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Should I go into physics? (and a whole bunch more stuff)

  1. Oct 17, 2014 #1
    A little bit of my background:

    I am 16 years old and I am trying to figure out what career to follow. In school I have always had good-to-great grades in all subjects. I do not excel in any particular one, I do well in social studies and in sciences and in maths. I have for a long time had great interest in science in general, but specifically astronomy (specifically astrophysics and cosmology) and physics (specifically quantum mechanics and higher dimensions, of which both I know little-to-nothing about). I have been currently losing interest in astronomy (I think not astrophysics), as I no longer feel that great sensation of awe and wonder when staring into the night sky (I'll try not to drift off into that subject); and have been gaining a lot more interests in physics, and in particular, even though I know nothing (or very little) about, quantum mechanics.

    The thing is, every time I look up online about the subject, I am extremely intimidated by those HUGE equations with only symbols instead of numbers... and aah! I get really, really intimidated by it. I guess my questions are:

    1. How deep of an understanding of physics did you have before going to university?
    2. Do you have to be great at maths to succeed?
    3. Did you feel intimidated by the mathematical complexity involved in the subject?
    4. Can anyone who dedicates enough understand those complex equations and concepts involved in physics? Or do you have to be 'gifted' in a certain way?
    5. Can one generally make a living being a physicist? What professions involving physics are good paths to follow?
    Please help me make a decision about what to do with my future. Thank you in advance.

    P.S.: if you are facing something of the sorts I'd appreciate if you could share your situation with me.

    (if this is not the place to post this I'll gladly remove this post)
  2. jcsd
  3. Oct 17, 2014 #2


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    In just about any STEM courses at the university level, there are plenty of math courses you will be required to take, regardless of whether you plan to major in physics, chemistry, or some branch of engineering.

    To answer your questions:

    1. I had taken a HS physics course, a HS chemistry course, and HS calculus.
    2. There will be a lot of math courses you'll take, plus all of the basic introductory courses in chem & physics. If your math skills are not great, college course work can easily and quickly overwhelm you. If you find yourself intimidated by equations containing only symbols and few, if any numbers, then perhaps a different course of study should be considered.
    3. If you can keep up with the math, it makes understanding the physics a lot easier, because you're not struggling to do the math.
    4. It's pretty subjective. Even some people who have the math skills may get burned out by the coursework. There is no one answer to this question, because it depends on the individual and how strongly he wishes to succeed in his studies.
    5. It's possible to make a living as a physicist, but most of the good physicist jobs require graduate study. There is a lot of competition for the good jobs, so keeping good grades in school is important. Many of the physics jobs will, however, come from being an instructor of some sort or in a research capacity. If you find that studying physics gets too monotonous, you might consider majoring instead in one of the branches of engineering, like electronics engineering, for example.
  4. Oct 18, 2014 #3
    A lot of the equations--even some of the complicated ones--actually have a physical meaning and are not just symbols. I don't know if that makes it any better or worse for you. It's not numbers. Also, generally speaking, I think people put too much emphasis on moving the symbols around and not enough emphasis on the physical meaning, which, to me, makes it a lot more painful to study, since I often have to figure out the meaning on my own (I'm a mathematician but studied a lot of physics on the side). There may be cases where you have to give up on the physical meaning, but it's less often than people think. It's probably not that good of an idea to just "look stuff up" because that's jumping in at the deep end. It's better to study it systematically and then the equations will not just be coming out of the blue, so they will make more sense.

    I think getting a good job should be scarier than the math. You should have a plan of how you are going to get a job at the end of it and get an idea of whether you would like that job. I always wish someone would have told me the reality of the job market today is that jobs come most easily to people who already almost know how to do the job (and many of the jobs require very extensive expertise that takes years to build). The job market, in general, got really, really ugly around 2008, and it hits new graduates harder than anyone, so my advise is to be very afraid of it and prepare accordingly, especially if you aren't too keen on building a giant network of people who can help you find out about job opportunities. You can't really count on becoming a professor. Seriously consider engineering or computer science because those are much better for jobs (or you may have other ideas, like getting a degree in physics and then going to medical school or law school or something like that).
  5. Oct 20, 2014 #4
    I would say, go for engineering (any branch of it). Physics is cool and who wouldn't want to understand the world as physicists do ?, but one concern with physics is the money and even more in your case ( because it seems like you want to be a theoretical physicist) , but if you really want to become a physicist then don't intimidate yourself with those equations , you are going to take several courses of mathematics before you are going to go any further into physics.
    When I was your age I started engineering and I don't think you have to be gifted with math, it is just a tool, the important thing is understand from the physics whatever you are studying.
    I didn't have any knowledge of physics ( well... I knew a little bit about optics and circuits ).

    In general , if you like it then go for it !, you are young :D and it is cool to hear that you are interested in becoming a scientist. Hope to see your articles and contributions to science.
  6. Oct 20, 2014 #5
    1. It really helps to have taken physics in high school, but it isn't necessary; I didn't see physics or calculus in high school.
    2. You need to be competent at math, but there's a big difference between the math that physicists do and the math that mathematicians do and reasons why they do it that way (areas of overlap not withstanding). Physicists use the math to understand the natural world, mathematicians use math to understand the logical structure and measurement behind the abstract concepts they've created.
    3. I was stupidly intimidated.
    4. It helps to be gifted (and that can mean alot of things), but it isn't necessary. It takes lots of hard work, but you can do it. I started college in remedial math, now I have two degrees (physics and electrical engineering).
    5. Yes. Alot of physicists try to enter academia and become research professors after they finish schooling; some of them become pure researchers and never teach (they work for national labs or companies), some of them leave physics and use their skills to do other things like engineering, programming, finance, etc.
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