TLDR; Majors: Physics

By Shang Chen
July 22, 2020 · 8 minute read

Physics

Apologies for the one-week hiatus but we're back with the TLDR;Science articles. Today we're going to be talking about physics, a major I'm sure everybody has at least heard about. Along with mathematics, biology, and chemistry, physics is probably one of the most common STEM subjects that high school students consider majoring in. This article will cover some of the courses a prospective physics major will need to take along with some of the fields you can go into after studying physics.

Why major in physics?

There are plenty of reasons to pursue physics in college but a simple one is that learning about the world around us is fascinating. Ideally, the reason you should choose to major in something is because you love or are interested in the field. Rather than choosing a major that is 'trendy', it's far more important to go into a major that inspires you. Luckily, physics is full of just those types of topics. Specializations in physics include quantum physics, astrophysics, and even AI. This means that a major in physics sets you up to explore the vastnesses of outer space or the intricacies of the atoms that make up the world around us. The possibilities are truly endless.

From a practical approach, a major is physics is always necessary as fields like electrical engineering, architecture, and computer science are always in demand for physics majors to assist and develop new projects. This means you should feel comfortable deciding on majoring in physics if your worry is about getting a job. Skilled physicists have a wide skill set that allows them to enter most STEM fields and an expertise in math, science, and logical problem solving will never go out of style.

What does it take to become a physics major?

This section will cover some of the required coursework a hopeful physics major will be required to take. Of course, the exact coursework will differ from university to university and from country to country but this will try and give you a general idea of what courses would be expected from you.

  1. Mechanics and E&M - These are the two main 'branches' of physics. Mechanics deals with the visible world around us. What causes apples to fall, birds to fly, etc. You will learn about the forces that govern nature as well as the theories and equations that explain them. The branch of electricity and magnetism (E&M for brevity) works to explain the less obvious. Focusing on explaining the unseen but extremely potent forces that create things like electric currents and magnets is an essential part of the physics education.
  2. Mathematics - Most physics classes, especially if you want to progress your education, will require a strong foundation of calculus courses. Most program may require you to learn up to multivariable calculus and differential equations with more math specialized pathways going even beyond these courses.
  3. Theory - When you ask somebody to describe a physicist, most people probably imagine Albert Einstein at a blackboard - piece of chalk in hand. Unfortunately, while most physics are not blessed with the incredible mustache of Einstein, it is realistic that physics is full of theories and laws that help explain the world we live in. There are so many theories, laws, and equations that most physics majors will have to take a class completely dedicated to them.
  4. Labs - Apart from the theory behind many of the forces and phenomenon, physicists need to be able to work hands on with things like circuits, computers, and experiments. Many discoveries in the field of physics began with experiments , meaning being comfortable using the scientific method to collect and analyze data is vital for a physics student.

The Physics Experience

This week we have an interview with somebody that has almost completed her college physics journey. Through her responses, I hope budding physicists in high school will be inspired to continue learning and exploring all the field has to offer.

Chika Onubogu - Florida State University

What inspired you to major in physics?

Perhaps like many people, I took a physics class in high school. It was my senior year and I needed one additional class to fulfill my schedule requirement. I put general physics on my schedule only for that reason. As expected of a general class at that school, the class was not formatted to be challenging. The first few weeks were spent learning kinematics, and a large majority of the rest of the year we spent watching Einstein biographical documentaries. It was not the few kinematics I learned that solidified my choice to major in physics, but rather the documentaries. Einstein is a momentous figure in physics without a doubt, but what was more interesting to me than Einstein was all the unfamiliar physical phenomena that was discussed in these documentaries. Discussions about general relativity, dark matter, Newtonian mechanics that we should have been learning in that class, etc. It was the first time I felt that this might be a subject that I would actually enjoy learning more about. And so, I applied to be a physics major. Even though my high school physics class was not the best and even though I struggled with calculus in high school, I simply became a physics major because I thought I would miss out on some extremely cool things if I did not.

What is the most fascinating thing you’ve learned in a physics class?

