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Should I do Maths or Physics?

  1. Mar 20, 2010 #1


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    I come here to ask whether I should choose maths or physics for higher education. I consider myself to be quite good at both, though I am better at maths than I am at physics. However, I enjoy physics more, and I dislike mathematics -- I remember looking at a problem where a metal ball was dropped into a tank of water, and it asked us to calculate the displacement of water, given the volume of the sphere and tank of water. However, I asked my teacher why the problem would assume this, since we don't know the density of the metal ball. He answered 'yes, but as for the mathematics itself the ball will sink' which I just didn't like. I prefer physics because it is much more applicable and brings a sense of reality to problems... physics generally tell us why things happen more so than maths does. I see mathematics as more of a tool to use than as something to learn just for the fun of learning it. I don't know, I just feel as though I value physics more in life, since it is just so much more noticeable than mathematics is (though I'd agree mathematics is not sparse in our lives).

    So, which do you think I should take at higher education? I would like to go into particle theory, but I keep thinking about whether or not I'll regret the choice. I like calculus too and like some of the higher maths material -- but it just doesn't seem as interesting as physics. On average, who is paid more -- a mathematician, or a physicist? Which is more fun, more interesting?

    I am not a 'hands-on' person per se, since I am actually quite bad with my hands. I am a fan of theoretical physics, but I like to look at things that I can actually experiment with and see the results for myself. So which should I choose - maths or physics?

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  3. Mar 20, 2010 #2
    It sounds as though you've already made a decision of sorts to do physics. If that's what you prefer, then why not? You say specifically that you're good at mathematics but dislike it - the fact that you can do it would perhaps suggest that your (lesser?) ability in physics isn't such that it would be prohibitive for a career. It's also not a good idea to go in to something you don't enjoy!
  4. Mar 20, 2010 #3


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    Hi; thanks for the advice and quick reply.

    While it may sound like I've already made a decision to do physics, I am not sure of this. I am currently only in the first year of my GCSE course, and the last three years have seen my future ambitions fluctuate wildly, from wanting to be a medical doctor, to wanting to be a mathematician to finally wanting to be a physicist. The reason that I did not want to be a medical doctor is because I just found biology extremely boring. There was really nothing I liked about the subject, even though I was good at it. So I've forgotten about that option (in fact, the fact that I was good at it and how well the profession is paid/wanted was pretty much all that influenced me in the first place). I wanted to be a mathematician in the next year because I liked how many different concepts the topic offered, such as hyperbolic geometry in multiple dimensions and various other topics. I started to learn about everything I wanted to learn -- the Riemann Zeta function, Dirichlet's Eta function, and many other things... but in the end, I asked myself what the point of it all was - and when I started the GCSE course, it was just dull and boring, though easy.

    I find physics more challenging than other subjects, but it just has that fascinating feel to it that other subjects don't offer, in my view. My physics teacher said that 'there are more jobs for physics than there are people' but studies suggest that, though the number of people studying the subject has declined, it has recently started to rise again. I don't want to have to work so hard for a subject for several years only to realise that no one needs it anymore.

    EDIT: The trouble also lies in that I've been told physicists usually like all areas of physics, especially astronomy. But I hate astronomy! Does this mean that I will have a very tenuous grasp of physics if I do not find astronomy very interesting?
    Last edited: Mar 20, 2010
  5. Mar 20, 2010 #4


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    My tip, because you still in your GCSE high school years finish the subjects with as higher marks as you can, afterwards when you have to decide between Physics and Maths, pick both, as in a joint or double-major Bsc degree, or in other words, try to delay the decision until you can opt for one over the other.

    That's what I have done.

    I don't say it has worked, I still kinda like both, but I am leaning to maths Grad studies more than physics Grad studies (though I guess I will try my best to work on the borderline of these two fields).
  6. Mar 20, 2010 #5
    Right, I guess I misunderstood your situation, I had assumed from the tone of your post that you were a university student choosing your final degree subject (though you did ask which to chose in higher education so my fault!)

    With this in mind, I'll address you questions slightly differently. Firstly, the maths you'll have covered is going to be sufficiently basic that you'll have to use all of it in physics anyway - much of physics is a master course in applications of calculus.

    Otherwise, there's far from a need to decide on whether you want to go into something like particle, or even as wide an area as 'theoretical' physics - you're far too far away from that decision to make an informed one, and it's likely that you'll only change your mind at some point anyway - so don't worry about that for the time being.

    One thing to consider that you haven't mentioned about a degree at university is that the skills you learn can be much more important than the material you cover. For this reason, physics graduates are highly desirable in many areas of employment - they are great problem solvers, great at modelling and even things like being able to present data and write reports are extremely important. This means that the employers willing (and wishing) to employ physics graduates spans almost every conceivable area (the problem is finding out which one you want to work in). I'm sure you're probably aware that things like finance and are huge for physics graduates, as well as academic science study and industrial research. It's also possible to convert in graduate years to engineering design and the like.

    Mathematicians have a similar skillset and are desirable in many areas as well. The difference is that pure mathematics is more esoteric and may be harder to relate to for some types of employer.

    In short: don't worry about what specific area or physics or maths you'll go in to. Also don't worry about whether you're good 'hands-on' in science - experimental physicists (as opposed to theoretical) very often never touch any equipment with their hands: the difference is that they are involved in the measurement or interpretation processes that come along with real data. Theory is about creating a model that will hopefully describe this data. Experiment is about making and describing the measurements that tell us how things really are.

    Finally, my original advice still stands - in fact, more than previously. The stage you're at just now demands that you pursue your interest. If you feel that you would be more comfortable in physics then by all means, when the time comes, apply for that. For the time being, you have plenty to focus on with school work. Once it comes to application time, feel free to come back and ask us questions. Then, there will be lots of other things to look at as well as your chosen subject.
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