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Upper Level Physics classes - really that insanely difficult?

  1. Aug 18, 2012 #1
    I am kinda anxious about taking upper level physics classes. I want to major in physics and got an A+ and A in physics I and II, respectively, calc-based. I got an A in Multivariable calc and an A+ in Linear Algebra I. But for one reason or another, partially because of all the insanity in these forums with a lot of the posts of people worrying and freaking out (myself included haha) and also my projections and interpretations of what I hear about the physics workload, I feel like majoring in physics is like climbing Mt. Everest. I don't know why I am psyching myself out. Is it really that bad? This fall I am scheduled for Optics, Thermo/stat mech, and Diff Eq. Am I really going to have 40 hour work weeks from 3 courses, with no time for my girlfriend, no time for work, no time for a life? I don't want to go back to biology and memorize the names and functions of cells and animals (although in grad school biology can get quantitative so the above caricature begins to deteriorate), but I'm at the same time scared of all the grapevines and horror stories of physics etc. Anyone have any advice from experience? thanks
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  3. Aug 18, 2012 #2

    Vanadium 50

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    There are 168 hours in a week. Spending 40 - less than 25% of them - working should not mean "no time for my girlfriend, no time for work, no time for a life?"
  4. Aug 18, 2012 #3


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    Nothing worth having comes easily. It's a degree in physics. If it was that easy they'd call it kindergarten.

    That said, in my experience most physics majors do have some semblance of a balance in their lives - even during those heavy course load semesters.

    Personally I what I always had trouble with was predicting how long problem sets would take. If an English major has to read so many books in a week, then they can use their reading speed to figure out how long it's going to take and budget accordingly. I found problem sets could vary considerably. And that was coupled with the fact that I was too stuborn to let problems go after I'd spent too much time on them. But even then I managed to do well enough to get into a great graduate program, volunteer for about 16 hours per week, go out on weekends, and I even had a girlfriend at times.
  5. Aug 21, 2012 #4
    Thanks. Yea I just am a bit unsure of myself. The thing that I guess I don't understand is when I hear that problem sets take like 10 hours per class I wonder 2 things: the first thing is what are you doing for those 10 hours? Mostly staring into space and thinking how to approach this? Or trying different things and actively working? Model building seems most intimidating, when they don't lead you at all and you have to work up something from scratch on your own with hardly anything to go by. Another concern of mine is that before I even give up/get frustrated, I'll simply get bored and say "who gives a crap about doing a 10 hour problem set?" Obviously this isn't good, because then I won't do well if I don't do the HW, but has anyone ever had such feelings? Maybe it's just an expression of frustration at the end of the day, and not really true boredom. But that's indeed my biggest fear - that before I even give up I'll simply lose interest and get bored given how insanely long the problem set lengths sound to me. It's just hard for me to imagine why it would take so long to do. Thanks in advance for any more insight you can give.
  6. Aug 21, 2012 #5
    Yes, it is that insanely difficult. And you may find that no matter how hard you work, you simply cannot get a high grade.

    Yes, there are 168 hours per week. You'll be spending 49-56 of them asleep for optimal productivity (without which you'll spend an equivalent amount of time on lost productivity), 14 of them on transportation and random errands, 21 of them preparing and eating food, 7 on essential self maintenance such as showering, cleaning the room and brushing teeth, and 4 hours per class minimum so 12 in your case. That turns out to be 103-110 hours per week for just the BARE ESSENTIALS OF SURVIVAL WITH ZERO RECREATION OR EXTRA WORK OUTSIDE OF SHOWING UP TO CLASS.

    Now imagine you want to go to a party, or have to study extra, or want to do research, or just time to relax... how much time do you really have?
  7. Aug 21, 2012 #6
    I would not use "insanely difficult" to describe the upper level undergrad physics course load. (Well, if your base line for "difficult" is a humanities course, maybe physics counts as "insanely difficult," but that's a different matter entirely.) I did not spend an undo amount of time studying when I got my physics B.S., nor did it feel like the ramp up in difficulty was all that extreme going from the entry level sequence to the upper level course work (actually, in a lot of ways, the upper level courses were easier, because I'd already learned how to think like a physicist when attacking a problem).

