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Should I be taking easier classes?

  1. May 21, 2015 #1
    Just finished sophomore year of undergrad at a severely grade-inflated institution, and have been receiving relatively "low" grades for all but one semester. Since I first discovered my intense interest in physics freshman year, I've really been pushing myself to take more challenging courses. I elected to skip half the intro sequence for more advanced courses (atypical at my school), and I've done well in the grad courses I've taken. However my grades for physics undergrad classes are lackluster "at best". I don't find the material particularly challenging, and I'm confident I could ace my finals if they weren't one after another during finals period (this happened during the one semester I aced). My long term goals involve physics grad school (most likely theory). Have I completely shot myself in the foot with respect to grad school admissions? Moreover, should I start taking easier courses? On one hand I get a thrill out of taking these more challenging courses; on the other hand, I understand that grad schools can't exactly brush my less-than-flawless transcript under the rug and "do what you love" idealism has its limits.
  2. jcsd
  3. May 21, 2015 #2


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    It's hard to follow exactly what's going on here. You took graduate level courses as a sophomore? Normally one has to satisfy the prerequisites to get into graduate classes and if you're struggling with senior undergraduate classes, then it feels like maybe I'm missing something.

    If the problem is that you just don't do well when you're not feeling challenged, then it would seem that solving the problem by taking something that is less challenging would be counter-productive. Perhaps you just need to find challenge elsewhere. Now might be a good time to ask around at your school and get involved in a research project.
  4. May 21, 2015 #3
    Thank you for the response Choppy. I recently took a position with a lab group, and I will keep your advice in mind over the next semester.

    With respect to your inquiry about prerequisites, they are rarely enforced here, as the students who skip tend to self-study the material. I have been a little more conservative with grad courses in that I've only taken grad courses for which I've met all the prereqs (through upper division undergrad courses). I've been a bit more willing to push the envelope in skirting prereqs for upper division undergrad classes because they tend to reintroduce material from prereq courses.
  5. May 21, 2015 #4


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    Which prereqs have you skipped and which courses have you taken? Also, how many courses do you typically take a semester.

    I found that I did better when I took fewer courses. I would take three physics courses, one other course, and spend a lot of time doing research. That allowed me to be under less stress during the exam period and focus on really learning the material.

    I would also not recommend skipping too many prereqs as it can catch up to you later on. I saw a lot of sophomores this semester skip a very important undergrad course (which is required at every other institution that I know of) in favor of taking the grad course. I don't know how they ended up doing, but it was clear from the questions they asked in class that they had never seen the material before and may not have understood it very well (which was also very frustrating for grad students as we all had the background required for this course).
  6. May 21, 2015 #5
    Thanks for the response radium. I usually take four courses a semester: two physics, one math, and a distribution requirement.

    Courses Taken (and prereqs skipped)
    Intro Mechanics (*skipped vector calc; taken the following semester)
    Electrodynamics (upper-level undergrad, skipped Intro E&M and Intro Waves/Optics prereqs)
    Quantum Mechanics I (skipped intro waves/optics prereq)
    Hamiltonian Mechanics (upper-level undergrad, skipped intro waves/optics prereq)
    Electrodynamics (grad, *skipped complex analysis and Special Relativity)
    Stat Mech (upper-level undergrad)

    *self-studied the corresponding chapter from Boas before the course

    Looking back, skipping the intro waves/optics course really hurt during upper-level electrodynamics (wave propagation in matter), but wasn't a problem by the time I had taken QM, upper-div mechanics, or grad electrodynamics since I had "picked it up" by then. At least in terms of physics courses, my options now are to continue with grad courses (QFT, GR, Cosmology) and upper-div undergrad courses (Advanced Optics) next year or satisfy my remaining degree requirements with either basic courses (Intro to waves) or intermediate-level courses (Fluid Dynamics, AMO, Solid State, etc). I guess my main concern is since I'm attending such a grade-inflated institution, most of my cohort will have near-4.0s from following the proper intro sequence and taking fewer upper-div courses (and probably no grad courses). This makes me want to kick myself for being so overly ambitious, as I'm struggling to break a 3.8 advertised elsewhere on the site for grad school.
  7. May 23, 2015 #6


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    Have you taken grad quantum mechanics? You should definitely take that before QFT. At a lot of schools (MIT and Harvard are the main culprits I can think of) it seems like it is basically a race to QFT and people think it means that you are smarter the earlier you take it. This is not true and also not a good mindset. While people will defend their choice by saying grad quantum is not really needed, I would argue that you do really need it if you want to go beyond the motions and really understand the material. Honestly if one is to take a QFT course during undergrad, I would only do it during senior year. You get so much more out of it the more prior knowledge you have. QFT and statmech are also intimately related, which someone who doesn't know much stat mech wouldn't see.

    I agree that skipping the waves course definitely hurt you. I don't know how it is set up at your institution, but at my undergrad institution we had two semesters at the sophomore level, thermal physics and waves and modern physics. They weren't the most exciting courses, but the professor discussed very advanced material in lectures (like the elasticity tensor) and so it was very useful having seen everything for later courses.

    As for your current situation, I would first try taking all of the core grad classes (stat mech, quantum 1 and 2) before going on to GR and QFT.
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