What happens to mediocre physics majors?

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In summary, a lot of people struggle through their graduate school courses, but with effort and some luck, can achieve success. Joining the military or a similar profession may be an option, but should be considered carefully.
  • #1
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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 high school 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.
 
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  • #2
laxatives said:
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.
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.
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.
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.

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.
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.
 
  • #3
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.
 
  • #4
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.
 
  • #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.
 
  • #6
ThinkToday said:
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.
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!

Go to graduate school. It's much easier than college, IMO.
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.
 

1. What career options are available for mediocre physics majors?

Mediocre physics majors may have a harder time finding job opportunities in the field of physics. However, they can still pursue careers in related fields such as engineering, data analysis, or teaching.

2. Will being a mediocre physics major affect my chances of getting into graduate school?

Graduate schools often look for students with strong academic backgrounds, so being a mediocre physics major may decrease your chances of getting into a top graduate program. However, you can still improve your chances by gaining research experience and excelling in other areas, such as letters of recommendation and test scores.

3. Can mediocre physics majors still make significant contributions to the field of physics?

Yes, mediocre physics majors can still make valuable contributions to the field of physics. Many scientific breakthroughs are the result of collaboration and teamwork, so even if an individual is not the most talented physicist, their contributions and ideas can still be valuable to a team.

4. Is it worth it to continue studying physics if I am a mediocre student?

It ultimately depends on your personal goals and interests. If you have a passion for physics and are determined to improve, then it may be worth it to continue studying. However, if you are struggling and not enjoying the subject, it may be worth exploring other fields that align better with your strengths and interests.

5. Can a mediocre physics major still have a successful and fulfilling career?

Yes, absolutely. Success is not solely determined by one's academic performance. Many successful individuals have overcome challenges and obstacles in their academic journey, and their determination and hard work have led them to fulfilling careers. It's important to focus on your strengths, continue learning and growing, and find a career path that aligns with your passions and interests.

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