What subject is better for an aspiring experimental physicist?

  • #1
charactered40
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I'm in my last 2 years of high school, and I have to pick a speciality to study before becoming an undergraduate and studying in college. In the future, I'm hoping to become an experimental physicist. My high school offers 3 specialities that are relevant to physics to pick from, all of them have the exact same physics course:

1. Experimental Sciences speciality: Main subjects are life and earth sciences (biology and geology), physical sciences (physics and chemistry), and mathematics. Mathematics is slightly less important than the other two. Engineering is completely missing.

2. Technical Sciences speciality: Main subjects are engineering (mechanical engineering and electrical engineering), physical sciences (physics and chemistry), and mathematics. Mathematics is slightly less important than the other two. Life and earth sciences are completely missing.

3. Mathematics speciality: Main subjects are mathematics and physical sciences. Life and earth sciences come next but they aren't as important as the two aforementioned subjects. Engineering is completely missing.

The difference between the mathematics speciality and the experimental sciences is the fact that the the mathematics speciality sacrifices so much life and earth sciences in favor of mathematics, while the experimental sciences branch doesn't do the same and maintains a "balance" between these two subjects.

Now comes the issue, different teachers gave me different advice. I asked this same question on a different forum before but I haven't gotten an answer so I posted it here again since I was told this forum is good for questions related to physics. Here are the arguments from different sides (these are just opinions based on what I gathered so far):

- Arguments for experimental sciences speciality: Physics is essentially an experimental science, so learning about experiments and the experimental method included in biology/geology while keeping a high importance to mathematics (unlike how the mathematics speciality butchers the importance of life and earth sciences) would benefit you. Furthermore, this speciality would enrich and broaden your scientific background better than any other speciality, because biology/geology would show you how physics works in other fields. On top of that, mathematics is just a "tool" in physics so it shouldn't be prioritized this much like in the mathematics speciality. Therefore, this speciality is a balance between everything. It'd teach you more in general and it leaves the real deal of mathematics and physics for the university level.

- Arguments for technical sciences speciality: Experimental physicists' work is very similar to that of an electrical engineer. So studying this subject would be very beneficial since it's not present in any other specialities. Also, engineering is the application of physics, so studying it along physics would benefit you a lot because you learn how physics works in real life. Moreover, an argument that's shared with the mathematics speciality is; you don't really need life and earth sciences to understand and be good at physics, so they're just a waste of time.

- Arguments for mathematics speciality: Mathematics is an essential tool in physics, even for experimental physicists. Plus, mathematics is harder to catch up to than experiments. So, it'd be better to learn more mathematics and less experiments since experiments and the experimental method is much easier to learn than mathematics. Additionally, This speciality keeps just the essentials (physics and mathematics) and what directly benefits your physics studies while still teaching you what's necessary about experiments in the less important life and earth sciences. Moreover, an argument that's shared with the mathematics speciality is; you don't really need life and earth sciences to understand and be good at physics, so they're just a waste of time. Besides this, a controversial argument given to me by a teacher; what you learn in other specialities (specifically the experimental sciences speciality) won't stick to you because they're mainly about memorization (this is probably not true for the technical sciences speciality), but the problem solving and logical thinking you acquire thanks to mathematics sticks to you and it shapes your intelligence since you aren't just memorizing facts but rather learning to think logically.

What do you guys think is the right choice? I don't know what I should pick if I want to be an experimental physicist. I personally don't mind any speciality, I'm already good at the main subjects in each one of them. I just want the speciality that directly benefits my physics studies. I realize that this choice probably wouldn't matter this much since it's still early. However, remember that this choice will stick with me for 2 years, so I'd imagine the difference would still be distinguishable in the long run.
 
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  • #2
What country are you in?
 
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  • #3
That's hard to tell. So the following is also one more opinion: The main difficulties starting studying physics when coming from high school is mathematics. So it's a good strategy to learn as much mathematics as you can before entering the university, because math will be the hardest part in the first few semesters.
 
