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Thoughts/Questions - Guidance needed

  1. May 26, 2008 #1
    So first of all a little background. I am a rising sophomore at Swarthmore College and I have absolutely no idea what I want to do when I grow up. I have had some free time this summer before my internship starts and have been thinking about it, so I can plan classes out for the near future.

    I am really interested in international affairs and foreign policy, but don't really want to bank on making a career out of it just because it is not something to get into easily. I also am very interested in science, understanding how the world works. I love nothing more than watching a good history channel show on the universe or reading about advances in dark matter or string theory. I also figure that if I get a science degree I can go into defense and whatnot (RAND, MITRE, etc) - the other way is much harder.

    So here I am sitting wondering what exactly it is like to be a scientist? I did not take physics last semester and if I want to get back on track I have to self-study mechanics over the summer and place out of it to get into e&m. I am willing to do this but I want to make sure its the right thing for me. What exactly is research in physics like? Is it enjoyable? Are physics PhDs happy with their lives?

    Because I took the semester off from physics I had began to consider possibly going for a math major which I am currently on track for. I enjoyed my high school statistics class and figured if I concentrated in applied math and statistics I could work in a manner similar to that a physicist would do. I think even if I major in physics I can still fairly easily major in math so this is a little less of a concern but any comments on the field of mathematics might help as well.

    I'm not even sure if I want to do physics and I am already concerned with looking at graduate schools. One of the things I am worried about is grades at Swarthmore. I love the school but its certainly hard to get a good gpa. I have a great understanding of things that I have taken classes in and have learned so much, but I am still going with a gpa in the low 3s right now. Swarthmore in known for low grades, and is especially hard in the sciences, but I am afraid I won't be able to get into a very respectable research PhD program if this is the path I choose to take. Should this be a concern for me?

    I think the overall thing I am concerned with is what I am going to do with my life. I know that isn't something I should be worrying about now but I am a little and would like to just have a better idea of things. I would greatly appreciate any insight on physics/applied math/stat research and careers and possibly how they can be connected to work in foreign policy and defense. I also love to travel, especially abroad. Is this something that can be a part of the life of a scientist? Also, should I plan to take programming/comp sci classes or do the skills I need for that come with the other classes I will take?

    WOW sorry for such a long thread! I guess this is what happens when I have a lot of free time :p Thanks in advance for any insights :D
  2. jcsd
  3. May 26, 2008 #2


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    as a scientist it helps to be in love with the subject you specialize in, or else all the hard work and relatively low pay is discouraging.

    grades are not everything, as people know that swarthmore is a fine school and that counts too.
  4. May 26, 2008 #3
    Before you worry so much about research. Do you think you'll like research?? It's a tough career. You spend lots of time in the lab and u might not get good results for months and even years. Scientific problems take a loooong time to solve (if even possible), and you might get bored with that life. Can you imagine yourself working in the lab for the rest of your life..or would u rather READ about other people's discoveries, which u mentioned u liked when it came to string theory and dark matter.

    Also realize, it's hard to make good money too and good science jobs are hard to find. It's very competitive and hard to get a job as a professor. Basically, your facing a future where getting PhD takes 7 years and you will have a hard time finding a good paying job. I guarantee you finding a job will be exceptionally hard, as oppose to something say in healthcare or business or law. (tis statement will prolly garner some debate!)

    I think you should ask your physics TAs more about their life as a researcher before you can commit to it. Don't commiit yourself just yet...figure things out some more.
  5. May 26, 2008 #4
    Agreed with Mathwonk. If you're fine with low pay and since things are getting more expensive these days, then go for it...but realize your first few jobs will prolly not pay for your rent and livign expenses. You make very little...and jobs are hard to come buy in the first place.

    So you might be in a situation where ur depesarate fir a job and you'll be trying to seek jobs that are low paying.
  6. May 26, 2008 #5
    Just to clarify a little bit...idk if I'll like research. I don't really know much about it. That is one of my primary concerns (that I don't know how to find out whether or not I like it, when it is important that I have to pick a path to start on now). Is it worth going down the path to get a bachelors in physics otherwise? Will having a degree in physics open up paths to me that I wouldn't have if I just got a degree in math (maybe with something else to replace physics). I could see myself MAYBE becoming a lawyer one day, but that is unrelated to undergraduate major. I love history as well, but as I said that degree doesn't seem to be very valuable. I think I'm kinda trying to fish for the pros and cons of majoring in math vs. physics and where that can lead me. Also, if research is a bad field for money and living comfortably, are there science related fields that are better?

    edit: I was also wondering about the field of statistics? Would being a statistician be good for me where I can work wtih scientists and possibly people in other fields and help them in the work?

    Thanks so much for your help by the way
    Last edited: May 26, 2008
  7. May 26, 2008 #6
    I honestly don't know what u can do outside of medicine, law, business. Im hopign someone answers your questions too!

    So i cant be sure of the demand for jobs relating to math and statistics. Hope someone knows mroe to help you out.
  8. Mar 20, 2011 #7
    I'm also curious to hear more input into this. Do these companies look for physics phD's ? Or is having an engineering degree alot more helpful? Are these positions as hard to obtain as becoming a professor in academia?
  9. Mar 20, 2011 #8
    Bear in mind that majoring in physics does not require you to pursue a career as a physicist. A B.S. in physics can be incredibly versatile, if you market yourself the right way. One option for you might be to go with the physics major, and get your hands wet with some undergraduate research; later, when you have a better idea of what a career in academic physics entails, you can decide whether or not you want to go to grad school and beyond.

    As for comp sci courses, etc., I can't make a general statement, but in my experience, you don't learn much of that in physics classes. Some schools have a Computational Physics course or something like that, which is obviously an exception. For the most part, you might learn a few ad hoc things in physics classes, but a fuller understanding will have to be learned in a separate class or on your own. The upside is, programming is another one of those things that can be applied to a lot of different jobs. Even if you don't end up going into physics, knowing how to program will probably give you a leg up somewhere down the line. Unless your schedule is already on the heavy side, taking a course in programming is pretty much win-win.
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