As an astrophysics major (that being a secondary title to the primary physics major), what tops my list is learning how to operate a modern telescope. FSU’s Physics department received funding to build a small observatory on the campus’ stadium in 2018. By the fall semester of 2019 the observatory was completed and I happened to take the observational astronomy class that our department offers that semester. One of our labs required us to study the telescope operation manual and successfully image three planetary nebulae. We had to plot the altitude of our object of choice to ensure that it would be visible in the sky at our latitude in Tallahassee (about 30 degrees North) and also in the time frame from 8:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. The telescope is a 17 inch, Cassegrain with an elliptical primary and a spherical secondary mirror. It is much larger than any stargazing telescope I have used for fun. It was not only an extremely formative experience, but also the aspect of observing at nighttime while being in charge of a large, and very expensive telescope is exhilarating. 

What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced as a physics major?

I think the biggest challenge, which I still struggle with now, is feeling like I do not belong in the major. I am a senior now, so there are only two semesters left for me if all goes according to plan. The classes increase in difficulty every semester, and it is pretty normal for me to sometimes not make the grade I want on an assignment or in a class. In these cases, I immediately regret the times I went to sleep instead of studying or hung out with my friends instead of studying. It is difficult for me to justify breaks I take from doing work when it ends up in an outcome less than desirable like a poor test grade. However, I try to remember that even with a poor test grade, there is always something that I have learned, and any amount of hard work is valuable. 

What high school activities, in school, or extracurricular do you feel helped you prepare for physics?

Definitely being a part of the Mu Alpha Theta club in my high school. I did mention earlier that I struggled with calculus, which I did, and a lot of those difficulties arose from me struggling to understand my teacher’s explanation and teaching style. I found that with Mu Alpha Theta, I was being taught most of the time by other students in the club. There was something different about having one of my peers explain a concept versus having my teacher—who believed calculus was trivial—explain a concept. They had patience that the teacher did not have, and an amiability that made it comfortable to work around. Another important thing is the competitiveness of participating in a Mu Alpha Theta competition. By no means was I bringing back awards, but it was thrilling to be a part of. In these kinds of math competitions, typically, I encountered much more difficult problems in the occasion than I would for my math homework that night. It forced me to think critically, and spin what I know into a solution for an unfamiliar problem. Essentially, that is what physics is about. So, in hindsight, I do believe that it was a good experience for me prior to being physics. If I would have known it at the time, I probably would have also tried to learn how to code in my free time. I had no idea coding was so important for physics research, and while it is something that can be quickly picked up, it would have been nice to have a head start.

What types of jobs are you looking forward to after having majored in physics?

This is still something that I think about a lot. Honestly, I am not completely sure. I am aiming for graduate school first before seriously looking for a job and ideally I would like to work in a national lab as a research scientist. However, a degree in physics is applicable to many other sectors. I think if I were to change my mind, I would highly consider a job in industry for something more technology based like data science or research analysis.

What would you say to aspiring high school students who might be interested in physics?

Don’t hesitate to be a physics major. Simply doing physics for physics sake is hugely satisfying; it is the science of everything. I guarantee you will not be bored in this major and as you build up a “physics-like” mind, more things begin to make sense. It is a rewarding major to be a part of, and of course, if you decide the major is not for you, there is nothing wrong with choosing a different field of study.

How do I prepare for a physics major as a high schooler?

Most physics courses will usually require some understanding of algebra and calculus, so making sure you get a strong foundation in mathematics is important for anybody considering becoming a physics major. I would highly recommend at least finishing some equivalent of Algebra 1 and 2 if your high school provides them as these math courses will be heavily utilized in introductory physics courses.

Besides mathematics, some schools offer physics courses that will offer you a look into some of the more basic physics concepts like Newton's Laws of Motion, projectile motion, and friction. Do not worry if these terms are unfamiliar since here at SciTeens.org, we have plenty of resources to get you started on your physics journey. Check out our YouTube channel here: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCXnyAT9TOrXywV0M6HbhaRA to get access to some great links and experiments to start or continue your physics education.

TLDR;

Physics is an STEM field that has a wide range of applications. From a more research based approach to more hands on experimentation, physics majors will have a strong foundation in mathematics, science, and logical thinking that will be valuable for a diverse set of careers. Students looking to go into physics should have an undying thirst for knowledge and a need to better understand the world around them. Physicists are the people uncovering the mysteries of the universe both big and small and you would be hard pressed to find a field more interesting.

Sources:

https://www.worldwidelearn.com/online-education-guide/science/physics-major.htm

https://physics.stanford.edu/academics/undergraduate-students

https://www.chronicle.com/article/so-what-are-you-going-to-do-with-that-degree-physics-majors-get-that-question-too/

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