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  • #4
The downplaying of math in the life/earth sciences is shortsighted. More and more you see math being applied to these areas and helping to advance these sciences. So a good foundation in math early on is a great way to start while you sort out the rest of your interests.
 
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  • #5
gleem said:
The downplaying of math in the life/earth sciences is shortsighted.
This is high school, and we don't know what country so we don't really know how much of this downplaying is downplaying and how much is, um, "marketing"
 
  • #6
gleem said:
The downplaying of math in the life/earth sciences is shortsighted. More and more you see math being applied to these areas and helping to advance these sciences. So a good foundation in math early on is a great way to start while you sort out the rest of your interests.
I don't view it as a downplaying of math in the life and earth sciences. It's a matter of time constraint (how much material can be taught within a two-year program) and compromise among priorities (the different programs place greater emphasis on certain topics than others, and omit certain topics completely). There's not likely to be complete agreement among educators and technical professions on what the proper compromise should be. Regardless, the OP's faced with the above three options.

Still waiting to hear back from the OP. If the OP needs to choose one program from the menu offered, the choice will depend on the constraints of the follow-on university system in their specific country.
 
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  • #7
CrysPhys said:
What country are you in?
I'm in Tunisia, a North African country, my family plans to pay for me to continue my studies in a European or American country after I graduate from high school. The official program that thoroughly describes what each speciality studies and focuses on is available in French on the internet ( http://www.education.gov.tn/?p=500 and http://www.edunet.tn/ressources/ped...eaux_programme2011/secondaire/physique3_4.pdf ), but the latest is from 2011 and it's a bit long.

The exact hours for each speciality and the weights of the subjects:

Mathematics speciality:
  • Mathematics: 7 hours a week and x4 weight in both years.
  • Physical Sciences: 5 hours a week and x4 weight in both years.
  • Life and Earth Sciences: 1.5 hours a week in both years, x1.5 weight in the first year and x1 weight in the second year.
Experimental Sciences speciality:
  • Mathematics: 5 hours a week and x3 weight in both years.
  • Physical Sciences: 5 hours a week and x4 weight in both years.
  • Life and Earth Sciences: 4 hours a week in the first year and 5 hours a week in the second year, x4 weight in both years.
Technical Sciences speciality:
  • Mathematics: 5 hours a week and x3 weight in both years.
  • Physical Sciences: 5 hours a week and x4 weight in both years.
  • Engineering/Technology (Named "Technique" or "Technologies" in French, and "Technology" when translated from Arabic): Consists of electrical engineering and mechanical engineering combined as one subject, 4+4 hours a week (in other words, 4 hours for electrical engineering and 4 hours for mechanical engineering) and x4 weight (x4 weight if we combine those subjects and consider them as one) in both years.
After a quick glance at the official program, I noticed something. The distribution of physics and chemistry in the physical sciences differs in each of these branches. The experimental sciences branch sacrifices a little bit of physics for chemistry (but physics is still more important), this is probably because chemistry is more experimental and has experiments that are relevant to "experimental sciences." From these options, mathematics speciality studies the most physics (more than technical sciences by one single hour in the entire year), so mathematics and technical sciences specialities study more physics than the experimental sciences branch, but the information technology speciality is the one that studies physics the most (even more than the mathematics branch) and chemistry the least (because chemistry is irrelevant to them). This can be seen in the physical sciences exams we take in each branch, the information technology speciality dedicates 15 out of 20 points to physics and 5 points to chemistry, the mathematics and technical sciences specialities both dedicate 13 out of 20 points to physics and 7 out of 20 points to chemistry, and finally the experimental sciences speciality dedicates 11 out of 20 points to physics and 9 out of 2 points to chemistry.
 
