Life-changing decision needing to be made, and fast.

Long story short: I am enrolled at University, but I was forced to apply for a college for working adults due to my full-time work schedule.

I had originally planned to major in Mathematics at the university, but the new college doesn’t offer math or science degrees, so I signed up for a more practical major, Marketing, with a Mathematics minor. I enjoy design and mass communications, so I went with what I think will make me decent money and I’ll enjoy.

Yesterday it hit me: I love math and especially physics. I read Scientific American like it was crack and absorb anything related to the field of theoretical physics like a sponge. My mind quickly grasps things like quantum mechanics, string theory, particle physics, and EPR like a well-oiled bear trap. I love the beauty and functionality of mathematical equations. I love solving problems. Math and physics to me are like magic… I’m gaining an understanding as to the fundamental nature of the Universe. I love cosmology and can sit and think for hours about the birth and death of the Universe, the formation black holes, and the life of a star.

I’ll admit that while I feel I’m very strong with theory, I’m a bit weaker with application. I received a ‘C’ in my first calculus-based physics course, but I think I approached that course from the wrong angle and could do better at the next level.

So now I’m asking myself, “Am I making a huge mistake by settling for a safer degree that I don’t really want?” I spoke to my Dad (a theoretical chemist) last night and he asked me what I would do with a Physics degree. I don’t really know, I told him, but I love the stuff nonetheless. Going back to the University for the Physics degree would require that I quit my decent-paying job and make several sacrifices in my current life, since the University doesn’t offer classes in the evenings. The University, however, is very highly regarded in scientific research.

So now the college advisor is calling to set up my schedule for the next semester? What should I do? Go for a risky degree I really love from a fairly prestigious university or a safe degree that I’ll be okay with from a school on par with Strayer University? I’ve explored the possibility of getting the safe degree first, working up a nest egg, then going for the risky degree. However, I’m 30 now and coming into a scientific field so late is near suicidal.

There are things you can do with a BS in physics other than become a physicist. It makes you look smart to a lot of employers who look at college degrees, though you’d do well to pick up some other skills (like computer science) in addition.

The bad news is, being a physics major at a decent school is difficult. It’s a lot of work, even if you’re a barely full-time student and not working at the same time. It is not easy work. It gets harder after the first series of calculus-based physics classes, at least for a lot of us (your school and your experience may vary).

You might consider PM’ing Doper physicist types like **Stranger on a Train **and **Pasta **and asking them. I don’t know if they will enter this thread or know that you are asking your question via your OP title alone…

…you can also ask them about playing The Game within a physics context, too…:wink:

Physics thread…

I say if you’re willing to make the financial sacrifices to strive for your dream education…go for it. While the practical applications for jobs in your field are going to be somewhat more limited than a marketing degree, if you’re going to always have regrets for not following your passion, you know what you should do.


WARNING: Fairly blunt and possibly discouraging advice ahead. Read at your own risk.

First of all, just to make it clear, I’m not a physicist; I entered into university in the physics program, but graduated with an engineering degree and minors in mathematics and physics. My formal physics education took me through introductory modern physics (quantum mechanics through basic quantum field theory, particle physics, Special and General Relativity), which I’ve supplemented by later reading (Feynman’s Lectures, Gravitation, Zee’s Quantum Field Theory in a Nutshell) but I am by know means a professional, much less practicing, physicist, and my knowledge of modern physics, while a couple of magnitudes of order greater than most engineers, is essentially at the level of scientific parlor trickery. I’ve considered and investigated going back to school several times, both in physics and in the biosciences, but a combination of a lack of opportunity, funding, and required life sacrifices has made me shy away. So take what I offer with a grain of your favorite alkali.

The study of physics is, as Anne Neville indicates, very difficult and tedious. Whereas most other technical fields have some kind of concentration, as a physicist you’re expected to have a very broad understanding of all areas of natural science, and the applied tools to model and analyze all manner of phenomena. This is, of course, impossible; you can’t be a master chemist, an expert machinist, a brilliant software coder in half a dozen programming languages, a genius mathematician, and a holistic historian, all in addition to surveying the entire field of physics. What this means is that you’ll end up studying fifty or sixty hours a week and still not really master the entire field. Much of the work isn’t actually all that interesting, either. When you see an article in Discovery or Scientific American, realize that it is both jazzed up for publication and often represents years or even decades of research. Unlike some fields, it doesn’t just take hard work to become notable; it also takes a certain amount of luck to happen onto a field or research that complements your interests and skill set (see above) and that is currently popular and active. M-Theory, for instance, is a hot topic now, but fifteen years ago it was a relatively obscure area of research that was widely considered borderline flaketastic by all but the most visionary of authorities.

Most of the physics Ph.D.s that I know don’t do basic research in fundamental physics; instead, they work in some area of application like thin films, or computational modeling, or even in fields that are not directly related to physics at all. Most of them make pretty good money applying the analytical and technical skills to good use, but it is essentially engineering and materials science work that doesn’t really utilize their entire set of skills or engage them on an intellectual level. Of course, the same can be said of most jobs, but if the stars are in your eyes about having a byline in Scientific American or a paper published in Nature, realize that these are exceptional and unlikely goals, that will require, in addition to hard work and sacrifice, a great deal of good fortune.