    Grad. school, on the other hand, is an entirely different matter. The standard course load for a first year grad. student will cause you to lose sleep, miss meals, and long for the days when a problem set only took you a few hours to complete.
  8. Aug 21, 2012 #7
    Ok I get the feeling that you are pulling my leg and responding to my anxiety in kind.
  9. Aug 21, 2012 #8


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    Ultimately, it depends on the kind of person you are.

    To be sure, upper division physics coursework is going to be difficult by almost any objective standard. However, for some people this means spending 4hr/day on average for the coursework and for others this number is closer to 8.

    If you imagine getting 8hr for sleep, then spending 8hr/day on coursework (which I would say is the absolute most), you have to go to lecture and whatnot for a few more hours and this leaves only a handful of hours for 'leisure'. But again I think this is a rather extreme case -- for most people, even if this is the case during the week, the weekend offers the much needed respite. Judging from the experiences of my peers, you might consider spending 8hr/problem set/week, which for 4 classes amounts to only 4.5hr/day of coursework. Stressful? Probably. Something to be losing sleep over? No.
  10. Aug 21, 2012 #9
    Yes they are totally pulling your leg.

    There is nothing to worry about upper division courses. I found upper division courses easier than lower division courses for many reasons.

    1) you are now more experienced: have better time management skills, know how to study etc.
    2) class sizes are smaller, professors and TAs are usually more helpful, fellow students are also more helpful
    3) material is more interesting which makes it slightly more motivating

    If problem sets are what you are worried about, I highly suggest that you do problem sets in groups with friends. Don't rely on friends to do the questions for you, but do the questions individually together. Then check answers with each other. Chances are if you get stuck others will get stuck, then you can work together to solve the problem which is usually faster than by yourself. This makes problems sets both faster and more enjoyable. Just stay focused or else this method will completely backfire.

    One thing to really beware of is upper division lab courses. Especially those which have no predefined lab sessions. In my third year I spent half my time (all my time when I was not in class almost) in the lab working on experiments trying to get them to work. Those types of things are time sinks, and require good time management skills to do well in, but they are manageable.

    Finally, just choose your courses wisely and make sure semesters are balanced. Taking a whole bunch of hard courses in one semester will just set you up for failure.
  11. Aug 21, 2012 #10
    In general, no.

    I found most of my upper division physics courses harder than my lower division courses but none of them were as big of a time commitment as lower division mechanics.

    They were almost all 'harder' though, in the sense that while my grades were satisfactory and I could solve most problems given to me, I felt much more uneasy about the material than in lower division courses.

    The only insanely difficult upper division course at my university is real analysis. It's the only course where regardless of who is teaching it, it's hard for almost everybody.
  12. Aug 21, 2012 #11


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    Oh god yes. Uchicago's honors real analysis is what you're talking about? Scary stuff lol but yeah from what I've heard from other upper class-men that was the only really hard class and most of the lower division (honors and non - honors) physics courses and the math courses were easy test wise and it prepared them enough for the upper division ones but honors real analysis was the devil's playground.

    This seems to be a pretty consistent statement from what I've heard from my older friends doing physics at various unis; the more rigorous and difficult (problem sets wise) your lower division mechanics and EM courses were the easier you found the upper division courses.
    Last edited: Aug 21, 2012
  13. Aug 22, 2012 #12


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    I found upper division E&M to be jaw-droppingly difficult. I felt like all I had upstairs was a reptile brain. Others breezed through it, though!

    Don't let the horror stories scare you. Your grades so far are excellent, which indicates you are bright and have good study habits. I think you'll do just fine!
  14. Aug 24, 2012 #13


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    I think it depends a lot on whether you enjoy it. I am in graduate school. I spend the same time now on physics (research and classes) as i did as an undergrad, about 10 or more hours a day. The only reason I can do this without going insane is because there is generally nothing Id rather be doing. Its not just my job or school, most days its my hobby. Its often my leisure activity. Sometimes it is just hard work and requires serious discipline. But no matter what i do it because i need to know. I need to know what goes on in the universe. If you truly approach classes with a relentlessly inquisitive mindset, you will succeed with flying colors based how youve said youve already done.
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