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  • #8
CrysPhys said:
Still waiting to hear back from the OP. If the OP needs to choose one program from the menu offered, the choice will depend on the constraints of the follow-on university system in their specific country.
As I said in my previous response, I'm going to study abroad because while my country but I don't really know how universities in other countries work yet. However, in my country, each of those specialities can lead to acceptance in physics programs in university. However, I heard that certain specialities are prioritized over the others... I'm not really sure which specialities receive that treatment for physics-related programs, and I'm not even sure if that's true at all. I'd assume it is for certain cases because for example, engineering-related programs are more likely to accept people from the only speciality that studied mechanical and electrical engineering. But I don't know how the reasoning would work when talking about physics, I don't know if universities would want someone with a more broad knowledge of the science fields surrounding physics (experimental sciences speciality because they focus more on chemistry, biology, and geology), someone with a more narrow focus (mathematics speciality because they focus more on just what's necessary to understand physics and sacrifice other subjects in the process), or someone with more hands-on experience (technical sciences speciality because they have a lot of practical projects).
 
  • #9
* What is meant by "weight" separate from the "number of hours per week"?

* Which courses have hands-on lab work vs just classroom instruction?
 
  • #10
CrysPhys said:
* What is meant by "weight" separate from the "number of hours per week"?

* Which courses have hands-on lab work vs just classroom instruction?
Weight, or score multiplier, is how much the grades of that subject affects my overall grade in the semester and in the school year. For example, consider a weird school with just two subjects, Subject 1 and Subject 2. Subject 1 with grades g1 has a weight W1 = 4 and Subject 2 with grades g2 has a weight W2 = 1. If we want to calculate my overall grade at the end of the semester, we do: (g1*W1 + g2*W2) / (sum of all weights W1 + W2) = (4g1 + g2) / 5.
This way, if I get bad grades in Subject 1 and good grades in Subject 2, my overall grade would still be low because Subject 1 has a heavier weight. If the opposite happens, I'd get a good overall grade. Sorry for this terrible explanation.
Regarding the courses that have hands-on lab work, all specialities have some sorts of hands-on work (experiments or building things) going on, but the amount of hands-on work definitely differs. I just assumed that the technical sciences branch have the most hands-on work because my friend told me that they have practical projects all the time, and they write less in class because they build things with the teacher or in groups after getting introduced and analyzing to the topic. I'm not sure if he was just "bragging" because we lightheartedly joke around and give reasons as to why our speciality is the best all the time in our high school, or if that's actually the case. I'd say it's partially true because their classrooms are indeed different to the regular classrooms and the sciences laboratories.
 
  • #11
CrysPhys said:
I don't view it as a downplaying of math in the life and earth sciences. It's a matter of time constraint (how much material can be taught within a two-year program) and compromise among priorities (the different programs place greater emphasis on certain topics than others, and omit certain topics completely). There's not likely to be complete agreement among educators and technical professions on what the proper compromise should be. Regardless, the OP's faced with the above three options.

It seems that there is an increasing tendency to try to fast-track students into particular careers. This is done by providing more detailed courses relevant to specific specialties at the expense of a more general education.

Texas has a program which all students must participate which provides an introduction to five areas of future careers; STEM, Public Service, Business and Industry, Arts and Humanities, and Multidisciplinary Studies. Each area is further divided into subgroups for example public service includes education, health sciences, law enforcement, culinary arts, or hospitality for a total of 26 credit hours. This results in an "endorsement" for these career paths. You must choose one beginning in the freshman year of high school.

We have seen that encouraging STEM career paths early on has not had the anticipated results. I'm not saying some cannot make a good choice but in general, can you expect a fourteen-year-old to make the right choice of a career at that age?

If high schools are having students specialize and if universities begin looking for a more finely tuned education related to a major doesn't this make the student's problems of matching their previous education to a specific university program more difficult? It seems to me that this becomes more problematic when the high school and the university are in different countries.
 
