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Too late for a 16 year old to pursue a career in Physics?

  1. Feb 17, 2015 #1
    As stated in the title I'm wondering if I'd be able to pursue a career in Physics at the age of 16. I'm only asking because it seems like many physicists had taken up a serious interest in science at a young age. Obviously I've taken science related courses throughout my life time but I feel like I would be behind. I have a legitimate interests in science but i'm wondering if I should begin to gear myself towards that career path. If you're wondering i'm a Sophomore.
  2. jcsd
  3. Feb 17, 2015 #2
    I don't know. Most physicists I'm aware of were already solving differential equations when they entered high school. It might be too late.
  4. Feb 17, 2015 #3
    That was sarcasm, by the way. You're not expected to even know what you want to do with your life at the age of 16. Physicists aren't all supergeniuses who were doing physics since they were born. Most of them are regular people who at some point decided they thought physics was interesting, and they did it. Liking science from an early age isn't a requirement. Hard work while you're actually studying physics is a requirement for anyone who wants to study physics.
  5. Feb 17, 2015 #4
    That was what I was afraid of :(. I know I want to do something science related with my life (Something that i'll be happy doing for 50+ years). All I really know is computer programming, chemistry, and I currently work at an environmental science center so maybe biologist?
  6. Feb 17, 2015 #5
    Oh okay, you scared me for a second. Well thanks for the answer, this will make course selection a bit easier.
  7. Feb 17, 2015 #6
    Science isn't like a sport where if you haven't been playing since you were 8 you don't have a chance. Just study hard in school and take physics as an undergrad. The path is not that hard to see.
  8. Feb 17, 2015 #7
    I went to a very religious school, where I never even took an actual science course until I entered college. I didn't know calculus, or even F=ma. Now I'm in my junior year, have three published papers, and am on the track to grad school. If it's too late for you, then there was definitely no hope for me.
  9. Feb 18, 2015 #8
    You actually have to wait a few more years.

    I would be more worried about already trying to give up because you are 'too old' at 16. Looks like looking for an excuse.
    In similar threads I see '26 years old, too late?' or 'switching careers at 40', at that point it becomes a legitimate question. But even then, are you ever so old that you should just give up and accept your life sucks and that it will never get any better?
  10. Feb 18, 2015 #9
    I'm guessing the average thing would be to be taking AP calculus, AP physics, and stuff like that at the end of high school.

    It's such a difficult career path that it can help to get an early start, but it's not necessary. Desirable, maybe, but not necessary. It just makes it a little less unpleasant, I think, if you get an early start. And sixteen counts as an early start in my book.

    Who says? There's plenty of math and physics to get started on whenever you feel like it, although it is good not to get ahead of yourself. Feyman was teaching himself calculus at age 13. You don't have to be Feynman, but if you're going to do something that difficult and competitive, it makes sense to get a head start. The question is how to do that. I think the answer to that may depend on who you are. Some people might need a mentor, others, like Feynman, might be okay just reading books and teaching themselves. Sixteen is actually a very early age to get started. I think what you have to worry about is how effective you are at getting started, rather than what age you get started at.

    Plus, you have to keep adjusting to the twists and turns that get thrown at you, even if you get off to a good start. I sort of got a late start in math in some ways (wasn't really interested in it until late in college, as an electrical engineering major, then switched majors and studied math and some physics in grad school), did really well for a while, but at some point I got lost and never really figured out how to do research.
  11. Feb 18, 2015 #10


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    I know VERY FEW high schoolers who have published papers. Most engineering and physics majors take basic physics all over agin in college, and many take calc 1 in college. A few even take pre-calc in college. Just try to take at least basic physics and as many math classes as you can and you'll be fine...
  12. Feb 18, 2015 #11
    Well, Feynman made a lot of discoveries, won a Nobel prize and is so famous you mentioned him and I was actually going to mention him by saying 'you are no Feynman'. It is ok if you want to push yourself and maybe you are a rare talent, who knows. Odds are low but they surely do happen and surely such people would have internet access.

    It's just that I don't think it is a good idea to tell a 16 year old, or anyone for that matter, they have to meet up to Feynman standards.

    No one told the child Feynman he had to study harder or be inferior to whatever child prodigy.
    In fact, there is a lot of child prodigies that got famous as children, in chess, music, math, or whatever else, that burned out, lost interest and never achieved anything superhuman.

