Why Major in Physics?

A few weeks ago, I gave a talk to the AP Physics class at my old high school about why they should all study physics in college. I tried to just focus on the experience of being a physics major in college. Explaining why physics itself is interesting or talking about careers/graduate school would have made my talk too long. Although the main message of my talk was obviously physics-centric, I tried to make it as widely useful as possible. Regardless of what major you may be considering, you should ask yourself all of the following questions:

  • Will I stay interested in this subject for four years? (Unfortunately, this is one is pretty tough to answer.)
  • Are there happy and satisfied people who have traveled the route I am thinking about taking? (This doesn’t guarantee that you’ll be happy, but it at least lets you know that you could be happy.)
  • Will I have a helpful and supportive environment?
  • What will I do during the summer?
  • What will I learn? Will these things be useful after college?
  • How will I pay for college? Will I be able to find extra money while I’m in school?

When I actually decided to study physics way back in the beginning of college, I actually hadn’t thought about most of these things. I guess I got lucky! I have found that physics can offer some great answers to these questions. But you don’t have to rely on chance, because you can learn from me.

Before I continue, I want to address a glaring question that you might have for me: “Why should I trust this guy’s advice?” The answer: because I know what I’m talking about! I studied physics for two years in high school (Spring-Ford Area High School), double-majored in physics and mathematics during college (Rutgers University – New Brunswick), and am now a physics graduate student (Cornell University).

Prerequisites

I think this might go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway just to be clear: you must really love the subject you choose to major in. If you didn’t like your physics classes in high school, you’re probably not going to be happy taking four more years of them in college. (Of course, it would make me feel better if you gave physics another try with a different teacher…)

You must also be willing to work extremely hard. The rest of this entry is going to focus on all the awesome aspects of majoring in physics, but please keep this in the back of your mind. Majoring in physics will not be easy. What I hope to do is to convince you that it will be worth it.

Why Should You Study Physics?

The short answer: it will make you happy. Lest you think I’m making stuff up, I actually have proof. The American Institute of Physics (AIP) keeps statistics on everything you could possibly want to know about the world of physics: employment, salary, education, etc. Some of the most interesting are their “happiness” statistics. In one of them, survey participants are asked whether or not they agree with the statement “if I had to do it all over again, I would still major in physics.” The results are shown below. If you look closely, you’ll see that on the right side, I included the only other major that I could find similar data for: sociology. If you know of any other similar surveys, please let me know about them so I can add more data points! (Sources: http://www.aip.org/statistics/trends/reports/fall08b.pdf and http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2010/08/17/asa)

A similar (but slightly different) AIP statistic measures the percentage of people with physics bachelor’s degrees that are satisfied with their careers. The two figures below compare physics to other majors. (Sources: http://www.aip.org/statistics/trends/highlite/emp2/figure5a.htm and http://finance.yahoo.com/news/pf_article_111000.html )

The big differences between physics and other majors in both of these surveys may reflect some differences in the survey methods. The point of these numbers is not to put down other majors; it is to show that many people (including me) find physics to be a very rewarding path to follow. The rest of this article will be an attempt to explain why so many people are happy with their physics degrees. If you’re thinking about a major other than physics, it might be a good idea to contact some people who took the path you are considering. Notice how many are enthusiastic and happy. If you’re having trouble finding satisfied people, you might want to pick a different major.

And so now we move on to the long answer, in which I will explain why and how studying physics in college will make you happy.

Will You Have Help?

One thing that really sets physics apart from other majors is the supportive environment. First, take a look at the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded each year for a few different majors. (Source: http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/nsf11316/content.cfm?pub_id=4062&id=2)

Notice how the physics numbers compare to the giant majors like biology and psychology. (Also keep in mind that biology and psychology are small compared to juggernauts like business and communication.) This has huge consequences. Our brethren in the large departments spend their years in enormous classes. Their professors (occasionally) actively try to fail them in order to thin out their ranks. They often cannot develop personal relationships with their professors. On the other hand, physics majors get a lot of individualized attention from professors that genuinely want them to succeed. I suppose I can’t speak for every school, but at Rutgers, I got advice and support from the physics department head, my research advisor, most of my course professors, and older students. Whenever I applied for anything, I always had more good recommendation letters than I needed because I was able to meet so many professors. College is much easier to succeed in when you have other people helping you to do it.

Another fairly unique aspect of physics is the existence of physics education research. Many schools, including Rutgers, have research groups entirely devoted to teaching physics more effectively. (For example, see http://paer.rutgers.edu/.) They use psychology, cognitive science, and philosophy to find the best ways to teach physics. Even if your school doesn’t have one of these groups, there is a good chance that at least some of your professors will be using new techniques that will help you learn better. This is awesome! I won’t say any more here because I will probably be writing about it in some depth later.

How Will You Spend The Summer?

