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Physics What happens to mediocre physics majors?

  1. Nov 1, 2011 #1
    So I'm kind of stressing about my future and what's going to happen when I graduate and I think I need some perspective on where I stand and where I might be in a few years. In brief, I'm really struggling through my classes for a variety of reasons and would like to know what my options are and what others in similar positions have done.

    For a long time, I thought I was pretty set on graduate school, unfortunately I have a very average gpa (lets just say <3.3). That being said, I'm at one one of top 10 physics programs in the US. However I still can't seem to get a good grasp of the material. I don't know if its my work ethic or what, but I can't help but feel like some of my peers spend significantly less time and learn much more, faster. I also don't know how interested I am in dedicating myself to a single research topic. Rather than focus and master a few classes, I tend to take very heavy courseloads in math, physics, materials science, computer science, etc. I'm also an EMT in training and have been working several jobs including tutoring math/physics, teaching sailing/windsurfing, doing research in materials science, and working for the school physic's department filming weekly colloquia. Basically I heard a pretty good quote at work that sums me up: I'd rather make 20% of the effort and do 80% of the work. Unfortunately I hear grad school is basically a decade of your life to get that last 20% (and then some). I don't know how committed I am to that ideal.

    I'm currently in my third year and doing materials science research at a national lab. Honestly, I have a very hard time knowing how its going. One thing that scares me a bit is that although most professors seem to balk once they see my GPA, me and my undergrad peers at this lab seem to have average standings. I might be paranoid, but I feel like our work at the lab is closer to charity than legitimate work. Regardless, I'm learning loads and getting some great experience.

    I do plan on studying for and taking a GRE next fall (2012), but would like some input. I have to admit, I don't think I have any connections in industry that could help with employment. I don't think I would like to teach highschool or teach in general, but I'm concerned about the options I have. I have thought a lot about joining the military (Navy/Air Force). Ultimately, I would love to become a pilot (the pipe dream is to go to space), but I'm sure the competition is as fierce as grad school. I also need to find out more about the military lifestyle and what would happen to me if I washed out. I do plan on talking to a recruiter in the future however. Also interested in becoming a quant, but it sounds like most of those guys have PhDs (and may be despised).

    That was sort of a big rant, so if you've made it this far and have any input, thanks.
    Last edited: Nov 1, 2011
  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 1, 2011 #2

    Simon Bridge

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    Don't know if I can advise you exactly but ... I went through grad school on borderline grades probably about as bad as yours (I had to do a make-up exam to get in.) But that's NZ - the situation is different. I did theoretical physics and my thesis was modelling the InAs/GaSb heterojunction.

    I've been struggling ever since. Some teaching, some "this and that" making money, small-business trouble-shooting, consultancy that sort of thing. The physics training has actually equipped me to cope with a wide variety of work.
    Sounds like me.

    Note: there is a student-macho thing where you always try to look like you are performing well on little effort ... it just like how every guy in High School has been having sex since they were seven ... it's not true: everyone works hard. It is true that some people have to do more slog than others. Unfortunately you cannot second-guess the future. Try to work out where your talent lies. Try to figure out what you'd be happy doing even on no money and garbagety terms.

    That's pretty much the case for undergrad research it is charity work. It's on-the-job training. Learning is the point. But you are in a lab - so that's a plus.
  4. Nov 1, 2011 #3

    Vanadium 50

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    The typical thing for a college graduate - whether majoring in history, women's studies, whatever - to do is to find a job in the business world. Usually this job does not require a specific major (engineering is an exception). That's what most people end up doing. Mediocrity per se doesn't enter into it.
  5. Nov 1, 2011 #4

    Simon Bridge

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    Oh good point - you could even go work for google :)
    In NZ, business positions tend to go to the Business majors though I understand it is different elsewhere.
  6. Nov 1, 2011 #5
    Chill. A 3.3 (or close) at "one of top 10 physics programs in the US" isn't all that bad. A few decades ago, I recall our commencement ceremony at George Tech. The Chancellor said something like "I'm proud of the number of 'C' students that graduate from Georgia Tech because it shows we have a difficult program." You can imagine the moans that swept through the students. Some of us just smiled. As for some progressing easier and faster than you, that's life. Just as you learn things faster than many of your high school peers (hence you made it into one of the top 10 physics programs in the U.S.), you are going to see people that have an easier learning curve than you.

    Go to graduate school. It's much easier than college, IMO. Class sizes are small enough you will know your professors pretty well. Work like you are on a mission. Professors like those that learn fast and easy, but they also like those that may struggle to stay A/B but give it their all. These graduate school professors are the ones with the connections to industry that will help you. Many of the top companies "farm" these graduate schools for talent. You may be able to find a PhD candidate to help that is working an interesting project that has the potential to get you published or at least a line on a CV that would look good. If you’re lucky, you may discover what you want to do in life! You have too many possibilities to be so down at this stage!

    30 plus years ago, we too wondered if we'd find a job. Different faces, same story.
  7. Nov 1, 2011 #6

    Simon Bridge

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    This is a good point: some colleges even have a quota for admitting some weaker students so that it is not too demoralizing on the regular intake. When you are used to doing well at High School, college can be a shock!

    Grad school is definitely easier than college. People start taking you seriously - the research has less of a charity feel to it - and you get to specialize. Once you get into grad school, it's quite hard to fail... though you still have to work hard for the top grades, you'll want to.

    You are already working in a lab - that's pretty good.

    If this is what you like to do, and you can afford it, and you can even just scrape in, the usual advise is to go for it. But I have to be careful here, I got taxpayer assistance to go to grad school so it was a no-brainer.
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