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What to do for a wannabe theorist?

  1. Jul 24, 2009 #1

    I have recently finished my A-levels (Physics, Maths, Further Maths, Biology, AS Chemistry). For most people, this would mean going to uni next (academic) year.

    However, I have been suffering recently with very serious problems with depression. Amongst other things, I find it very difficult to socialise and be motivated. As a result, I've decided to take a gap year whilst I try to get things sorted out, rather than try and devote myself to a full-time intensive university course. I've told the universities I've accepted offers from (Manchester and Imperial College, both for the Physics with Theoretical Physics courses, and they have said they'd be happy to defer my place until 2010 entry.

    Now though, I'm having second thoughts on which course to do. I thoroughly enjoy the theoretical side of things, and detest experimental work (I think, but I do enjoy electronics, hardware, computers etc...). This is the primary reason I went and applied for the Physics with Theo. Physics courses. But I did find this course recently which I did not apply for last year:


    It appears to be the Physics course, but with all the labwork cut out and replaced by loads of extra Maths. Could this be a more suitable course for someone aspiring to be a theorist? I heard a quote once from, I think, Peter Higgs, that he once tried to work in a specific field, but found the maths too heavy going; adding that if he had more of a mathematical background he'd have been able to manage.

    So would doing all this extra maths (some of it not currently accepted as being totally relevant to physics) be worth cutting out the experimental side? Or would some labwork be a necessary component of experience with respect to becoming a successful theorist.

    I know I've ranted a lot here, but there is also the problem I have of what to do for my gap year. The only things I've been able to think of are to buy some maths/physics books designed for uni (Feynman physics lectures, Maths for Engineering and Physics by RHB), and to get a part time job. Is there anything I could do related to theoretical physics/maths that could be useful?

    Thank you in advance!

  2. jcsd
  3. Jul 24, 2009 #2


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    I'm currently on this course. It is true that it has no experimental component, and I'm still not quite sure whether that's a good thing or a bad thing. I certainly do enjoy the extra mathematics, and am more theoretically orineted, but I sometimes feel that a little bit of experimental stuff wouldn't be so bad. But if I had taken the straight physics, a lot of the maths that I consider essential for theoretical physics would have been cut out.
  4. Jul 25, 2009 #3
    I took a "combined science" degree taking mainly physics and maths courses. I didn't enjoy it because the maths courses were unrelated to the physics and vice versa. It all felt rather "bitty" and I had serious problems with motivation. My physics course had an experimental component and, like you, I disliked "the lab". I could have happily not gone to any lab lessons and I don't think they were necessary at all to my understanding of physics. They were only useful for finding out if I liked using a screwdriver, and other fiddly tools, and I already (like you) knew I did not. (I packed in the chemistry component of my combined degree 'cause physics labs & chem labs were a double dose of boredom & pain!)

    By the way, how can you get 41/2 A levels with the grades needed to get you into two top universities and be suffering from lack of motivation? Blimey. How good will you be when you get motivated?

    I took an extra A level in Computer Science at the local technical college, which I found to be stretching both intellectually and socially. The class had some older people in it who were very interesting to talk to. So you might want to check out taking such a course at the local tech.

    Other ideas -- I once volunteered to teach people how to use computers at a local community centre. That was a great social experience! It'll look good on the CV as well.

    A friend of mine (physics PhD candidate) once worked part-time as a dishwasher at local up market wine bar. I've never seen anyone improve his social life so quickly and radically! (And I got to tag along...)

    Other ideas -- heck you're on a year out -- do some travelling. Go on a group holiday for young(ish) singles touring round an interesting country (Greece/Turkey...) That is, upmarket 18/30s -- more "tour of ancient ruins" than "ruining your liver".
  5. Aug 3, 2009 #4

    Thank you guys for your replies, very kind of you.

    I'm sorry to take so long to reply, I've had difficulty with access to the internet recently.

    Dx, WRT the mathematical components of your course, would you think they are all relevant to the theoretical physics? Is there much emphasis on the application of the maths to physics, or is it just like being in a maths course?

    Do you reckon the course is designed for students who wish to become theorists, or students who simply can't decide between maths and physics?

    :P I did a lot of work in my first year, and I had already done quite a bit of work on my second year stuff before I started. So, it was easy to "coast" when my problems started. Most of the days I didn't go to college to be honest. I did get far lower scores this year than I predicted in my first year.

    I did consider doing a relevant course (possible open university, or some distance learning program), still looking.

    I'm also thinking about volunteering to teach/assist physics at a school I went to.

    Something I'll have to think about, thanks for the suggestion! Although, I doubt I will enjoy it until I manage to sort things out.

    Does anybody know of any work experience or similar programs for physics/maths by the way? This is also something I'm trying to research.
  6. Aug 4, 2009 #5
    You said you wanted to sort out your problems with socialising! How will doing an OU/ distance learning course help with that? I used to work for the OU, and I'd never recommend becoming an OU student to improve your social life. There are a few face to face tutorials, but not many, and students tend to arrive on time, listen not talk, and run away home after the tutorial. That is, zero socialising.

