses, and because proofy math courses are irrelevant to physics they felt like a waste of time to me. But one of the things I've learned is to focus on optimizing your happiness rather than success; if CS courses do not improve your happiness, you should not pursue them.

    As long as you are satisfied with what a mathematical physicist actually does (i.e. stuff that is ignored by most physicists, for better or worse) and are thoughtful about why something makes you happy there's no reason not to take that route.
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