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Should I major in physics after all?

  1. Nov 4, 2013 #1
    I am currently a 17 year old high school senior.
    When I was younger it was my goal to become a physicist. Then I realized I would likely have to take out student loans to complete undergrad, and so would not be able to go to graduate school. So I gave up on that and eventually decided to go with a computer science major to become a software engineer. The only problem is I'm not sure if that's what I really want. I don't currently know how to program, and I've never really been motivated to learn, which suggests I might not find programming that interesting at all. And the more I think about a career in software engineering, the less I'm enthused. Physics, on the other hand, still interests me. So I'm thinking I might want to become a physicist again. It's looking like I won't need to take out student loans for undergrad, or at most a small amount, so I should be able to go to grad school. But I have a few concerns.

    My first concern is switching the major I'm applying to right at the last second before a apply. Talk about a last second decision. I was all set to apply as a computer science major, and now I'm thinking about changing it on a spur of the moment decision? I'm not sure if that's a good idea. I could, of course, apply as a computer science major and change my major later, but it is very hard to get accepted as a computer science major and I'd have a better chance at getting into my top choices like UCLA and Berkeley if I apply as a physics major.

    My second concern is whether I'd even enjoy being a physicist anymore than I would being a software engineer. I know physicists do a LOT of math, and I've always enjoyed learning math in my math classes, but not so much actually doing the math. Learning about integrals? Cool. Doing 20 problems of integration by parts? Not so cool. But I do think I would enjoy the more advanced math of theoretical physics more than I would my high school math. And I do tend to be more willing to do math work if it has an actual application. But still, I wouldn't want my job to consist of sitting around, staring at and manipulating equations all day. An hour or two a day would be fine. But not all day. So how much of a physicist's time is spent doing math, and how much is spent doing other stuff? And what exactly does that other stuff consist of?

    So yeah, I think I would rather be a physicist than a software engineer, but I'm not completely sure, so I definitely would like some advice on what to do.
  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 4, 2013 #2


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    Well, first off, it may be worth pointing out that as a graduate student you will be taking in money in terms of a stipend or research/teaching assistanceship and since you're in school you won't be required to pay back any loans that you accumulated as an undergrad.

    Next, it's probably worth mentioning the odds that you face if your goal is to get into academia as a career. Most people who start out in physics don't end up as physics professors. In fact most graduate students these days don't end up as physics professors. So if you choose to study physics, keep in mind that what you're getting is an education and not necessarily a job qualification. In my opinion it's still "worth" studying physics. By the data, physics graduates tend to do quite well for themselves in terms of careers compared to other science majors and finish roughly middle of the pack when compared to engineers.

    Don't worry about changing your mind "last minute" if you're falling back to something you wanted to do in the first place. It sounds to me more like you're getting cold feet on your backup plan.

    Finally, most physicists don't spend the majority of their days doing math, but I do think that you need to have a passion for mathematics, at least as a tool, if you're going to successfully get yourself through graduate school. If your concern is that you simply don't like being forced to work through problems where you're already understanding the principles and feel like you're just doing busy work - then I think you'll be fine.

    It's tough to make these kinds of decisions. Good luck with it.
  4. Nov 4, 2013 #3


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    I am puzzled by this. Why would taking out student loans make it impossible to go to graduate school. I got through undergraduate college largely on student loans. If you are thinking that you would then have to get a job immediately because you will have to start paying off the loans immediately after graduating from college, I don't know what kind of student loans you could use but mine were not of that type- I was not required to start paying off student loans until one year after I was no longer in college- even though that included going to a different college to start a graduate program. That is, I was not required to start paying off student loans until a year after I finish my Ph.D. Program. Further, I got through graduate school entirely on fellowships and assistantships.

    Again, I don't know the details of whatever kind of student loan program you are thinking of- and I suspect that you don't either! Get the details and study them carefully.

    (The "Defense Education Act" loans that I used for undergraduate funding included forgiving 5% of the loan, up to 50%, each year I taught- and included teaching college.)
  5. Nov 4, 2013 #4

    I completed a math degree that allowed me to take comp sci classes well beyond my minor. As a result I was able to begin a career at a PC/Enterprise Systems manufacturer as a Systems Software Engineer. My experience in the industry has encouraged me to go back to school and pursue physics studies, which is why I am on this forum seeking advice on the best strategy to accomplish my goals. I feel like my experience may be valuable to you, so here it goes:

    1) Repetitive problem solving will persist in whatever major you choose and beyond that. If you can't swallow this pill, then college may not be for you. In fact, I think half the battle of going to college is persevering through obstacles you don't want to do. But remember that virtuosos don't master their instrument without thousands of hours of practice.

