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Thinking about majoring in physics; practical advice?

  1. Apr 24, 2014 #1
    I'm entering Princeton this coming fall as an undergrad, and I've given serious thought to majoring in physics. Math was my favorite subject, but then I took AP physics and found an unrivaled love for it. I think I either want to conduct research as an experimental physicist or teach at a university (if I'm smart enough); apparently job prospects for theoretical is not always good. So, my questions are should I focus more on proof-based or applied maths, what are common courses to take in other sciences, what are the most common programming languages in the physics community, and if anyone has any experience with Princeton, please do share! (As for my math background, I've taken Cal BC and I'm teaching myself multivariable and discrete math, and I've dabbled in Python.)
  2. jcsd
  3. Apr 27, 2014 #2
    I just want to say congrats on being accepted into Princeton! :)
  4. Apr 27, 2014 #3
    Congrats on getting into Princeton! Great physics university, Einstein went there :D

    The most useful classes other than physics classes you can take from other sciences are computer science and maths classes IMO.

    Most popular programming languages in physics are C/C++ as far as I know. I recommend that you start with python, which is also very powerful despite being very simple and easy to learn, then you move on to C once you are good at python and then you move to C++, which is OOP. C# is also a very good language, which is becoming more popular than C++. You can do anything with C#! Edit: MATLAB is probably useful too.

    Regarding maths classes for physics, apart from the standard calculus, algebra, differential equations, etc. classes you take as part of physics degree, I would also take real and complex analysis, differential topology, a more advanced linear algebra class (useful for quantum physics) and an advanced applied maths class. Here is a good guide for maths needed for physics in grad school http://www.goldbart.gatech.edu/PG_MS_MfP.htm.

    Regarding employability, applied physics is probably more employable than theoretical physics. If you do a second major in CS that would most likely make you much more employable.
    Last edited: Apr 27, 2014
  5. Apr 27, 2014 #4
    Thanks! I'm excited to be accepted to such a good school.

    I don't think I'll be the next Einstein, but I know I'll learn a lot!

    I've seen MATLAB mentioned a lot on MIT's OCW courses, so I should probably learn that. Princeton offers certificates instead of minors, and I'm considering one in biophysics. I'm just worried about overwhelming myself since that would entail my math and physics courses for my major; a few semesters of chemistry; introductory biology, genetics, and biochemistry; and some computer science courses. In addition, Princeton requires quite a few courses in the humanities. I could easily end up taking 10 courses a year like that.
  6. Apr 27, 2014 #5
    No, you're not going to be the next Einstein. You're going to be the first Axel Harper.
    Think positive.
  7. Apr 27, 2014 #6
    Will do.
  8. Apr 27, 2014 #7
    Went there in this context usually means he graduated from there in some capacity. It is more accurate to say Einstein was a professor there or more accurately Einstein was part of the institute for advanced study.

    Outside of GR you will use functional analysis more than differential topology.
  9. Apr 27, 2014 #8


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    Isn't that a fairly standard course load?
  10. Apr 28, 2014 #9
    The standard courseload for a bachelor of arts degree is 8 classes per year.In addition to this we have to complete two papers junior year involving independent research, and a senior thesis and oral presentation, which honestly sounds like fun (at least to me). I don't want to burn myself out, but if the school's paying for my education, I want to take advantage of that.
  11. Apr 28, 2014 #10


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    In another thread you were saying that you can't endorse laundry-list physics textbooks that cover all the topics but don't convey the excitement or intuitive thinking required. I think I've quoted you accurately. I have a slight concern because you'll be learning all that laundry-list stuff and more, and lectures aren't terribly exciting. And after many editions, those books are pretty closely in tune with how the subject is taught. So I'm just concerned that you may base your decision on an expectation that things will be different.
  12. Apr 28, 2014 #11
    I'm honestly not a huge fan of modern textbooks, and maybe I'm too harsh on them, but my intended meaning was that I can't endorse any one of the commonly used physics books over any of the others because they're essentially almost identical in terms of topics. I'm not entirely opposed to the books, but I feel that they're not best for someone truly wanting to understand physics. It's probably best to learn from one of the laundry-list books first and then fill in gaps later. It could also be the fact that I take many of my classes online since my school doesn't offer them, and my studies lack that motivation and coherence that a good teacher or professor can bring to them.
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