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  • #12
OP if your plan is to pursue post-secondary studies in Europe or the US, I would recommend looking at the curriculum of some of the programs you would be interested in applying to and see what they cover and what their admission requirements are. In general I will say that in the US at least, undergraduate studies in Physics tend to be fairly general with a balance of both theory and experiment with most specialization occuring at the graduate level (though some universities do offer more specialized fields like Astrophysics, Biomedical Physics, Geophysics, or Engineering Physics). As a result given the typical curriculums you may want to eliminate the Technical Sciences Stream. Not even undergraduate Engineering programs require a high school foundation in Electrical or Mechanical Engineering and any relevant courses like circuits, electronics, photonics/optics, semiconductors etc while interesting and the lab courses can be fun, can be taken at the undergraduate level as elective courses to supplement your Physics studies. What you need to focus on are the more foundational courses of Math, Physics, Chemistry and potentially Biology.

Between the two remaining streams of Mathematics and Experimental Sciences from a strictly preparatory perspective I would lead towards the Math stream as it places the most focus on the most relevant subjects of Math, Physics, and Chemistry but from an strictly educational perspective I would lean towards recommending the Experimental pathway. While unless your interests lean towards Biomedical Physics, Astrophysics, or Geophysics, a foundation in Life and Earth Sciences is not strictly necessary for undergraduate Physics study in the US, the US high school and undergraduate educational models value a breadth of educational studies and there is value to learning those subjects irrespective of your future studies if for no other reason than having a well rounded education. It's also possible that after exposure to them you develop an interest that changes your future educational direction. As a result I recommend keeping your studies as broadly focused as possible while still in high school. Beyond that I should mention that most US universities have other high school subject requirements for admission like studies in the arts, humanities, languages and social sciences as well.
 
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  • #13
gwnorth said:
OP if your plan is to pursue post-secondary studies in Europe or the US, I would recommend looking at the curriculum of some of the programs you would be interested in applying to and see what they cover and what their admission requirements are. In general I will say that in the US at least, undergraduate studies in Physics tend to be fairly general with a balance of both theory and experiment with most specialization occuring at the graduate level (though some universities do offer more specialized fields like Astrophysics, Biomedical Physics, Geophysics, or Engineering Physics). As a result given the typical curriculums you may want to eliminate the Technical Sciences Stream. Not even undergraduate Engineering programs require a high school foundation in Electrical or Mechanical Engineering and any relevant courses like circuits, electronics, photonics/optics, semiconductors etc while interesting and the lab courses can be fun, can be taken at the undergraduate level as elective courses to supplement your Physics studies. What you need to focus on are the more foundational courses of Math, Physics, Chemistry and potentially Biology.

Between the two remaining streams of Mathematics and Experimental Sciences from a strictly preparatory perspective I would lead towards the Math stream as it places the most focus on the most relevant subjects of Math, Physics, and Chemistry but from an strictly educational perspective I would lean towards recommending the Experimental pathway. While unless your interests lean towards Biomedical Physics, Astrophysics, or Geophysics, a foundation in Life and Earth Sciences is not strictly necessary for undergraduate Physics study in the US, the US high school and undergraduate educational models value a breadth of educational studies and there is value to learning those subjects irrespective of your future studies if for no other reason than having a well rounded education. It's also possible that after exposure to them you develop an interest that changes your future educational direction. As a result I recommend keeping your studies as broadly focused as possible while still in high school. Beyond that I should mention that most US universities have other high school subject requirements for admission like studies in the arts, humanities, languages and social sciences as well.
Thank you so much for this detailed reply, I will be sure to look into some programs as you suggested.
Wouldn't 1.5 hours a week of life and earth sciences as I said in one of my previous replies be enough to reveal any potential interest I might have in those subjects and also be enough for a subject to learn irrespective of my future studies?
Also, how would biology potentially be of importance to my physics studies? I understand that chemistry is similar to physics in a sense, but I don't see this similarity between physics and biology.
 
  • #14
You are better off looking at actual course requirements for your potential next step than whatever your school names your program. Because that's what they will do.
 
