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Stereotypical Physics Undergrad?

  1. Oct 18, 2009 #1
    Hi! I know everyone pretty much comes on here asking the same things, but I'm getting pretty confused and upset and thought I'd post.

    Since my junior year of high school I've wanted to be a physics major. Unfortunately I'm not one of those genius kids who do nothing but problem sets and read the latest physics journals. I like watching programs on the science channel and am inching my way through the Elegant Universe, but that's about it. I'm a little worried that I might not be "cut out" for any of this (judging by the other thread with the kid who ordered TWO physics textbooks and is reading them for fun).

    However, I know that even though it's sometimes kind of hard, I like it. It's beautiful.

    I started out at the University of Chicago and had to come home for medical reasons. I'm not sure if I want to go back or not. I'm thinking of applying again as a freshman at Cornell, MIT, and Carnegie Mellon. I'm also considering SUNY Buffalo as I could conceivably go there for free.

    All I know is that I desperately want to get into a good PhD program someday. I'm worried this may not happen as I'm turning 20 this year and only have a semester under my belt. Also I'm worried that if I don't go somewhere like Cornell or UChicago or something, I won't get into a good PhD program. I'd really like to go to MIT. I'm sure this is like impossible, but I visited and loved it.

    Anyway, I'm wondering about the strength of the physics program at SUNY Buffalo, and whether it would be OK for undergrad.

    And any other advice would be fantastic. I'm very confused :( thank you so much!
  2. jcsd
  3. Oct 18, 2009 #2
    I can't say I know what makes a "good" physicist, but speaking in terms of job safety and seats of high-ranked professions - if you started out at UChicago, are thinking of applying again at Cornell, MIT, and Carnegie Mellon, and are worried about not getting into a graduate to PhD program at Cornell or UChicago, then trust me, you are more than just cut out.
  4. Oct 18, 2009 #3
    You most certainly do not have to attend a top private university to gain admission to a good PhD program. What ever school you do attend, do well and distinguish yourself. These top schools are generally ranked by their graduate schools not on undergrad education.

    Personally if money is at all an issue, I would go to a cheaper school for undergraduate. Assuming you do complete a PhD later, it won't matter where you did your undergrad. Education at this level is pretty standard.

    Also, 20 is by no means to late to begin your education.
  5. Oct 18, 2009 #4
    I'm 22 and just starting, and a lot of people in the physics faculty are starting at age 25+.

    19-20 is a pretty standard age to start you undergrad here in Quebec, Canada because of our education system so I wouldn't worry at all about this!
  6. Oct 19, 2009 #5
    The way you described yourself, you will absolutely not get into cornell, mit, cal tech etc. Only the best and most dedicated make it to those places.
  7. Oct 19, 2009 #6


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    I never read a college physics textbook while in high school. I spent my time reading popular science books as well. In fact I wasn't even sure I wanted to be a physics major until about a month before I started undergrad.

    I went to a smaller masters university near my hometown. (No onein my graduate program has never heard of it.) Yet, I still made it to a good PhD program. Don't worry.

    Also, no PhD program is going to refuse to accept you because you graduated late due to medical reasons. Definitely don't worry about that. Keep your grades up and get some research experience and you'll be on track to a good PhD program.
  8. Oct 19, 2009 #7
    The good news is that physics programs need large numbers of graduate students, and to its not too difficult to get into a program somewhere. The other bit of good news is that there isn't a huge difference in quality between the big name schools and schools without big names. One reason for this is that the big names graduate too many faculty so that you'll usually find that a large fraction of the faculty at no-name schools got their degrees at big name schools.

    What you really want to do is to start familarizing yourself with the research that is being done in some area of physics, and then find out where the researchers that specialize in that research are at. You'll usually find that they scattered all ovaer the country.
  9. Oct 19, 2009 #8
    If you don't think learning physics on your own is fun, why do you want to be a Phd? You will have to keep up with difficult new material throughout your career, never mind thumbing through a couple books that are written with pedagogy in mind; you're going to be digging through research papers, making sure there aren't any errors before you implement the new results in your research.

    If you don't find any physics material fascinating enough to work out of a textbook and solve the problems just to quench your thirst for knowledge then you might not be cut out for a Phd just yet.

    Maybe you could try reading the first part of the Feynman Lectures, it might peak your curiosity enough to get you reading texts on your own. Go to your university's library and brows the physics section, just look at some books and see if anything gets you curious.

    Also, you can always go rogue and switch to math. Take a look at some math books and see how you like them. Take a look at some formal logic or find a book called introduction to higher mathematics or something similar, just do an amazon search for 'higher mathematics' and pick one. Seriously, the first ten books in the search will probably all cover the same material.
  10. Oct 19, 2009 #9
    Oh wow thanks for the replies! Interesting stuff.