    2) You are 17 and its preposterous that will know what you want to do for the rest of you life. You've only been "mostly aware" of adult life for 3 or 4 years now, and that's been purely observational of a select sample of individuals. Test out of all the classes you can, take intro classes in the subjects that interest you, and major in the subject you don't mind spending free time learning about. Think of college as a process, one that you shouldn't be rushed to an ending.

    3) Keep in mind that there is no such thing as the "40 hour a week job". The market is too competitive. I work an average of 50 hours a week, and my responsibilities don't end there. It may seem like it's only 40 hours a week, but in actuality it is your daily life. Make this choice wisely and base it on what you value over "what you can get".

    4) In the world of digital technology your skills can (and will) obsolete faster than the pace of your career. I've met a sea of engineers who coasted through PC/dotcom boom and bust and now lack the relevant skills to stay competitive in the job market. This is a risk with engineering, and your relevancy depends on your experience with the "bleeding edge" of tech markets. If you don't think this is relevant ask Tom from Myspace. Wait you're 17, do you even know about Tom and Myspace? If significant advancement is made in the field of Quantum Computing can Intel or Texas Instruments keep up?

    5) Finances are always an obstacle, but even money is surmountable with adequate planning and focus.

    6) You like physics and computers? You'd have to be interested in both if you have rationalized majoring in either subjects. Why not pursue something like Electrical Engineering where you get exposure to both? IMO Electrical Engineering and Mechanical Engineering offer the greatest vocational versatility to the degree holder and offer enough exposure to Physics to satisfy most intellectually curious minds. All in all Physics is a well respected conceptual degree, but if your end goal is a career after 4 years of college developing marketable skills is more relevant. If all you want is money with guaranteed benefits, skip science and engineering and head straight for sales. It often boggles my mind how easily my efforts translate into figures on some salesman's paycheck who donated half the effort and headache.

    All in all, only your experience and preferences will answer your questions. Consider the pros and cons of each major and career field and GET AN INTERNSHIP OR DO UNDERGRAD RESEARCH AFTER YOUR SOPHMORE YEAR. I can't emphasize this enough. Also, it is possible to party AND do your school work, so remember to do your weekly assignments and reading while measuring yourself to your peers mediocre standards.

  6. Nov 9, 2013 #5
    Thank you for the answers. I did not realize undergraduate loans do not need to be payed off until after graduate school. That's nice.
    I do have a followup question now, which is, what types of jobs do physics majors and graduate students typically end up with if they don't become professors?
  7. Nov 9, 2013 #6
    Several of my friends with degrees in physics, including graduate degrees in physics, have ended up doing programming/computer science type jobs, but some have also gone into electrical engineering. I highly recommend also checking out the Bureau Of Labor Statistics for physics. To gain more insight: http://www.bls.gov/ooh/life-physical-and-social-science/physicists-and-astronomers.htm
    Last edited: Nov 9, 2013
  8. Nov 9, 2013 #7


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    We have lots of threads about this (at least about post-PhD prospects) next door in the Career Guidance forum.
  9. Nov 9, 2013 #8


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    Like jt says, there is much discussion about this. Here's a thread I found useful, but there are many more:

  10. Nov 9, 2013 #9
    I think that for the most part they do any generic job not related to their major just like most college graduates do. Getting a job related to science is hard even for the PhDs. In my cohort, the students who did not get a PhD went on to do a variety of things; teaching high school/middle school, truck driving, IT help desk, computer programming, unemployed living off of parents, pizza driving, grading standardized tests, military, plant technician, etc.

    Many people around here think that a physics grads often do engineering or other similar technical jobs. I dont find that to be the case. My fellow student who did manage to get a computer programming job did so inspite of his physics education, not because of it. He double majored and only added on physics for interest. The one who managed to get the job as a technician at a waste water plant lucked out IMO, he was a PhD washout who left with a masters. I am also a PhD washout with a masters and I have had a hard time just getting full time work of any sort. I'm now delivering pizza and taking some engineering pre-reqs with the thought of focusing on a BS in EE in the next few years if I still cant find full time work.

    If you want to get a PhD in physics, then go for it. Just try to gain some real, marketable skills along the way and realize that you have very long and hard road ahead. Check out this thread for advice on getting a PhD and being a physicist; https://www.physicsforums.com/showthread.php?t=240792
    Otherwise, consider majoring (or double majoring) in an engineering discipline or computer science if you want a better chance at a technical career.

    Finally, about student loans. The truth is that most students are not paying theirs back on time. They beat into you how you have to pay them back, but you really dont. Not unless you make a lot of money. Something like half of all student loans are in deferment or forbearance. You only have to pay back 15% of your above poverty level earnings and after 25 years the rest is forgiven. At this rate many (maybe most) people will never pay off their loans.

    Note that the page linked too here are the stats on people who become physicists, not people who simply have degrees in physics. The vast majority of people with physics degrees do not become physicists and are not included in the statistics on that page.
    Last edited: Nov 9, 2013
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