One line in the o.p. that concerns me is “I’ll admit that while I feel I’m very strong with theory, I’m a bit weaker with application. I received a ‘C’ in my first calculus-based physics course…” I’m a little unclear about what the poster means about being strong on theory but weak on application, but in the study and practice of physics, “application” is the proof of theory; that is to say, it isn’t enough to be able to parrot back a summary of how a principle works, you have to be able to express it mathematically and show how it works. Even for experimental physicists–the nuts and bolts guys and gals who test theories by experiment–a solid grasp on how the theory works mathematically is a prerequisite. If the o.p. got a C in his first course in mechanics then he probably needs to revisit both that course and selected bits of the calculus sequence, 'cause it only gets more difficult from there. (As calculus is often poorly and obscurely taught, it may not be his own limitations that resulted in a disconnect, but understanding not just the operations of calculus but the basis behind it is crucial to being able to apply the principles to another discipline by anything but rote calculation.)

That being said, while 30 years old will put him in the upper brackets of physics undergraduates, it’s not entirely unheard of. Edward Witten, one of the most notable of high energy physicists working today, graduated with a B.A. in history and emphasis in linguistics from Brandies, worked as a speechwriter for George McGovern’s presidential campaign, and then went back to Princeton as a physics grad student. Of course, Witten is arguably one of the smartest people on the planet (he won the Fields Medal in 1990) and a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship, so aspiring to be the next Ed Witten is a pretty lofty goal by anyone’s standard.

A more reasonable goal, however, would be to obtain a degree in some applied technical field like electrical engineering, with a minor in physics, allowing you to experience physics at a more-than-dilettante level without finding yourself wedded to a field that will require more dedication and sacrifice than you are willing to pour in, and will give you a basis for a technical career. In general, if you aren’t utterly obsessive and uncommonly proficient about physics and mathematics, you’re probably going to find yourself in over your head, committed to a goal that just isn’t realistic.

All that being said, I would strongly discourage you from pursuing a degree you don’t want in a field in which you are not interested, just because it is safe and somewhat lucrative. (The echo of half a million lawyers in the background chanting in agreement is merely a figment of your imagination.) If you are going to make some kind of compromise, you are better of at least incorporating your interest into it, like getting a degree in science education, or going into an engineering discipline, thereby at least being able to exercise a portion of your interests, and at the same time afford you the ability to purchase and study physics and science texts to your heart’s content.

Good luck to you in whatever you choose.


I would encourage you to investigate this more thoroughly. An undergraduate degree in Marketing from a second-tier college might not be as practical as you think.

A good first step would be to review placement statistics for graduates of the various business disciplines offered by your school (e.g., average number of offers at graduation, average starting salary, etc.).

Regardless of your decision, best of luck. :slight_smile:

I agree, generally, with Stranger on a Train. Many people get drawn in by the brilliant image of theoretical physics and the elegant abstractions that they read about in popular science books.

Physics is not about funny theories and strokes of insight. If you want to know what physics is like, browse through these papers. This is the sort of physics that you will end up doing if you’re really, really, really smart (and you’re probably not) and you get on a great academic trajectory really fast (starting at thirty, this is not possible) and you get at least a little bit lucky.

Before you aim for the stars, at least make sure that you want to get there.

I say go for it! Even if you shy away from physics, the more prestigious university may very well offer a higher quality of education. And, the degree will be more… prestigious. Sorry, it’s late and I’m not thinking too clearly.

In any case, I think you should go for it.

I think this is great advice: engineering involves a tremendous amount of physics, and I would think that with an EE/+physics concentration, you could probably still go on to a graduate program in physics if you wanted to–you might have to go back and pick up some specific courses, but it wouldn’t be impossible. (I may be wrong about this, but I know, for example, that my cousin’s masters degree is an aerospace and aeronautics, and he’s working on his Ph.D in physics right now).

Everyone has had really good and helpful responses so far, especially Stranger On A Train. I’ll need a little bit to chew on everyone’s posts, but I just wanted everyone to know I haven’t abandoned this thread. Thank you!

Don’t settle, or you will be me.

Why did you get a C in the calculus-based physics class? I ask because it makes a difference if it was because you just didn’t turn in the homework or had poor study habits, or if it was because the concepts or math were really too hard for you. One of those problems is a lot easier to fix than the other.

Yeah - you never got back on that “How do I play The Game” thread!! :mad:


It was a very new experience for me. I had never taken a physics course before. I turned in all the work and studied as much as I could (see below), but there was some connection I wasn’t making all semester… It’s not enough for me to regurgitate a(t) = v’(t) = dx/dt[v(t)]. I need to know why and how that works (which I do). My biggest stumbling point was not being sure what formula to use in which situation.

Add to the fact that I was working and taking two advanced math courses and a Java programming course at the same time. It was a tough semester and I probably didn’t give the physics course as much attention as it required.

‘C’ was the average grade in that class. I did reasonably well, considering.

I just wanted to let you know that you’re not the only one who’s gotten a C in their first calculus-based physics class - I did, too (durring my first semester of taking any calculus class, ever). I went on to get my degree in Physics (Engineering Concentration), with a solid C average (All Cs, save for one B, and one A).

I opted for the degree I really love (English - Creative Writing) … and now I work an entry level job as a teller at a bank.

At least get something useful as a minor (Philosophy isn’t really helping me out any!)