    So indeed, Feyman, and quite a few others, were a lot further than you are at 16. But no one here is going to compare you to that standard. If you want to try and meet it, go ahead.

    You have to wait a few years in the sense that first you need to go to college, take the basic undergrad courses, and only then you get to do he fun stuff.

    As every 'old person' will tell you, they have some regrets about not enjoying their childhood more. For many people their teenage years were some of the most fun of their lives. Once they are gone, they will never come back. Once you are an adult, you can no longer act like a child. In fact, I feel emotions and experiences get more numbed out as you get older, slowly the very vivid colours you are used to may be gone and everything seems more pastel and plain, if you get what I mean.
    Therefore, I'd say, don't try to be an adult at 16. The more demands you put on yourself, the more you set yourself up for failure and unhappiness. But on the other side, there can be regret that you slacked too much and let opportunities pass by that will now never come in reach again.
    You have to find a balance there, but you seem already worried you aren't living up to unrealistic ambitious. You need to set yourself up in such a way that even if you fail, you won't be unhappy. But you expressed at your age of 16 that you feel you have failed already and that now it is all too late.

    Well study hard, have fun, have fun with other things and don't forget social and interpersonal development. I myself actually feel that you can learn physics easier when older than social skills. And social skills can get extremely deep and sophisticated and contrary to physics it is much more elusive as to what it is.
  13. Feb 18, 2015 #12
    No one said anything about that. The point is to be able to live up to physicist standards. Which are fairly high. I'm not talking Feynman.

    It's true that there are other things to worry about besides physics. I don't think it's productive to dwell on the extremes of what you could be doing. You could spend 5 hours a day learning physics on top of your other school work and burn yourself out or you could just be a regular teenager and deny yourself the chance to get ahead. There's a happy medium between the two. I was a regular teenager and then burned out as an adult. If I had spend more time gearing up for it as a teenager, maybe things would have been easier.
  14. Feb 18, 2015 #13
    i'd just like to add my two cents here, and say that child prodigies are overrated. You hear about hundreds of kids going to college when they're ten and people say "they're the next einstein," when in fact all they can do is learn, not really THINK. If every child prodigy was the "next big thing" we'd be hundreds of years more advanced. Newton, Einstein, and Feynman were all just seminormal gifted kids growing up. Others like Gauss were child prodigies who didn't burn out or fail to do original research but its by no means required.
  15. Feb 18, 2015 #14
    True. You only hear about the ones that make it. You don't hear so much about the other guys. It's a lot more complicated than just being able to think, though. You can learn and think and still not be good at research. Plus, there are a lot of different levels of thinking. Some people just might not have had the stamina or they might have lacked a clear goal, stuff like that.
  16. Feb 18, 2015 #15
    What I'm trying to say is that by starting early, you can actually spread out your education a little bit more, so that you are less likely to burn out, as opposed to having to cram it all into your college, grad school, and postdoc years. If you just go full steam at age 16, that defeats the whole purpose of what I was saying. The whole point is to do it at a more relaxed pace. Just be casual about it while you can, but chipping away at it for a couple years before college will reduce the amount of work you have to do later.
  17. Feb 18, 2015 #16
    I agree with homeomorphic. Try to be well rounded so as to make you more attractive to Universities, but focus on your specific interests in order to make it clear what you intend to study and why they should consider you for acceptance. A friend of mine started studying physics on his own when he was 12 (mostly reading books, though he started learning the math behind it when he was 14) and fleshed out several ideas of theories so that by the time he was in college he focused on developing the mathematics behind them. Of course since he made them when he was a young teen most of them were wrong due to his lack of detailed knowledge, but he did earn his PhD in only 3 or 4 years because he had a head start.
  18. Feb 18, 2015 #17


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    @OP: I know a bunch of absolute leaders in my field. Except for one, none of them were child prodigies, but had entirely standard careers. From earlier times, I also knew a few "child prodigies"[1] who were at the same age as I (I am not one). Of these, one has never finished university, one has finished it, but taken years longer than he should (he figured the exams were below his level and never did them), one at some point decided to leave the rat race and mellowed down (just finished the PhD, probably 5 years after he could have), one did well at university but left for industry, and one stayed in academia, did very well (although only a few years after starting as assistant prof) and is now a "research super-star" (the one mentioned above).

