Should I study physics if I didn't do well in HS maths?

In summary: I be able to keep up with the level of difficulty?Yes, technically I'm able to get into the program. And I don't know about a deficit, but I definitely don't have a natural mathematical ability, which is what I see in so many physicists (astro in particular). This is the root cause of concern... will I be able to keep up with the level of difficulty?Yes, you will be able to keep up with the level of difficulty. You just need to put in the effort.Yes, you will be able to keep up with the level of difficulty. You just need to put in the effort.
  • #1
ScienceGuy42
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In my final year of high school (2017) I finished with a mark of 74/100 for advanced maths (NSW, Australia. It's a calculus-based course and introduces differentiation, integration, series, optimisation, trig). This means I don't directly qualify for enrolment in the maths courses for the physics degree and need to sit a 30 minute test on basic calculus and algebra. I've done the practice test on the uni website and passed (90%), so I should be able to enrol. My concern is: should I?

I have a deep passion and love for physical concepts (especially astrophysics and theoretical physics), but my maths abilities have always been limited... though I've never given maths the time/study it deserved in high school. Instead, I focussed on strengths (English and Biology), achieving very high marks in both of those in high school. Should I pursue biomedical science (another passion of mine, but not as naturally prominent in my mind) instead, thereby playing to my strengths, or pursue my deeper passion – physics?

I would want to go onto graduate physics (PhD level) in astrophysics, and require a distinction/high distinction average in undergrad for that. I'm worried I won't be able to achieve that high level with my current maths background.
 
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  • #2
ScienceGuy42 said:
I'm worried I won't be able to achieve that high level with my current maths background.

You won't. You will have to take many, many more math classes.
 
  • #3
Vanadium 50 said:
You won't. You will have to take many, many more math classes.

Is it possible to get there with daily dedication to maths and physics practise? Because my study will be... my life. Haha
 
  • #4
ScienceGuy42 said:
Is it possible to get there with daily dedication to maths and physics practise? Because my study will be... my life. Haha
With daily dedication to studying math and physics? Yes!

I was a middling math student in high school who went on to study physics as both an undergraduate and graduate student. It involved a lot of quality time with my nose in a book and making use of every resource available to me. I'm pretty sure the only reason I passed my graduate Quantum Theory class was because whenever the Professor had "Open Office Hours" I was there, with my partially worked problem sets and plenty of questions.
 
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  • #5
atomicpedals said:
With daily dedication to studying math and physics? Yes!

I was a middling math student in high school who went on to study physics as both an undergraduate and graduate student. It involved a lot of quality time with my nose in a book and making use of every resource available to me. I'm pretty sure the only reason I passed my graduate Quantum Theory class was because whenever the Professor had "Open Office Hours" I was there, with my partially worked problem sets and plenty of questions.

Inspiring! But to get into graduate physics I need more than passes (Ds to HDs) in classes like quantum theory. But I feel once I pass the threshold I'm currently at, I'll be at the same level as every other physics student out there. Would this be true?
 
  • #6
ScienceGuy42 said:
Inspiring! But to get into graduate physics I need more than passes (Ds to HDs) in classes like quantum theory. But I feel once I pass the threshold I'm currently at, I'll be at the same level as every other physics student out there. Would this be true?
I'll admit to being ignorant of the ins and outs of the Australian University world. If, as indicated in your OP, you have passed the pre-test so thus stand a good chance of passing the actual test - wouldn't that indicate you're at a level the University feels is appropriate? Do you feel like you have a knowledge deficit? If so, are you taking active steps to fill that deficit? When it comes to learning physics and math it's not so different from music or sports - practice. As a German colleague recently reminded me "Ubung macht den meister" (practice makes the master).
 
  • #7
atomicpedals said:
I'll admit to being ignorant of the ins and outs of the Australian University world. If, as indicated in your OP, you have passed the pre-test so thus stand a good chance of passing the actual test - wouldn't that indicate you're at a level the University feels is appropriate? Do you feel like you have a knowledge deficit? If so, are you taking active steps to fill that deficit? When it comes to learning physics and math it's not so different from music or sports - practice. As a German colleague recently reminded me "Ubung macht den meister" (practice makes the master).

Yes, technically I'm able to get into the program.
And I don't know about a deficit, but I definitely don't have a natural mathematical ability, which is what I see in so many physicists (astro in particular). This is the root cause of concern and questioning of my ability to succeed in physics.

I can either do physics and dedicate my life to it, only to find out I may or may not have the mind for the increasingly difficult maths found in PhD-level physics. Or do biomedical science from the get-go and be almost certain I can succeed in it at the PhD level.
 
  • #8
ScienceGuy42 said:
Yes, technically I'm able to get into the program.
And I don't know about a deficit, but I definitely don't have a natural mathematical ability, which is what I see in so many physicists (astro in particular). This is the root cause of concern and questioning of my ability to succeed in physics.

I can either do physics and dedicate my life to it, only to find out I may or may not have the mind for the increasingly difficult maths found in PhD-level physics. Or do biomedical science from the get-go and be almost certain I can succeed in it at the PhD level.
You may be getting ahead of yourself. When it comes to doing a PhD merely being able to be successful is only one part, there is also dedication to it - a PhD is a commitment of time and passion.

As a reframing of the scenario, might you be able to gain admission to a Biomed PhD with a Physics BSc or MSc? That would give you the taste of what advanced study in Physics is like and, should you decide it's not your cup-of-tea, the ability to shift to another field you find more interesting for graduate school.
 