While your friends are at home working at Target, you will be getting paid to play with expensive and powerful physics equipment like liquid helium, lasers, radioactive materials, electron microscopes, etc. What more could you ask for? As an example of what your life could be like, I did astrophysics research during the summer after my freshman year (at Rutgers), accelerator physics research during the summer after my sophomore year (at Cornell), and condensed matter physics research during the summer after my junior year (at Rutgers). (I decided to take it easy after senior year.) In general though, you won’t just be having fun over the summer; you’ll also be building your resume and preparing yourself for post-graduation life. This lesson applies no matter what major you pick: you need to make sure your choice of major will prepare you to do something (go to grad school, get a job, etc) when you are done in college. This is not optional. In future posts, I will elaborate on my own research experiences and explain how to find some for yourself.

What Will You Learn?

The real value of a physics degree is, perhaps surprisingly, not the physics knowledge. Physics knowledge is only useful in certain set of circumstances. (It is really cool and very useful in a lot of circumstances, but not all.) The most valuable thing you will learn as a physicist is how to appropriately respond to confusing information. You will deal with abstract word problems in your classes and large amounts of data in your research. You will convert these difficult objects into equations and statistics that can be clearly understood, and you will use the results of your analysis to make judgements. These skills can be applied in any situation or job. Along the way, you’ll pick up a bunch of side benefits too: communication skills, computer programming abilities, efficiency, logic, and advanced math. Again, if you don’t believe me, I have proof. The next three figures show scores on three standardized tests: the Graduate Review Examination (GRE; required of anyone going to graduate school), the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT; required of anyone going to medical school), and the Law School Admission Test (LSAT; required of anyone going to law school). (Sources: http://www.ets.org/Media/Tests/GRE/pdf/5_01738_table_4.pdf and http://www.aip.org/statistics/trends/reports/mcat2009.pdf)

Care must be taken when interpreting these numbers. Very few physics majors (a few hundred) take the MCATS and LSATS, and these are probably very motivated and intelligent students. On the other hand, thousands of biology majors take the MCATS and thousands of political science majors take the LSATS. There are bound to be lesser-quality students among them. I’m sure that if you were to compare the scores of 200 most motivated students from each major, they would be essentially the same. As before, these statistics are not supposed to imply that physics majors are better than anyone else. Instead, they show that the skills acquired while earning a physics degree have applications outside of physics itself. For more examples of physics skills being useful in other areas, you should check out this page about “hidden physicists”. If you’re considering another major, ask yourself if it leaves your options open and teaches you widely useful skills.

The methods by which you learn are important too. Physics classes tend to focus on thinking ability rather than memorizing facts. On tests, you will be asked to apply your knowledge in new situations instead of just regurgitating things that the professor said. This is good for you: your friends in organic chemistry will spend endless hours memorizing chemical structures, but you’ll only have to learn a few formulas. When it comes time to prepare for a test, it is better for you to sleep (so your mind is sharp the next day) than to stay up all night stressing about benzene rings and whatnot. The physics route is difficult, but it is far less time-consuming and stressful if you handle it the right way.

How Will You Pay For College?

There are tons of ways for a physics major to get extra money during college. These include:

  • Scholarships from your college
  • Scholarships from your physics department
  • Scholarships from national organizations
  • Scholarships from the government
  • PAID internships
  • PAID tutoring

You can have all of these if you just reach out and take them! These money opportunities are not available to all majors. If you’re considering another major, ask yourself how much it will cost and if there are any ways to reduce your debt. I’ll explain later how to go about using these great sources of money.

A Few Loose Ends

There are a few ways to study physics in college. Each school usually has a “general physics” option for students who want to study physics but don’t plan to have a career in it. This is contrasted by the “professional physics” option, which is primarily for students who want to continue on with advanced study (either a Ph.D. or a Master’s degree) in physics. The professional option is sometimes further subdivided into specialties like astrophysics, biophysics, or ocean physics. Finally, there is often a five-year engineering/phyics master’s program or a five-year physics education master’s program.

There are also a quite a few options for what to do after college graduation. The relative popularity of each is shown in the graph below.

Conclusions

College is a time-consuming and expensive undertaking. Your choice of major should not be taken lightly. You need to make sure that your chosen major will be fun, will prepare you for the outside world, and will not leave you drowning in debt. If you are so inclined, physics can be all of these things and more.

Further Reading

For more thoughts about the relative merits of various college degrees, see:

For more physics statistics, see:

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5 comments on “Why Major in Physics?

  1. Eric says:

    I enjoyed reading this and agree with all the points you made regarding the benefits of choosing a degree in physics. I remember reading these kinds of promotional for physics degrees and I’ve always been troubled by a few points they make.

    1) Why would I want the number of people with physics degrees to go up? The scarcity of my degree in the marketplace gives it more value, a point which you won’t appreciate as much until you’re out of school.

    2) As far as the test scores go, you haven’t shown me that physics actually increases your ability to perform on the GRE or LSAT. For all we know, people who self select to do physics and mathematics already performed well on standardized tests before they entered college. It’s kind of looking at a weight loss program that only shows you the after pictures, and not the before. I’ve always felt like this was a bit misleading for prospective physics majors.

