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Why are there so few physics majors?

  1. Jan 22, 2012 #1

    My name is David and I'm new here on the forums. I'm currently in my first year at Western Washington University. I am planning on majoring in physics but I am undeclared at this point.

    Anyway, my question may seem like it has an obvious answer but I can't really seem to figure it out. I am in my first physics class right now. We are currently studying Newtonian mechanics and more specifically, projectile motion and two-dimensional kinematics. The class is very challenging and consumes a lot of my time what with homework, pre-labs, labs, lab homework, etc. Although it is very difficult, it is also the most rewarding to me. I have a fascination for the universe in which I live and that is my inspiration for studying physics. I eventually want to study astronomy in graduate school.

    My question is: why are there so few physics majors? I understand it is very, very difficult and it will only get more difficult for me. But as long as I continue to put in the effort and time I have been putting into this class, I'm confident I can pass it and continue on. Is it the math that scares people away from majoring in physics? Is it the vast amounts of time and effort? Or are they simply not interested enough to pursue physics and would rather major in another field? Any input would be much appreciate. I feel as though I am missing something.
  2. jcsd
  3. Jan 22, 2012 #2
    It depends on which school you go to, doesn't it? If you were at Caltech, then the statement would no longer be true.

    Glad you are enjoying Newtonian mechanics. Physics didn't get fun for me till E&M and quantum.
  4. Jan 22, 2012 #3
    A large part of it is the uncertain career outlook. If you are an engineer, you can almost certainly get a job in a technical field right out of college. Physics majors, on the other hand, end up all over the place (insurance, finance, teaching highschool, programming, etc). If you want a job in a traditional technical field, engineering is a much safer bet. For most people who have an interest in physics, an engineering degree is a better path to their long term goals.

    Of course, if your goal is to learn some physics (and who cares if you never get a chance to do anything with your knowledge), then its a great major. Its a good stepping stone to lots of other graduate disciplines (lots of physics majors get engineering or economics masters degrees), and its an interesting field of study.
  5. Jan 22, 2012 #4
    @R.P.F.: Yes, that is definitely true, great point. I am very excited to get to E&M and quantum, although it will be awhile until I start learning about them.

    @ParticleGrl: Oh, I hadn't really thought of that. Good point! When I decided I wanted to major in physics it really didn't have anything to do with what my job might be in the future. That's probably not a good thing, but I was (and still am) just really fascinated by physics/astronomy.

    On a side note, I just noticed I said "appreciate" instead of "appreciated". Oops.
  6. Jan 22, 2012 #5

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    Some might argue that the many possible career options listed by ParticleGrl is a strength, not a weakness.
  7. Jan 22, 2012 #6
    The vast majority of people think anything that has anything to do with maths is super complicated and impossible for your average joe (because you can't learn maths, right?)

    You've got no idea how many times people have said I must be able to do sums in my head because I've told them I study maths and physics -.-

    Also, a lot of people will tell you that you won't be able to get a job with a physics degree, other see it as nothing but ticker tape and model cars due to poor highschool experiences.
  8. Jan 22, 2012 #7
    I agree. People always tell me that I must be good with numbers.
  9. Jan 22, 2012 #8
    It depends on your long term goals. If you hate the idea of working in insurance, finance or management consulting and absolutely love the idea of traditional technical work (designing cars, or consumer electronics, etc) then an engineering degree is way more appropriate.

    In my experience, most people drawn to the study of physics are drawn to the latter work more than the former. This suggests their goals would probably be better served with an engineering degree.
  10. Jan 22, 2012 #9


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    Welcome to the forum, Wheelwalker :smile:! This place will serve you well as a physics major.

    People have strong preconceived notions of the kind of people who major in physics. Apparently, according to the public, we all look like this guy:


    Oh and we're all supposed to be freakishly smart and have no social skills. So that works against attracting a lot people to physics (unless you look like Dr Einstein, are freakishly smart, and have no social skills :biggrin:).

    Also - the job issue that ParticleGrl mentioned.
  11. Jan 22, 2012 #10


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    There was an interesting column about this in http://www.aps.org/publications/apsnews/201008/backpage.cfm

    "UT isn’t lacking for good applicants; students are choosing other, challenging majors like biochemistry and engineering because of perceived employment opportunities, relevance to everyday life, and the sense that by pursuing these careers they will enter an intellectually-stimulating community tackling important questions. Among physics majors, such sense of identity and mission is often lacking. When faced with a major whose advantages are unclear, students choose others whose advertised virtues are many. ....

    "Clearly, efforts to promote an identity would be hollow without responding to critiques that students don’t see the connection between physics and everyday life or other careers. We therefore developed a freshman conference course that allowed students to read papers, meet faculty, and learn about careers. We held a Physics Department Open House, consisting of a poster session that was conducted by undergraduates in the lobby of the building, open tours of all the research labs in the building, and a measurement of the gravitational constant g made by dropping watermelons off the 9th and 17th floors of the building. The event drew over 600 students. We solicited student testimonials explaining their career choice and connection to physics, that we then gave out in all non-major physics classes (10,000 printed so far). We developed a sophomore/junior design class in which students collaborated on the design of a pico-satellite. We also constructed an undergraduate web page that prominently features student and alumni testimonials about physics and careers. We’re hoping to expand the number of degree plans available to include emphases on biophysics."
  12. Jan 22, 2012 #11

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    You do a tremendous disservice by suggesting that the only jobs for physicists are in " insurance, finance or management consulting". Students I have worked with have ended up going into:

    • Aerospace
    • Automotive
    • Day-trading
    • Intelligence (DIA and others)
    • IT
    • Medical accelerators
    • Medical imaging
    • Military
    • Mining and Petroleum
    • Radiation Safety
    • Semiconductors
    • Stay-at-home Mom
    • Teaching High School
    • Telecom

    However, I think there's also a fundamental issue - what is the purpose of a college degree? Is college simply an expensive trade school with more beer?
  13. Jan 22, 2012 #12
    Half the people I know think that math majors spend all day adding numbers in their heads.
  14. Jan 23, 2012 #13
    Thank you for all of the replies! They are all very enlightening.

