Should I major in physics?

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Haeso5
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Should I major in physics?

Postby Haeso5 » Sat Mar 04, 2017 1:06 am UTC

This is a question I've been debating for a long time. My high school doesn't offer physics, but, for about two years now, I've been in love with the idea of majoring in it. I've taken Calc 1, and loved everything about the class, and have been into xkcd for the last year or so.

That being said, I know there's more to the subject than just being into math and the webcomic. So, for anybody who actually knows the field, how do I know if I want to go into the field of physics? What should I expect?

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Re: Should I major in physics?

Postby Zohar » Sun Mar 05, 2017 1:45 pm UTC

For me, it was very different than pretty much anything I studied in high school. Can you take a class or two before you choose your major? The first mechanics class will give you some indication of what physics is like - learning mathematical tools to help you solve a problem, having to use some level of abstraction to understand what the solution should be. It's still a lot more familiar and direct than later subjects (it's not too hard to have some intuition for basic mechanics, it's much harder to do with electromagnetism, quantum mechanics, etc.). But it's a start.
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Re: Should I major in physics?

Postby doogly » Mon Mar 06, 2017 2:45 pm UTC

You should totally major in physics, it's the best.

It's hard to get expectations right. There's a lot of "figuring out," which is the best. If you've had calc 1 you are in a good position to look into intro mechanics, so maybe give some of these topics a browse if you want to do a little previewing. Looking at some actual work rather than the "gee wiz this is neat" style of physics can be quite illuminating.

On that point I super recommend Maxwell's Matter and Motion. Maxwell is a strong contender for the greatest physicist of all time, certainly the greatest of his century. And he wrote an introductory mechanics book which is super accessible and costs $5. So you should read it.
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Re: Should I major in physics?

Postby Fractal_Tangent » Thu Mar 09, 2017 9:42 pm UTC

I'm a PhD student in astronomy/astrophysics.

I'm not sure what you mean by 'what to expect' as I'm from the UK and our university systems are very different.

I think my question is: what are you envisaging when you think about taking physics at university?
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Re: Should I major in physics?

Postby tobecontinue » Sun Mar 12, 2017 7:01 am UTC

I think it depends on your goal. You should consider these questions: What do you want to do after you graduate? and What is the job outcome in your place?? Stuff like that and then make your decision.

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Re: Should I major in physics?

Postby ahammel » Sun Mar 12, 2017 6:07 pm UTC

tobecontinue wrote:I think it depends on your goal. You should consider these questions: What do you want to do after you graduate? and What is the job outcome in your place?? Stuff like that and then make your decision.

It's a good idea to think about about career outcomes, but those can be very difficult questions to answer, especially for a young person who's just going into university and who has relatively little experience of the job market.

Speaking as somebody who's been through the pure sciences grinder, my advice would be to focus less on the question of "what job will I do?" and more on the question of "what skills will I apply in my career?".

Somebody studying physics at the graduate level might, for instance, learn how to take a large, sketchy, incomplete set of data from a telescope and use it to answer questions about how many exoplanets there are. There are not a lot of careers in exoplanet detection specifically. But there are a lot companies with a large, sketchy, incomplete set of telemetry data from their software products who would be happy to pay somebody to use it to answer questions about their users.

So if you're thinking about your post-Uni career, I'd think about the skills you would pick up doing a physics degree. These might include [HUGE CAVEAT: I have never seen the inside of a physics classroom. You should probably ask some of the actual physics majors about this]:
* A bunch of math
* A certain amount of computer programming
* Applying the hypothetico-deductive method (I have an idea, how can I go gather a bunch of data about it and see if my idea is true or not?)
* Analytical reasoning (if x and y are true, does that imply z? How could I tell?)
* How to read and summarize a whole bunch of papers (in fact, you would expect to learn this in any major at the graduate or higher undergrad level)

Conversely, a physics degree would probably not focus on skills like:
* How to write for beans
* How to make things that are aesthetically pleasing
* Various kinds of "design thinking" ("how do I solve this problem?" as opposed to "how do I tell if this is true?")

It's OK if you don't have a One True Career Plan going in. You can expect there to be some course corrections as you figure out what kinds of work you like. So long as the skills you pick up in your degree have a pretty good fit with the kind of things you enjoy you should do alright.
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Re: Should I major in physics?

Postby doogly » Mon Mar 13, 2017 12:38 pm UTC

ahammel wrote:Conversely, a physics degree would probably not focus on skills like:
* How to write for beans
* How to make things that are aesthetically pleasing
* Various kinds of "design thinking" ("how do I solve this problem?" as opposed to "how do I tell if this is true?")

The last one I think is quite off. There is a great deal of this sort of thinking.
Writing I think it's true you don't do much of until you are publishing research. And aesthetics are indeed a big nope.
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Re: Should I major in physics?

Postby Liri » Tue Mar 14, 2017 6:08 pm UTC

doogly wrote:
ahammel wrote:Conversely, a physics degree would probably not focus on skills like:
* How to write for beans
* How to make things that are aesthetically pleasing
* Various kinds of "design thinking" ("how do I solve this problem?" as opposed to "how do I tell if this is true?")

The last one I think is quite off. There is a great deal of this sort of thinking.

Yeah, in the sciences in general, you need to be able to ask, "what sort of experiment would give a result that I can interpret? Can I, or anyone, actually *do* this experiment? What could I do to make this experiment possible?"

All good stuff.
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Re: Should I major in physics?

Postby Fractal_Tangent » Wed Mar 15, 2017 9:40 am UTC

Also, if you don't think that there's people stressing about how to make things that are aesthetically pleasing, please tell me why we spend a good deal of our journal club lambasting diagrams that are either misleading or ugly as sin.
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Re: Should I major in physics?

Postby ahammel » Wed Mar 15, 2017 1:56 pm UTC

Fractal_Tangent wrote:Also, if you don't think that there's people stressing about how to make things that are aesthetically pleasing, please tell me why we spend a good deal of our journal club lambasting diagrams that are either misleading or ugly as sin.

Because journal clubs are a vicious bloodsport and it wouldn't be any fun if you didn't lambaste them for something.

I'm not saying that physicist never think about aesthetics, I'm just saying that making things what look pretty is probably not the primary skill that one picks up doing a physics degree.

Experimental design is an extremely good point, though.
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Fractal_Tangent
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Re: Should I major in physics?

Postby Fractal_Tangent » Wed Mar 15, 2017 6:08 pm UTC

True, it is not the primary function of physics to be pretty. Our JC is something of a bloodsport as well.

Though I have found it very illuminating to see what people believe is a well written or interesting paper alongside the less great examples.
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Re: Should I major in physics?

Postby nichi » Thu Mar 16, 2017 4:20 am UTC

I changed majors seven times to no major adverse effects. If it looks like something that will compel you to study hard (sounds like it), then go for it. If you find out later you don't like it, switch.


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