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Should I still pursue a physics major? please help!

  1. Jan 28, 2016 #1
    I know a lot of ppl have already asked this question, but I had to ask again b/c I feel like some things in my mind haven't been cleared up yet.

    I'm currently a freshman in a university and taking introductory physics classes. Since taking physics in college, I have been doubting myself very frequently if physics is the right major for me (or if I even like physics...!) In high school, I became immensely interested in particle physics and since then decided to pursue a physics major. However, my current situation is that I find solving problems really hard, and the more imminent matter is that I don't enjoy doing them (although I understand its importance). I am not struggling with math, but I am struggling with problem solving (esp. setting up equations), although the concepts I'm learning right now have been already covered in high school and so should be more comfortable. Some say I just need more practice, and I am trying by doing extra problems and redoing many times, and I'm willing to put more effort if you tell me what I can do additionally. However, what I'm worried here is that if I don't "enjoy" solving basic mechanics problem, majoring in physics will later become overwhelming and overly stressful. I've read some comments that ppl like me do not really end up majoring in physics since they do not like the "journey," but I'm confused here. What is exactly the journey?!... Is this just a mere complaint of a freshman who is not satisfied with his/her performance or should I seriously give a thought for changing a major?

    When I read books on physics and what researchers are doing, I get really passionate, and I just cannot stop thinking myself not doing physics. But whether or not I pursue physics, I have great respect for physicists and what physics has achieved, anyways :)
    Thank you for reading, and I would appreciate your honest opinions!
  2. jcsd
  3. Jan 28, 2016 #2
    Give it a fair chance, of course, you may just need some tutoring. But don't force yourself into something you don't like.
  4. Jan 28, 2016 #3
    If you are really passionate about reading about scientists doing physics, but get turned off when you have to solve equations, are you really passionate about doing physics?
    Be aware of the instant gratification syndrome that modern media brainwashes us with. And I say that as a teenager, not as some 'old boring person'.

    Reading about exciting findings of other people, not having to do any hard work at all, and just sitting back and be fascinated about the world around us, that's completely different from fighting the struggle yourself and overcoming it. I am excited to see someone win the 100m sprint. I am a lot less excited about being in the gym and the track for years, taking steroids, then losing and not even making the semifinals.

    When you read about major achievements and breakthroughs, you get just a flash of the highest point of the most successful scientist. Not a good representation of what your life as a scientist is going to be like.

    If you want to be a scientist, any real science field, if you can't enjoy the grind of carrying out the experiments meticulously, programming lines and lines of code, doing calculations over and over, then what does it really mean that you would be passionate about the results you may get after 4 years of doing exactly that?

    The journey needs to be fun. If you can't feel the passion while you are doing the grind, you won't get to feel the satisfaction of solving a problem when you finally do. It takes months of boring experiments to get an insight that when you read it in a paper is an exciting find. But don't forget the experiment itself can be very boring. If you don't feel the excitation when you are doing the on the face boring experiment, reconsider. You may spend weeks lining up lasers the correct way. Then spend months trying to get the right dataset you need, doing the same experiment over and over again. Then you have to spend weeks to compute the statistical significance. It is only as exciting as you make it.

    And if you become a theoretical physicist, even more then solving equations and thinking about equation relationships in your mind becomes more and more important.
    Of course, solving college textbook problems is not what people that do find being a scientist fun find 'fun'. But if you get frustrated by college textbook problems because they are hard and have lot's of equations, it will only become worse later on. If you find them boring because they are too easy and are repetitive, that's something else.
    If you don't get more excited about more difficult problems, even drier theory you are going to break your brain over to learn, only to never use it again, then physics may not be for you. The fact you are or are not acing classes is less important.
    If you get excited about nicely solving a hard problem, that then gets archived away, only for someone years later to read it and use it, then physics is for you.

    That said, a lot of person struggle, fail classes, have doubts, consider changing or change their education programme, but do end up being both successful and satisfied. Then some others, they get stuck in a life they hate. Either because they gave up, or because they were too foolish to change the course their life was on.
    Last edited: Jan 28, 2016
  5. Jan 28, 2016 #4
    The first two years were very hard for me. I'm glad I perservered. You'll be happier doing what you love than settling for a boring career path.
  6. Jan 28, 2016 #5
    Well, first, congrats on your choice to (at least initially) follow your passion and pursue physics. However, we should tackle both problems separately. Having difficulty with the problems now is natural, as a university physics program is expected to be more rigorous than a high school university program. Having taken physics in high school is a good start, but it's really just that -- a step ahead, nothing more. That being said, you mention you aren't struggling with the math but are struggling with setting up the equations. This implies to me that your problem may be more qualitative than quantitative -- do you spend time reviewing the chapters and notes in words? That is, do you spend time studying the concepts as well as the mathematics? Would you be able to give a short lecture of all the material you're reviewing, with authority, without the use of mathematics? If not, perhaps you need to focus a bit more time on reading as well. For example, knowing the kinematic equations are great, but if you fail to understand that the vertical and horizontal components of motion act independently of one another, the equations don't really mean anything.

    Second, since you're so early on in your education, you should certainly be exploring other options if you have any doubts. Look around, do research on the internet, ask your peers, or set up meetings with professors of other departments. Who knows what you'll run into. Don't stick with physics just because you "already started it". I know people who switched out of engineering/physics in their third years (although I wouldn't recommend such a late switch if you can help it), and in the end, didn't regret it. The point is, you have a lot of time to decide, so use that time and look around at related (and even unrelated) subject fields. And at the end of the day, if you decide to stick with physics and can't see yourself doing it professionally, take note that physics is probably the greatest basis to jump from (along with pure mathematics) if you wanted to study something different in graduate school, so that too is also an option.

    However, in the mean time, don't allow your grades to suffer. Do your research on other fields if you choose, but don't let it consume you to the point where you begin slipping in your studies and underperform in the classroom -- continue to do as well as you can, regardless of your plans for physics. Physics will never shut you out of a future in something else, but poor grades will. Best of luck.
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