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Switched careers, physics major advice

  1. Sep 22, 2015 #1
    Hello. I am a student in Germany, about to start my major in physics, namely in three weeks' time. I'm really excited about it because I've been wanting to study physics for about two years, but I just didn't have the courage to do it I've just turned 27 and before wanting to study physics I'd previously studied classical music (piano), the field I worked in for over ten years. I used to be that typical math hater in school and, as an adult, was often ashamed of my mathematical illiteracy. After some time learning math again, I realised it was awesome (boy, why did I miss out on it for so long?) and it wasn't long before I fell in love with physics and considered becoming a physicist. Well, I didn't just consider it, I got obsessed about the idea. Of course, I wasn't sure about actually doing it, because I knew math is such a vast field and I knew so little of it. And I still had a 30-40h weekly load at work which I couldn't simply give up in order to study.

    So I put myself to the test. I decided to study math very hard, as much as I could, so as to find out whether I should really go for physics or not. I learned math from scratch over the last 9 months and was able to work my way up to the basics in calculus and linear algebra (I'm learning differentiation, integration, vectors, matrices...). I used up most of my free time for that, lunch breaks, many hours on weekends, all opportunities I had to study.
    I don't know how good I am at math because I can't compare myself with others, but most of the time I understand stuff quickly. Sometimes I need to read a few (or many) different explanations until I get it, but I haven't yet come across anything I absolutely didn't get. Sometimes I'll make many mistakes, but after having practiced something long enough, I'll get the exercises 85-100% right. I think (and hope) those aren't indicators of low performance in math, I'd self-assess as being average or slightly good at it. So I don't think I'm making a mistake (again, I hope so).

    That being said I'm looking for advice on some specific points and I'd really appreciate it if someone could enlighten me here:

    1) How realistic is it for someone to become a physicist when they're over 30? Of course, I know I won't become the next Michio Kaku or work for the biggest companies, but do you think my coming from another background could make it more difficult for me to get a position in the future?

    2) Now the more practical bit. I'm taking only three classes this semester because I want to improve my math skills. Next semester I'd like to take the course regularly, so the next six months would be the period to brush up on everything that needs brushing up. The fields I neglected a bit while studying were geometry and trigonometry. I did some of it, but not much. I know there's a lot of trig in physics and I've seen problems involving trig functions, identities and all that. The question is: should I go back and do geometry and/or trigonometry or should I rather try to solve physics problems involving more geometry and trig and sort of work on these concepts "on the go"? Since I have to split my time between physics and other math fields, I'd appreciate book recommendations. Especially something from which I could learn the most important concepts without spending months on it, since I already have to split my study time between physics, calculus, calculus, calculus... and calculus!

    3) I sometimes forget stuff, mostly formulas because I haven't used them anymore. In physics way less than in math. If I sit down and look at the formulas for a while, I can pick it up quickly. But I get frustrated because sometimes it's stuff that's much easier than what I'm currently working on. Yet it seems to me that physics requires you to be able to do many kinds of mathematics. How do you cope with that?

    I'm sorry about the length of my post, if you've read it this far you already have my gratitude!
  2. jcsd
  3. Sep 22, 2015 #2


    Staff: Mentor

    With respect to your geometry and trigonometry, this will come into play as you combine Calculus, Linear Algebra, Differential Equations ad Vectors into Vector Analysis. VA is used in Classical Mechanics to some degree and in Electromagnetic Theory to a much greater degree. So it would be good for you to know the essentials of geometry and trigonometry subjects.

    The mathispower4u.com has many videos from Algebra thru Geometry and Trig topics upto and including Calculus, Vector Calculus, Linear Algebra and Differential Equations that may help you gain this necessary math knowledge. And of course there Khan's Academy too.
  4. Sep 23, 2015 #3
    I was familiar with KA, but not with the other one. And it's good to know what is used in which context. Very good tips, thanks a lot. I'll start brushing up on geometry and trig right away!
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