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Studying Which area of physics should I study?

  1. Aug 20, 2016 #1
    I like science a lot. Research, discovering new things, math, and anything to do with space is exciting to me. I also like the application of physics, like engineering. I was thinking about majoring in space physics, astronomy, experimental, applied, or engineering physics. Maybe a minor somewhere in engineering or double major. I'm really not sure about which would be best for me, and what possible careers would look like. I could use some recommendations.

    More about me:
    I got pretty bad grades in high school because I had no plans for the future until I took a AP physics course my junior year. I decided I wanted to study physics in college and I started getting A's. I've just started my second year in my local community college where I have taken most of my general ed. This semester I'm taking more general ed, along with calc 2 and csci 265 (intro to C++). I'm taking as many units as they are allowing me and I have maintained a 3.7GPA . I'm pretty disappointed with my GPA. I got a B in spanish and Calc 1, but A's in 10 other classes. I plan to transfer to a 4 year in California. Science is my strongest, then math. English is unfortunately my weakest, and a physicist probably has to do a lot of writing.
    My related hobbies involve electrical engineering and lots of computer stuff, programming and hardware.
    I don't care much for money, I don't need a 60k+ salary. I'd be happy with $15 an hour, as long as I like my job. A career in teaching doesn't appeal to me at the moment, but maybe after a couple decades of working in some industry it will.

    I've read lots of similar threads, but the answer really depends on the asker. I'm looking for more of an opinion and advice than an objective answer. Thanks in advance for the responses!
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 20, 2016 #2
    I can only say this for myself, so I hope others will come from different areas and share their thoughts on the subject. As an advice, i think you should keep it flexible. I've done my degree (which is joint with masters) in the UK (in theoretical physics) so I won't know what are the options you can take. But see if your university will have the option to change what kind of course you are taking, after the first year. The point of being flexible is that later you may find new interests and with the knowledge you already acquired, you will be able to make a better judgement on what you want.

    Regardless of what you do, certain classes are essential, such as classical mechanics, electromagnetism and thermodynamics and I would always assume they are compulsory, both in physics and engeneering, although the way these subjects are presented will probably be different for physicists and engeneers. More freedom will come as the years progress of course.
    In terms of options, one possible route you can take is astronomy. With astronomy you can do experimental, theoretical and computational research. Yes in fact there is a lot of room for programming, data analysis and modelling in astronomy and astrophysics.

    I might be a bit biased here, but in terms of engeneering there will be opportunites even if you choose physics, but the other way around is harder (I've heard this statement form people, at least when it comes to a PhD). I will always be supporting a solid physics education even if you have to do extra work to learn some of the engeneering subjects.

    Since you want to hear different opinions, even though you don't seem to want to go to a more theoretical pathway, I will still give my opinion on this. I like the theoretical aspects of physics, because it is about creating new models, which may or may not abstract a lot from reality (at least on appearances). I also enjoy the mathematical challanges of theories, but this aspect is not so easy to understand early on. Maths is extremely important in Physics. I have a friend who thought it was not that important, while in high school. But doing a degree in physics forced him to change this view. But the fact that maths is not all worked out (that's why mathematicians exist) means there are some challanges for physicist, particularly when we use results have not been proven or definitions that are ill defined. Newton invented calculus because the tools necessary to solve the problem of gravitational pull of the moon by the earth, were not available in his time, so he had to create a new method to solve this problem.
  4. Aug 20, 2016 #3
    I believe I'm partially in the same boat with you, Griffin. I got horrible grades in high school, no future plans other than going to the military. Now that is all said and done, my interest in physics is sparked, I'm stuck playing catch up, especially with math. It seems like you've got somethings I don't, which is good computer literacy and self-discipline to add on as many courses as you can. I could probably learn some things from you! Just follow your passion and stay flexible as Lucas stated.
  5. Aug 21, 2016 #4
    Thank you for the replies! Sorry for my delay, classes start tomorrow so I've been very busy prepping.

    It's good to know there are others out there in the same situation. My friend who I met last year in class was going to my school just to get a degree, with no real aim. He totally failed high school and did drugs for about 5 years before getting his life together. I introduced him to physics and he found actual motivation to further his education. He changed his major from economics to astrophysics and got accepted into UC San Diego as a transfer student. He doesn't even have precalc/trig done yet. He's really far behind in math, but if he got in, I figure I have an excellent chance of going to the school I want.

    I force myself into such heavy workloads because that's where I'm most efficient. I have a strong tendency to procrastinate, and having a ton of work to do means I need to do it now or it won't get done in time. I took only one class over the summer and I basically shut down my brain and coasted for two months. It was incredibly boring. If you want to increase your work capacity, try adding something to your daily routine. Find something that takes a lot of effort and concentration, but you enjoy doing. Preferably something that would help you improve yourself in your weak areas. For computer literacy, you could build a desktop and put Linux on it. Or you could get a Raspberry pi and mess around with it. Me personally, I need to read more. I read very slowly and zone out a lot. It should also help my weak writing and communication skills. Right now I'm reading QED by Richard Feynman and something called Mathematics for Physicists.

    Theoretical physics sounds a bit too much like an office job for me. Running simulations and inventing new models sounds fun, but I'd rather be the one to test those models. Designing some experiment to test something, figuring out how to get a spacecraft to its destination, or experimenting with alternative forms of propulsion (quantum vacuum thrusters, ion drives, or giant lasers) all seems more appealing to me.
    It's good to know that I'll have a couple years to consider all my options while I get those compulsory classes done. Astronomy definitely might be one for me to consider, but I'd like to know how it compares to astrophysics and space physics. I'd also like to know how applied physics, experimental physics, and engineering physics compare. I'll keep myself as flexible as possible, but I'd like to know what my options might look like.
  6. Aug 21, 2016 #5
    It sounds like IT and programming in particular is something you enjoy doing.
    Getting a good qualification in that area will open many doors to more specialized career choices in the future if you wish to.
  7. Aug 21, 2016 #6
    IT isn't something that really grabs my career interest, but I do find the physics of sending data fairly fascinating. Bandwidth and transfer rate calculations, radar, lasers, fiber optics are all pretty cool. I'd like to experiment with that stuff.
  8. Aug 21, 2016 #7
    Sounds like you gonna need a good understanding of quantum physics. Well that is compulsory anyway.

    To be honest, physicists also engineer sometimes. There is a point where it may be difficult to distinguish them. You could say perhaps that the goal is different, physicists will engineer in order to make something useful for experiment, while an engineer will make something more applicable to society right away. But these are generalizations and there are exceptions. Nowadays both physicist and engineer will likely be using computer simulations, just because the apparatus for experiment may be costly.
  9. Aug 21, 2016 #8
    I like what you're saying. That's exactly why both physics and engineering are appealing to me. Computer stuff is definitely an interest of mine and it should be included in whatever I end up doing, I just don't want it to be the only thing that I do. I understand the compromise due to cost. I do projects and a lot of them involve simple circuit components and computer programs because they're cheap.
  10. Aug 21, 2016 #9
    Then definitely look into electrical engineering. These are all areas in which electrical engineers do research.

    Just a note: you can't make groundbreaking contributions to every field. It's already unlikely to perform groundbreaking work in one field. That's okay, though, because honestly, every technical field can be interesting if you get deep enough into it, and you seem like the kind of person who would be interested doing anything sufficiently technical, so definitely just focus on your courses now and explore the various fields to see what you find most interesting.
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