    I'm not sure that volunteering at your old school is a good idea. As you became depressed while at school, is it really a good idea to go back there? Won't going back there just give you a feeling of being stuck in a rut? Try something different. Move on.

    The approach of "I must sort out my depression before doing anything" is a totally wrong approach. You'll do nothing which will make you more depressed, which will make you do nothing, and you.... a vicious circle! Rather - try doing something and see if it makes you less depressed. If it does, do more of the same..

    Book recommendation: "The How of Happiness: A Practical Guide to Getting the Life You Want" by Sonja Lyubomirsky. It's by a top Stanford researcher and takes a scientific approach to chasing the blues away. Good for the physics geek who's feeling a bit down.

    If the group holiday sound a bit frightening, try joining a walking group. Going for a gentle stroll on Sunday afternoon with some nice rambling people is about as non-threatening as socialising gets. Also, walking is useful exercise, allows you to recharge your batteries, and therefore it may help with your motivational problems.
  7. Aug 6, 2009 #6
    i experience the same thing. i did ib exam though instead of a level. beginning of second year i feel awfully depressed and my grades suffer quite badly. but somehow managed to score pretty well for the ib exams. nevertheless i decided to take a gap year to fully recover myself despite offers from eth zurich and other universities in germany. i am thinking of becoming a theorist as well.
  8. Aug 7, 2009 #7
    I'm not sure that this "taking a year off to recover" is a good thing. If you want to "get a social life" then where better than University! In Freshers week you can join any of a hundred different clubs offering all kinds of social & cultural experiences. Also in the first year you don't have to work that hard, just keep up with the classes and enjoy the social whirl...
  9. Aug 7, 2009 #8
    hello mal4mac. thanks for your advice. actually i am taking a gap year not to get a social life or anything. it's just that recently i think my mindset is not quite ready yet for university. last year i almost completely lost my passion in maths and physics which explains my faltering grades. luckily i have finished reading up most of the topics covered when i was still in my first year. so basically a gap year for me is to do interesting maths and physics projects like doing some olympiad problems which probably would ignite my passion again. and also since the lectures will be taught completely in german, i guess it's time to hone my language skill cause mainly i use english and indonesian. actually i would love to study in uk or us but with current financial situation it's not possible. so the best option left is in zurich or germany. and i don't quite agree with you when you say that in the first year we dont have to work that hard. well according to some resources, more than 50% of first year undergrads at eth zurich fail the Basispruefung (the exam that has to be taken by the end of the first year) and therefore, have to repeat. i guess this would harm my chance (assuming i force myself now and end up jeopardizing my grades) to get into good grad schools later on. and besides i would just be wasting my parents' money if i could not get good grades and have to repeat, even worse with current crisis.
  10. Aug 8, 2009 #9
    50%. Ouch! At my University, in the UK, only someone doing no work could fail the first year, and you just had to pass the exams because they had little or minimal impact on your BSc grade. You actually should be able to get A grades and have a good social life even if you overdo the social side in the first year, just don't overdo it too much! The big mistake would be to ignore all social possibilities and just work -- that makes Jack a very dull boy.
  11. Aug 9, 2009 #10
    interesting. but isn't the Bsc grade supposed to be based on the accumulative marks of the student throughout his or her 3 years of study?

    yes i agree with you. too much work will burn out my brain. but actually i am a bit curious with all prodigies out there, who complete their phds at such young age (like 22 yrs old). do they have any social life? are they actually going to be at the top in their respective fields or are they just gonna end up as average joe? cause last year i read the ironic case of british maths prodigy sofia yusof (or whatever her name is) who became a prostitute after completing her degree at oxford. really a sad case.
  12. Aug 10, 2009 #11
    In many places the first year counts for a very low percentage, your experience may differ, check the details of the courses you apply for.

    Some do, some don't. Mozart did.

    Some do, some don't


    You got the name wrong. The telegraph article on this case says: 'she sent her family an e-mail, accusing her father of making her life "a living hell" and of putting her through "15 years of physical and emotional abuse".

    J.S. Mill's Autobiography is well worth reading in this context. His dad had him learning Greek at 3, although (apart from a nervous breakdown) he didn't turn out too bad...

    Anyway, this is turning into another thread. The OP wanted some suggestions on how to get a better social life, prodigy or not. Mozart (from what I could glean form the film Amadeus!) appeared to have a much improved social life after leaving his controlling father behind. That's what's so great about going away to university; you get to leave all the s*&t behind :-)

    I think living in Vienna helped Mozart, which indicates that choosing a lively city is a good idea. Having lived in several lively and several not lively cities, I think choosing on the basis of lively city is great idea. Thinking of the OP again, Manchester and Imperial would be great choices for 'lively city', Warwick I'm not sure about!
  13. Aug 12, 2009 #12
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