    Lol I know a degree from Cornell and UChicago would be excellent. I was just wondering if anyone knew about SUNY Buffalo. I'm not saying it has to be as competitive as an Ivy/MIT, just wondering if anyone knows.

    Responding to Bourbaki- I do enjoy reading about physics, I just haven't spent my time doing problem sets all weekend ;) Idk I've heard of lots of people that do that. If I want to master a particular concept I'm sure I would, and I taught myself lots of calculus so I can get into a higher math when I return to school.

    "If you don't find any physics material fascinating enough to work out of a textbook and solve the problems just to quench your thirst for knowledge then you might not be cut out for a Phd just yet."
    I've only been exposed to mechanics and electricity so far. So no, calculating spring constants and whatnot doesn't quite fascinate me. I figured I will be able to work out of more interesting topics when my math gets up there.

    @Phyisab****. Sorry I didn't inflate my ego like lots of people do. I'm damn smart, and I got into the University of Chicago. Last time I checked, it was the #8 school in the country.

    I'm so embarrassed and upset. I should delete my account.

    For those with actual comments- Thank you so much! I do appreciate.
  11. Oct 19, 2009 #10
    I know this is how I was. I hated -- and I mean HATED -- my calculus I,II,III sequence. Everything opened up to me when I hit linear algebra and then analysis. Maybe you'll have a similar experience with your physics courses.
  12. Oct 20, 2009 #11
    I hated it too, fortunately I figured out that pure math was much more fun for me, no tedious calculations and minor details [at least not on the surface...unless you're in numerical analysis =( ] I just get to work on extremely difficult puzzles.

    As far as doing problem sets on the weekend this is what I usually do:

    Wake up at 10:30
    Do morning stuff
    Read about Model Theory and try to read Hartshorne's Algberaic Geometry, give up on Hartsorne and go back to Atiyah Macdonald to brush up more for Hrtshorne...type on this forum and play some Go at Gokgs.com or play guitar....Go back to Model Theory and then make my way back to Hartshorne, give up after a few more pages and go back to atiyah macdonald...doodle around more and repeat. At 8 or 9pm I hang out with some friends until late and imbibe. That is what I do on my weekends.
  13. Oct 20, 2009 #12
    The best advice I can think of is to contact the department and see if they can give you a list of what recent undergraduate students have done after graduation (including what graduate programs they've gone on to attend). A lot of programs have this list (and some post the list online... although I couldn't find it online for SUNY, but maybe as a prospective student you can get this info).
  14. Oct 20, 2009 #13
    As far as undergraduate schools go, what you have to worry about is that some of the non-big name schools are significantly tougher and harder to get through than the big name schools. I did my undergrad at MIT, and in the physics department there were no weed out classes, and the academic environment was quite supportive. I've also seen people at other schools where undergraduate teaching has less of a priority and people just get ground to dust.
    Last edited: Oct 20, 2009
  15. Oct 20, 2009 #14
    Not true. Undergraduate college admissions are very strange, and a lot of getting in is involves total random luck, and if you got into UChicago, that means that you have basic scores, extra-curriculars, etc. If you say something in your admission essay is that amusing to the committee, you might be able to get in. If you want to get into MIT, it helps if you mention in your essay specifically why you liked it.

    One other thing, the physics department at MIT has a very strong rule that they do not admit MIT physics undergraduates into the physics graduate program, so if you do go to MIT as an undergrad, you need to prepare to go somewhere else for grad school.
  16. Oct 22, 2009 #15
    Replies! Thanks again.

    @twofish-quant- Oh man that changes things- the undergrad, grad thing. I read this on MIT's admissions website "The most common graduate school destination for MIT undergrads is MIT itself; many departments enthusiastically recruit their own undergrads into their graduate programs. But that is for all of MIT, not physics. Hmmm. If that's true, I think I'd rather pursue my PhD there than my BS. . .

    @physics girl phd- Def good suggestion.

    @Bourbaki1123- ah. Don't worry, I can see you are smart :) who knows maybe I'm not cut out for it after all? I am almost never strong-willed enough to pick physics problems over my fiance, especially after 40 hours in an environmental testing lab all week. I don't mind not having physics be my entire life (excuse the grammar I'm guessing?), and if it must be, perhaps it _isn't_ right. It's all good :)

    If all else fails, a Physics BS can do all sorts of stuff and get you into more than just physics grad school programs. I used to plan what was going to happen over my whole life. Seeing as things get changed so often, I've been kinda generalizing my plans and always thinking "we'll see what happens".
  17. Oct 23, 2009 #16
    Concerning the physics dept admission policies. I'll e-mail the admissions office this weekend to get them to change this statement. For the physics department it's flat out wrong unless something has changed since I went there. Also, it's not a new policy. Richard Feynman mentions it in his autobiography (p. 59 of Surely you are Joking, Mr. Feynman"

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