Should I continue on with a physics major?

  • Programs
  • Thread starter Rsch613
  • Start date
  • #1
4
2
Intro: I have just completed my first year in college as a physics major. My first semester I had some issues with scheduling classes so I have only completed the course called Physics 1 despite attending school for a whole year. This course covered one-dimensional and two-dimensional motion, rotational motion, conservation of energy, conservation of momentum, thermodynamics, work, and force-related topics.

I have always been extremely mathematically inclined. I absolutely love pure mathematics like real analysis, topology, and abstract algebra. But at the same time I have always loved many areas and domains of physics such as relativity, quantum mechanics, string theory, black holes, etc. I definitely think I like pure math more but given my interest in the theory of many of the domains of physics, I also wanted to continue on for at least a few years in physics to see if I end up loving it more than math. So I am currently a physics major that plans to take both math and physics classes until I can make up my mind and decide what I want to go to graduate school for.

Main Concern: I absolutely hated Physics 1 and the lab that was associated with it. I was good at the classes, had no problem understanding the material, obtained relatively easy A's, and yet I still absolutely hated the classes. I found Physics 1 horribly boring and uninteresting and dreaded the weekly lab.

After ruminating on what exactly it is that I like and dislike about physics in general, I came to the conclusion that I love the idea of putting a pen to paper and deriving theories and exact answers but greatly dislike the idea of performing approximate calculations and testing hypotheses in a lab. For those that have seen the show "The Big Bang Theory", I like Sheldon Cooper's job and dislike Leonard Hofstadter's.

So my questions are, given my dislike for labs, approximate calculations, and Newtonian mechanics, is it unlikely that I will enjoy the rest of the physics undergrad curriculum? If I continued on would I even enjoy a job in Physics academia?
 
Last edited by a moderator:

Answers and Replies

  • #2
Vanadium 50
Staff Emeritus
Science Advisor
Education Advisor
27,411
11,539
So my questions are, given my dislike for labs, approximate calculations, and Newtonian mechanics, is it unlikely that I will enjoy the rest of the physics undergrad curriculum?

I'm working through all the minus signs there, but I think the answer is "yes". Your future has lots of labs, approximate calculations, Newtonian mechanics and its partner, classical electrodynamics. It's likely you won't like thermodynaics either. You will think you will like QM, except that there are only about four problems that can be solved without approximations.

In short, there is lots of "more of the same" in the future.
 
  • #3
738
620
If I was you, I would move towards working on theoretical problems in quantum computing, quantum information theory, quantum cryptography, or AI. That way you'll be sure to get lots of funding for your research, you'll have the opportunity to make a real world impact, you'll work on some of the deepest problems that span physics, mathematics, and CS, and if you don't like academia you can get a really high paying job.
 
  • #4
Vanadium 50
Staff Emeritus
Science Advisor
Education Advisor
27,411
11,539
Isn't it early to be worried about funding? He has 3 more years of undergrad, 6-7 as a grad student and maybe 6 as a postdoc. Call it fifteen more years. That's a long time to do something you don't like. It's also a long time to try and predict what will be hot.
 
  • #5
738
620
Isn't it early to be worried about funding? He has 3 more years of undergrad, 6-7 as a grad student and maybe 6 as a postdoc. Call it fifteen more years. That's a long time to do something you don't like. It's also a long time to try and predict what will be hot.
Maybe. But people who go into academia often start research as an undergrad, and if you want to get into grad school as a Ph.D. student, you probably need to be picked by someone who has the funds to support you. And to be picked by them, you need to have an impressive resume. And meanwhile, you'll have a lot of momentum, making it hard to change course. And the prerequisites will be hard to make up when you do change course. Then once you have your Ph.D. you'll be looking for universities and Universities will be looking to hire people in the new hotter areas. Then once you're a professor, you need to constantly be applying for grant money. I don't think the areas I mentioned are going to die out any time soon if ever.

It is true that the fun you have along the way is important. But it sounds like the stuff I recommended might be fun for the OP. I don't really know if it's right advice for the OP, but if I had a do over that might be what I would do.
 
Last edited:
  • #6
313
233
Some schools teach general relativity out of the math deparment. Seems like most graduate schools are likely to be open to teaching quantum mechanics or field theory to mathematicians. I am certain there are prominent researchers in these areas with degrees in mathematics as well as physics. I think if you really dislike physics labs, mechanics, and approximations, you are in for 3 more years of the same before you even get to graduate school. Then you will get graduate mechanics, most likely more laboratory work etc.

I think UC Boulder teaches general relativity jointly as Astronomy/Physics, but it is hard to see why some schools might not have dual listings in Math/ Physics.

Future employers though may look more favorably on a physics degree than a math degree, but I have seem some indicators where just the opposite is true. Ironically, many employers desire recruits with a background in those aspects of physics (mechanics, labs, approximation) that you dislike so much.
 
  • #7
Choppy
Science Advisor
Education Advisor
Insights Author
4,708
1,908
It might be worth thinking a little deeper about what it is you did and did not like about your first year class.

With labs, the further you go, the more independent you get. First year physics labs tend to be rather cookbookish. You watch a pendulum swing back and forth for different lengths of string, or generate different waves on a string with different amounts of tension, perform a linear regression analysis and fill in the blank with your answer. (That's if you even got to do labs this year - I imagine with the pandemic a lot of labs were performed in a virtual sense.) The physics often isn't the most exciting. If you came from a good high school program, you probably have done similar versions to many of them already. You can be forced to work with other people who have different goals in the course.

Something else that I've observed is that sometimes bright students get tripped up because they're still able to get by in their classes relying on their innate intelligence. Getting through a lab efficiently and effectively usually requires preparation... reading ahead, visualizing the experiment, preparing tables, working out the uncertainty calculations, etc. So when students walk in unprepared, figuring they can wing it, they often can, but it takes them that much longer to figure out what's going on, and then the conclude that they just don't like labs or don't have a knack for experimental work.

What you find though, is that by the time you get to senior labs, the game can be quite different. You're with people whose goals tend to line up with your own, you're doing much cooler physics, and the labs are less "follow steps 1 through 22" and more "most of the apparatus you'll want is around here somewhere."

I guess my point is, if you like everything else about physics, don't throw in the towel because you find first year labs boring.
 

Related Threads on Should I continue on with a physics major?

Replies
11
Views
3K
  • Last Post
Replies
8
Views
3K
  • Last Post
Replies
1
Views
2K
  • Last Post
Replies
5
Views
2K
  • Last Post
Replies
2
Views
2K
Replies
4
Views
3K
Replies
3
Views
3K
Replies
0
Views
1K
Replies
10
Views
3K
Replies
12
Views
3K
Top