  • #15
gleem said:
If high schools are having students specialize and if universities begin looking for a more finely tuned education related to a major doesn't this make the student's problems of matching their previous education to a specific university program more difficult? It seems to me that this becomes more problematic when the high school and the university are in different countries.
Yes, this is a key issue, and why I asked at the start what country the OP is in. A bit of a quandary, for sure.

charactered40 said:
Thank you so much for this detailed reply, I will be sure to look into some programs as you suggested.
Wouldn't 1.5 hours a week of life and earth sciences as I said in one of my previous replies be enough to reveal any potential interest I might have in those subjects and also be enough for a subject to learn irrespective of my future studies?
Also, how would biology potentially be of importance to my physics studies? I understand that chemistry is similar to physics in a sense, but I don't see this similarity between physics and biology.

* I got my PhD in experimental solid-state physics; but transitioned to other careers several times. So that biases my opinions.

* There are interdisciplinary physics and biology fields; e.g., biophysics and medical physics. And there are branches of physics that can involve biology. E.g., condensed matter physics includes the study of the structure and physical properties of biological materials (materials generated by living organisms) and the synthesis of materials mimicking the composition and structure of biological materials. Applied physics and engineering physics include R&D in implantable sensors (sensors that are implanted into living organisms, including people). [Interesting anecdote. My undergrad physics thesis advisor did research in various "transport phenomena". While I was doing research on phonon transport in germanium, a visiting researcher (a MD) in the same lab was doing research in sodium ion transport across toad bladder membranes.]

* But beyond directly interactive programs with physics, biology is a foundational science. In the past, there was a distinct separation between physical sciences (including physics) and life sciences (including biology). In recent years (maybe recent decades), the boundaries have been blurring. E.g., I was an undergrad at MIT ages ago. All undergrads (regardless of major) were required to have 2 semesters of physics, 2 semesters of calculus, and 1 semester of chemistry. At some point (I don't know which year), 1 semester of biology was added. Some fields are solidly within a single branch of science or engineering; other fields are increasingly interdisciplinary, and a broad foundation is essential.

* Your goal at this moment is to become an experimental physicist. Certainly a laudable goal. But at your age, what is this goal based on? Do you have some idealized vision of an experimental physicist? Do you have a realistic notion of a day in the life of an experimental physicist?

* I'll give you my perspective (opinion) on your choices. Math for sure is important for physics, but learning math at this level does not require special facilities. So if there are choices that give you more hands-on lab work, I would pick those. And not just lab-work in physics, but in other fields as well.

* You do have a potential problem choosing between an option that includes life and earth science (but not engineering) and an option that includes engineering (but not life and earth science). If you go to a university in the US, that potential problem likely won't exist. If you go to a university in Europe, it might.

Most universities in the US are relatively flexible with choice of major and enrollment in courses (usual caveat: if you look hard enough, you'll probably find some exceptions). In many schools, you don't need to declare a major right away; and, if you do, you are allowed to switch. You are also typically free to enroll in electives outside your major (an increasing exception appears to be computer science and engineering courses that are oversubscribed and hence subject to enrollment restrictions). So, e.g., if you are a physics major, you can enroll in engineering courses or switch to an engineering major. Note that a US high school curriculum typically does not include engineering courses.

But the situation in at least some European universities (will depend on country and specific university, so you need to check carefully), as reported by students posting here, is different. That is, you might need to specify your major at the time of application, and switching majors is limited. Furthermore, enrolling in courses outside your major might be limited. E.g., physics might be in the school of sciences and electrical engineering might be in the school of engineering. So if you want a career in engineering, you need to enroll in the school of engineering at the start. But if you have no previous exposure to engineering in high school, how do you make that choice?

So here's my personal take. If you are planning to study only in the US or only at a European university with a flexible curriculum, choose the option with life and earth science to strengthen your foundations. But if you might study at a European university with a restricted curriculum, choose the option with engineering, so you can be exposed to engineering in high school and have some basis on which to make a decision.
 
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  • #16
I'm not sure how specialized this high school really is. If there are 6 electives and everyone takes 2, they can advertise "We have 15 different tracks!" That's why its better to focus on the courses.
 
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