    There is no need to be a prodigy, child- or otherwise.

    Also you are not actually expected to know any physics at the time you enter university. Universities always start at zero, simply because cannot assume that students know anything (often they don't!). If you really want to go into physics, I would actually recommend strengthening auxiliary skills (like programming, or writing/presentation skills) instead, which would come in extremely useful later.

    [1] (well... teen prodigies, with successes at international math/physics olympiads and so on)
  19. Feb 18, 2015 #18
    The problem is that the word prodigy is too subjective. I don't think it's a good idea to give people the impression that it's going to be easy. In fact, your examples illustrate that point. Yes, being a child prodigy is not the deciding factor, but EVEN if you are a child prodigy, it might be too difficult. To me, that's more discouraging than encouraging. Someone who gets a late start and still succeeds is even more awe-inspiring and even MORE of a prodigy than a child prodigy.

    Yes, but often, you can at least take AP physics and have one less class to take, or you may take a couple extra math classes at a community college or other AP classes. As long as you don't bite off more than you can chew, I don't see a problem with it. And it doesn't have to be restricted to physics.

    That works, too, but I think knowing some physics would be good because it will give you a preview of what you are getting yourself into, plus physics itself will probably be part of the bottleneck later, as well. You're right that it doesn't need to be restricted to physics. You can work on skills that will serve you well, even if you leave physics, like people skills. There are all kinds of books about communication skills that you can read.
  20. Feb 22, 2015 #19
    You're in no way too old.
  21. Feb 22, 2015 #20
    Never be afraid to fail, don't listen to the naysayers, work hard, and have some fun along the way. If your goals are realistic, you should be motivated enough that nothing will stop you from trying to reach them.
  22. Feb 22, 2015 #21
    Let me just add:
    I got a chemical engineering degree in 1978, and had a very satisfying career. In 2006, I decided I wanted to understand quantum mechanics, so I went back to school. I got a Schaum's outline for calculus (because I hadn't done calculus in 25 years and didn't remember it) and just worked through the book. Then I enrolled in Physics 101 at the local university (even though I had taken this for my engineering degree, I didn't really remember it). In 2012, got the PhD in theoretical physics. And I can absolutely tell you, my brain isn't as good now as it was in the seventies, but if you want it you can do it, and don't believe anyone who says otherwise. Good luck!
  23. Feb 22, 2015 #22
    This. I especially stress the importance of realistic goals, make a generalized goal for yourself in the long term and shorter, easier goals in the short term. Make sure to make the goals attainable, and to be flexible so you don't get locked into anything because you think you have to. Saying "I'm going to be the nobel prize winning physicist who unites quantum mechanics and relativity once and for all and will be known as the greatest mind of the 21st century" is not going to help anyone.
  24. Feb 22, 2015 #23


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    Very few physicists are of the Albert Einstein/Isaac Newton/Stephen Hawking variety. I'm not even entirely convinced that Einstein, Newton, or Hawking are of the Einstein/Newton/Hawking variety, at least as it is perceived by the general public in many cases. Many physicists don't see any physics or calculus until college. One does not need to be a born-genius in order to do physics. One simply must enjoy physics and devote themselves to learning it. Most physicists are just regular people that loved and enjoyed math and physics during school, and decided to make a career out of it.

    To wonder if one is "too old" to pursue physics at 16 years of age is a rather silly question to ponder. Very few 16 year olds have any kind of real idea of what they're going to do with their lives. 16 is not "too old" for anything. You're still incredibly young, as a matter of fact. I'm 28 years old, I dropped out of high school when I was 16, and I started college at 25. Now I'm double majoring in physics and mathematics, and I'm at or near the top in every single one of my classes. I wasn't too old to start pursuing physics.
  25. Feb 23, 2015 #24

    Mark Harder

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    If anything, don't be locked-in to a career choice until you're in college. By all means, study in school and on your own; dream and enjoy what physics has to offer. But chances are, you won't know what it's like to really DO physics until college or later. You also probably don't know much about other fields of endeavor yet. H.S., here in the US anyway, isn't nearly as rigorous when presenting literature, philosophy, history, social sciences and all the other things you will - or certainly should - be studying in college. Give these other subjects and the wisdom they teach their chance to infect you.
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