    But like I said I enjoyed your work and keep it up!

    • physicssoup says:

      Hey Eric,

      Thank you for your thoughts, and I’m glad you enjoyed this.

      1) This is something I never even considered. It’s kind of cynical and a bit foreign to my way of thought, although it definitely has some truth to it. If I were to carry that logic to its extreme, I should tell people that I hated studying physics, right? Is your comment somehow motivated by personal experience? Were you competing with many other physics degree-holders for your job?

      I also think would be a pretty big self-conceit to suppose that my talk/post about studying physics is going to drastically increase the number of physics majors. I would be happy though if I could provide a nudge that causes people who would have eventually studied physics anyway to start studying it sooner. And I would be even happier if my analysis served as a guide to help people decide which major (physics or not) best serves their interests.

      2) I totally agree with you on this point, but I didn’t really know any other evidence that could even remotely support the claim that “physics helps you in a wide range of areas.” I guess all I’ve really done (maybe) is to show that studying physics doesn’t hurt your performance in taking standardized tests. Perhaps putting more emphasis on the “hidden physicists” would have been better? On the other hand, those are isolated events and probably not the norm. So two questions for you: do you agree that a physics degree can prepare you for success in many areas, and do you know of any even vaguely convincing evidence to either support or disprove that claim?

      • Eric says:

        I appreciated the candor of your response and agree that I was perhaps a bit pessimistic with my first comment. I will do my best to clarify and answer your questions.

        1) I apologize for my cynicism, I merely wished to point out that the value of a degree in the market place is inversely proportional to the number of people who posses it. The two fields that I can think of off the top of my head that utilize this principle the best are Medicine and Law, both of which create an artificial shortage of their skills by restricting the number of people who graduate each year to a set number. This allows doctors and lawyers to charge more for their services, which in turn attracts brighter students to the field, which in turn improves the quality of their discipline. Thus it seems to me, and you may disagree, that what would be better for both me and the field of physics in general is if we actually started rejecting physics students. Fortunately to most people physics is repugnant and as your data suggests there is a natural sort of self selection which keeps the quantity low and quality high.

        In regards to your question I would say that having a physics degree definitely helped me stand out and made job searching easier. But shh…. don’t tell anyone. Personally, I wish people would learn physics from a sheer desire to understand the world around them, which is why I think you and choose so, instead of trying to bribe them with promises of high test scores and financial gains.

        2) You’re ability to self criticize here is refreshing so I will try to honor this part as best I can. Unfortunately, I’m not entirely sure what you mean by “hidden physicists”, but I think it lines up with what I’m about so say and if so, great! From my experience, the majority of people in college choose their degree based on how satisfied they will be with the resulting career. I think if you really wanted to do a good job convincing people that physics is the right college degree for them, you have to show them how it aligns with and will help them advance with their real passion (which we can assume is not Physics, otherwise they wouldn’t need convincing). Probably the poorest way to do this from a scientific standpoint would be to talk about various individuals who have gone on from physics into other fields to achieve great things, like the webcomic author of XKCD.com who was a physics major, or the Vice President of Goldman Sachs who was a physics major, or Angela Merkal, or even Mike Judge the writer of Beavis and Butt-head. They may not be statistically relevant, but for some reason we are evolutionary wired to find these kinds of examples can be extremely convincing.

        To answer your first question here, right now I’m working for a consulting firm dong IT and optimization and I have found my mathematics degree much more useful then the physics (admittedly they are highly related). However, even if my physics degree was completely worthless I still would have gotten it as physics is more like a religion to me than anything else. I have found nothing in the world more beautiful than the mysteries of the universe and the answers to be found therein.

        You second question is inherently unanswerable because it presumes a definition of “success” which we would debate over forever. In terms of financial success, physics graduates are the sixth highest payed major after Economics and four other hard sciences (link at bottom). Personally this holds little value to me since I choose to live in poverty and instead prefer to use my disposable income on scientific endeavors. In college, one of my professors shared a study with me that showed physics majors were less like to be divorced or cheat of their wives than the average population (although I told him it didn’t say anything about the likelihood of their wives cheating on them… he didn’t find this amusing). The larger question remains: are physics majors generally more happy with their lives than the average major? I would like to believe, though I am undoubtedly biased, that the answer is yes. I cannot give you evidence of success because I cannot tell you what success is. I can only show you that physics opens up a door to a wide range of possibilities, more than any other major, through which you will have to find your own success and happiness. For me, that is the strongest selling point for physics.

        http://physicsworld.com/blog/2009/07/big_bucks_for_physicists.html

  2. Michael says:

    Could you also tell us more about the wage salaries of a physicist, as in how they compare to other professions whether it be engineers, doctors, lawyers, etc.? I acknowledge that passion outweighs money when it comes to pursuing a physics-related career, but I am hoping that they (Physicists, astronomers) make a comfortable salary, especially since living costs will increase as our economy continues to grow more sluggish.

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