Advice For Physics Majors (a serious article, for once)

Majoring in Physics? Is you crazy?

Do you tell people that you’d like to major in physics, and do they make an I-just-chomped-on-a-lemon face? Or ask you to read them a Tarot card session? If you’re in high school, or just thinking seriously about physics for a major, you should think a bit about what you’re going to do with that major, once you’re out in the world. It’s a fun major, and I loved it, but it’s not a major to toy with lightly. It’s not a very good “default” major — if you’re lost without a major, don’t know what to do with yourself, and settle on a business major for the hell of it, you’ll probably be ok. Not so with physics. It’s an impressive-sounding major, and future employers will know you’re smart, but it’s not a guaranteed job-getter like computer science, engineering, or other more applied majors. Like any liberal arts major, you’ve got to understand that you’re going to be studying an entire subject area, not so much specific skills used in the workplace.1

Physics, and it’s kissing-cousin math, are majors that teach you tools that are used in other disciplines. Very few people get to do pure physics or math in their job — academic professors and a roughly similar number of researchers in industry are probably about it. The majority of physics majors will go on to do something other than be a “physicist”, like computer programming, engineering, teaching, etc. You’ll probably use physics, but combined with some other skills or in application to some task. If you major in physics (or math), you would do well to consider what job you want to do — what specific skill will you learn to apply your physics knowledge? If you’re confident that you will be a Nobel laureate research physicist in ten years, by all means apply yourself to learning the basic physics. But I thought I was, and the Nobel committee hasn’t gotten around to calling me yet. I found myself needing to find a more employable skill, a more narrow application, to use my physics knowledge in.2

Physics isn’t an industry trade
This is probably obvious, but I like to hear myself talk, so I’m going to elaborate further. If you were to major in English, can you expect to leave school and get a job with a company doing “English”? Will you be an intern at one of those giant “English” companies, pumping out barrels of “English” in giant “English” factories with lots of smokestacks?3 No, of course not — you get a job like journalism, editing, marketing, teaching, etc. where you apply the skills you learned in college to some specific task. “English” is a subject area you get to know well, but you have to also choose a skill, a trade, the thing you’re going to do that they pay you for. And it may therefore be a good idea to take a couple classes in journalism, get a teaching certificate, or otherwise supplement your major with an applied skill. It’s the same with physics, though it may not be as obvious (or at least, it wasn’t as obvious to me). Of course there are the golden few who get to do pure “English”, so to speak, your Ernest Hemmingways, your John Steinbecks, your Dave Barrys. But in English as in physics, the majority of majors will use their skills in some more applied area. So think about a minor, another couple classes, a certificate, an internship — something that will prepare you for your job as opposed to your subject area.

(Oh, by the way, if you are planning on being a professor, and doing basic, pure physics research, you can’t ignore this advice. You are still going to need to pick a specific area to concentrate on, though it would be inside physics instead of some other subject. No one is just a “physicist” — you are a “biophysicist working on the problem of how proteins fold etc. etc. etc. And another skill, such as computer science, would still help out.)

High school preparation for physics
By the way, I want to mention the most important class I took in high school for my career in physics: math. Yes, not physics!  Math was more important than physics, for majoring in physics.  The high school physics I took wasn’t nearly as important as a solid calculus class, surprisingly enough. Take the hardest math you can do, and take as much as you can stand. Calculus is the closest a high school class can get to what advanced physics courses are like — even closer than physics classes in high school. In my case, and I think this is true in many places, I took an introduction to physics class my first year in college that was much more intensive and advanced than anything I could have taken in high school — so no matter what I took in high school, I’d have been doing it over again (and more rigorously) in my freshman year. But taking AP calculus got me up to speed to take calculus-based physics my freshman year, which helped me graduate on time. Placing out of math courses, through AP exams or whatnot, is also more important than placing out of physics.

And just so you know, in case you’re gagging in front of your computer at the thought of more math: the more advanced the physics gets, the more it resembles what a novice would call pure math. At the most advanced, Einstein-levels of physics, physics and math are intertwined and often drive new discoveries in each other. There is no physics without math, so include your love of math in your determination of whether or not a physics major is right for you.

1. Isn’t it funny to find the dual confusing pairs “physics” and “psychics”, and “astronomy” and “astrology”, in the same general area? I think that would be a great topic for undergraduate research.
2. Obviously not in grammar.
3. Apologies to my friend Regan, for stealing his joke. Please send 20% of your laughs to him.


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