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So how good are you, really? (day to day math/physics ability)

  1. Oct 23, 2012 #1
    This is going to be a difficult question to phrase, so bear with me.

    I recently graduated with a B.A. in physics and was extremely fortunate to land a sweet internship in R&D. It's a physics job. I'm probably going to try to go to grad school (I plan on applying next fall).

    The thing is, while I love physics, I do not feel like a physicist. What I mean is, I still find plenty of calculus problems intimidating. I do not recall of the top of my mind all of Maxwell's equations (I probably only recall a couple, really, like the few that you learn earlier in an undergraduate degree). I feel like at this point I probably couldn't explain inductance more than qualitatively. I had to look up L'Hopital's rule to remember what it was. I find that most problems from Griffith's textbooks are exceptionally difficult if not beyond my ability (usually I muddle the math). My recollection of thermodynamics is nearly nil - I remember no equations pertaining to multiplicities and entropies, etc. I remember that Fourier's "trick" gives you the coefficients but not how to do it.

    Do I just suck? I'm not stupid. I think I'm just way out of math shape. I picked up physics because it was fascinating and I knew I'd never have another opportunity to study it, but I was never really into math or science until my senior year of high school, when I took a physics course I liked.

    6 months graduated from undergraduate physics, were y'all way better? Do I just need to study my *** off? I struggle with what I even need to have memorized, ready to go, and what is okay for me to have to look up. That kind of thing.
  2. jcsd
  3. Oct 23, 2012 #2
    I am not completely qualified to answer, but I think it is safe to say that a B.A. is just the beginning. For a discipline like Physics you are still a beginner. Undergrad isn't about memorizing every detail. It's about learning how to learn. Learning how to find what you need. Learning how to connect the concepts together.

    Many members on here have 10+ years of study and then decades of work experience. It's great you have your internship. Apply for grad school. Keep learning on the side. You'll be just fine :)
    Last edited: Oct 23, 2012
  4. Oct 23, 2012 #3


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    You seem to have remembered the most important stuff, for example

    - Maxwell's equations exist (and I bet you know what physical quantities are in them, even if you can't remember the exact equations).
    - Likewise l'Hopital's rule, etc.

    Give it another 5 or 10 yearrs, and you will know the stuff that you use every day backwards, including a lot of things that you didn't learn in your degree course.

    It's easy to look something up when (1) you know what it's called, (2) you know it's relevant to what you are trying to do, and (3) you know you understood it once, even if you've forgotten it since then.

    The really hard part is when (1), (2), and (3) DON'T apply to your situation!
  5. Oct 23, 2012 #4


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    Absolutely. In one of the groups I've worked in, there are about 20 engineers with first degrees, all working on a fairly specialized topic in dynamics. At best, they would have had maybe half an hour's exposure to that topic in a 4 year B.Eng course, and that would probably be based on 20-years-out-of-date design concepts. Many of them wouldn't have had even that much.

    Half a lecture and a couple of homework questions isn't isn't going to compete head to head with the 100 or 200 person-years of real world experience of the people already working in the group, but we don't hire new graduates for what they already know. We hire them for what they can learn, and/or figure out for themselves.
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