  • #9
You could look into Medical Physics OP, which is a combination of the two fields you seem to enjoy.
 
  • #10
OP, do you know why you got the low score on your introductory calculus course? Was it just lack of time and focus, or did you really have trouble conceptually grasping it? While all of physics requires a decent grasp of multivariable calculus and diff equations, you don't need to be a mathematical whiz unless you are going to do some string theory/LCG stuff. My opinion is that you should give it a go, and see how you do in your 1st year physics courses. You'll know right then if you have the stomach for it.
 
  • #11
It sounds to me like the reason you haven't done well in math at the high school level is because you have "never given maths the time/study it deserved."

If you choose to pursue physics, you will have to give math the time/study it needs. And that's not simply a matter of saying that you will. That means hours on end of working through problems, missing out on parties because you have to plod through assignments, and giving up opportunities to study other things that you may also find interesting so that you can take math courses to build the tools to be successful in the advanced physics courses.
 
  • #12
ScienceGuy42 said:
I have a deep passion and love for physical concepts (especially astrophysics and theoretical physics), but my maths abilities have always been limited... though I've never given maths the time/study it deserved in high school. Instead, I focussed on strengths (English and Biology), achieving very high marks in both of those in high school. Should I pursue biomedical science (another passion of mine, but not as naturally prominent in my mind) instead, thereby playing to my strengths, or pursue my deeper passion – physics?

Emphasis is mine. If you have not given math the time or study it deserved how can you know your math ability is limited. Most physicists are not geniuses. They work very hard for success. How bad do you want it. Self doubt will defeat you. As a prospective scientist you should find the evidence that you are not fit for physics in the results of an "honest" effort to succeed.

Nobel prize winner 1988 Leon Lederman responded to a student's questions in an article In Physics Today a publication of the American Institute of Physics, January 1990 about possible success in physics and if he knew he was Nobel Prize material. He responded that he was "far below the class leaders" in HS and college. Only about five years after his PhD did he realize that he was competent. He found great satisfaction in being in physics and working with other physicists. He noted that being average at this stage in your education is NOT decisive. Enjoying physics is essential though and you say you do. Good start. He continues by saying "aim higher than you believe plausible." "You can retreat later."
 
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  • #13
atomicpedals said:
You may be getting ahead of yourself. When it comes to doing a PhD merely being able to be successful is only one part, there is also dedication to it - a PhD is a commitment of time and passion.

As a reframing of the scenario, might you be able to gain admission to a Biomed PhD with a Physics BSc or MSc? That would give you the taste of what advanced study in Physics is like and, should you decide it's not your cup-of-tea, the ability to shift to another field you find more interesting for graduate school.
I don't see how. There's biophysics, but that's a very small field. And I wouldn't want to do something physics-related if I hadn't mastered undergaduate physics, in which case I would start biomedical science from the undergrad level... time is just an illusion after all ;) and I'm only 18 so I guess there's no rush
 
  • #14
Scrumhalf said:
OP, do you know why you got the low score on your introductory calculus course? Was it just lack of time and focus, or did you really have trouble conceptually grasping it? While all of physics requires a decent grasp of multivariable calculus and diff equations, you don't need to be a mathematical whiz unless you are going to do some string theory/LCG stuff. My opinion is that you should give it a go, and see how you do in your 1st year physics courses. You'll know right then if you have the stomach for it.
There was a little trouble grasping a couple concepts/methods in topics like series, but that was most likely because I didn't study for maths. I did no homework at home for months, and instead did it in my free periods at school which wasn't enough time to complete it all. This was because I was focussed on making biomed my life goal, but around july last year I realized I let my love for physics go.
I went from getting 35% (trial HSC exam) in maths to 78% (HSC exam) just from a couple weeks study.
 

Related to Should I study physics if I didn't do well in HS maths?

1. Can I study physics even if I didn't do well in high school math?

Yes, you can still study physics even if you didn't excel in high school math. While a strong foundation in math is important for understanding physics concepts, it is not a requirement for pursuing a degree in physics. Many universities offer introductory math courses for students who need to catch up before diving into more advanced physics courses.

2. Will my lack of high school math skills affect my performance in physics courses?

It is possible that your performance in physics courses may be impacted by your lack of high school math skills. However, this does not mean that you cannot succeed in physics. With effort and dedication, you can improve your math skills and excel in physics courses. Additionally, many universities offer resources such as tutoring and study groups to help students struggling with math and physics.

3. What math skills do I need to study physics?

To study physics, you will need a solid understanding of algebra, geometry, and trigonometry. Calculus is also a key component of many physics courses. If you did not do well in these subjects in high school, it may be beneficial to review them before starting your physics studies.

4. Can I switch to a different major if I can't keep up with the math in physics?

Yes, if you find that you are struggling with the math in physics courses, it is possible to switch to a different major. However, it is important to keep in mind that physics and math go hand in hand, and many other science and engineering majors also require a strong foundation in math. It is important to carefully consider your strengths and interests before switching majors.

5. Are there any alternative options for studying physics if I struggled with high school math?

If you are passionate about physics but struggled with high school math, there are alternative options for studying physics. Some universities offer physics courses specifically designed for students without a strong math background. Additionally, there are online resources and textbooks available for self-study. It is important to discuss your options with an academic advisor to determine the best path for you.

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