    I plan on majoring in physics but my ideal job would be some sort of government sponsored astronomy research position. I am very interested in exoplanets and the idea of colonizing other planets or moons. Of course I am biased, but it seems to me that there aren't many fields of study more interesting than physics.

    Anyway, thank you again for the replies and the warm welcome to the forum. I appreciate it!
  15. Jan 23, 2012 #14
    I was originally a Computer Science major when I started college. I was told that if I wanted to program video games, my first intended career path, that I needed to take lots of math and physics.

    I was hooked on physics when I took a course called Physics for Scientists and Engineers. It is the intro physics course that all physics and engineering majors took at my local university. I absolutely loved it. I loved the second semester, too, where we were introduced to optics, nuclear physics, and quantum mechanics (just a small taste - nothing too crazy). Some of the topics of electromagnetism were a bit difficult to grasp (and still are), but I've come to at least enjoy learning about them instead of feeling obligated.

    So why didn't I major in physics? I'll be honest: I need a job.

    I'm currently working as a Co-Op employee at a reputable communications company due to the fact I'm a Mechanical Engineering major. There are plenty of my classmates trying to find jobs here, and it's really tight. Only one co-op that I know of is a physics major (and I'm betting he had some sort of manufacturing experience which landed him this job). I worked really hard in my courses at my first university to get good grades, and I was extremely fortunate to land this job.

    You could say, "well, you could have been that one physics major that made it in." The truth is, it is very difficult (at least, as an undergraduate physics major still attending college) to get an engineering job, unless you have a) previous manufacturing/technical experience, b) connections, c) fantastic grades, or all of the above.

    I also imagine that, although it may be easier content-wise to go from physics to engineering, it is much easier career-wise to go from engineering to physics (at least, it seems to me). With a BS in engineering, I figure I could always get a graduate degree that uses a lot of physics I find interesting (such as Nuclear Engineering, which is what I'm currently planning on studying for my MS), or I could go to a graduate physics program. I'm currently going to minor in Physics, which also counts toward my technical elective courses needed to receive my BSME. That way, if I take the courses and find I just don't care for upper-division physics coursework, I know to stick with engineering.

    So, to boil it down to one sentence, engineering is a safer economic route for the type of work I want to do. I know that plenty of places hire physics majors, but do they always end up using the physics they learn like engineers do? I know, too, that jobs exist where physics majors can use their knowledge, but you also have to consider the ratio of Physics grads to these particular job openings. The ratio is much better for engineering grads than physics grads. So if you are absolutely infatuated with physics and want to do it as a career, you'll probably be okay (if you put it first before family and any other obligations, and assuming you have the ability to excel in the subject). But not everyone is a star academic...I'm certainly no genius. I'm engaged to be married, and our future family comes first in my priorities. If I get a chance to learn more about physics and possibly gain a degree in the subject after I'm capable of feeding my future wife and children, then I'll gladly take it. (Didn't Sheldon on "Big Bang Theory" mention something to the effect that, in order to be a true scientist, you have to whole-heartedly devote your entire life to its academic pursuit, like some kind of brainy monk? I know it was just a joke...but it seems to hold some truth to it).
    Last edited: Jan 23, 2012
  16. Jan 23, 2012 #15
    No one goes to school in physics because they want to be a stay-at-home mom when they grow up.
  17. Jan 23, 2012 #16
    Those people probably haven't been looking for jobs in the current market.
  18. Jan 24, 2012 #17
    Good question OP, I'm wondering the same (a least year physics and math undergrad myself). The posts here haven't enlightened me so far. But indeed, I too have encountered the prejudice that physics and math students have to be geniuses. It's quite irritating actually, cause when you try to fight it off, it just seems like you're a modest genius...

    EDIT: on further reflection, I might like to add that I've also noticed a lot of people have a bad image about physics due to bad high school experiences. If the experiences were just bad, I would be more okay with it, but the experiences were also simply unrepresentative. They spent the day trying to measure the resistance of a resistor in an incredibly louzy manner. Maybe it was representative of 19th century physics, but I hope it was representative to no age of physics, actually. That being said, I'm not sure how this influences people's decisions: I think the people with innate interests in physics aren't going to be the ones who got fooled in high school, but I'm not terribly sure. Then again, that might be it: only the people with innate interests remain, as opposed to other majors? It's a guess.
  19. Jan 24, 2012 #18
    they don't? :bugeye:
  20. Jan 24, 2012 #19
    In undergrad we had about 60 students enrolled in Physics, Engineering Physics, or Astrophysics. It went to 40 by end of sophomore year, and 30 by the time I graduated. It's a hard working discipline, people recognize that and stay away if they can't make the cut.
  21. Jan 25, 2012 #20
    Sometimes we multiply. :tongue:
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