Should I study physics in university?

Am I suitable to study physics in university? Should I study physics in the university? What can I expect to encounter as a physics major? How is physics in the university like? I am sure these questions are on the mind of any potential physics undergraduate. This post is meant to give you a rough idea of physics in university as an undergraduate. These are the things which the university will not tell you in their recruitment talks/posters/blah blah.

Note: If you do NOT like and are NOT interested in physics, please do not take physics in university. (Unless you enjoy pain)

physics scribblings

University physics is maths heavy!

University physics is very maths heavy which is totally different from physics at the high school/junior college level. But it is not the high school/junior college level of maths whereby you press a couple of buttons on your calculator to obtain the answer. In fact, you will see symbols more often than numbers. Due to this, you will NOT need a calculator for your tests and exams.

At the university level, physics and maths go hand in hand.(Note the repeated emphasis) There will be a lot of differentiation in year 1, linear algebra and some vector calculus in year 2, and even more vector calculus and tensors in year 3. There will be a lot of tedious derivations of physics equations, which may or may not be tested.

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If university physics requires maths, should I double major on maths?

Short answer: No! (Unless you are truly interested in maths.)

Slightly longer answer: There might be a small thought in your mind that by getting a second major or minor in maths will help you in physics. I do not doubt the validity of this. It will most definitely be of some help. But mathematics at the university level is extremely different from the mathematics that you have encountered before. You are expected to do proving instead of solving during examination. And in general, physics do not require a rigorous proof of the mathematics theorems.


Quotes from my professors:

  • “We’ll leave the rigorous proof of the theorem to our dear mathematicians.” (Insert short proof)
  • “Do not tell the maths department.”
  • “This result has been proven by mathematician so we’ll just use it.”

How is a physics lecture in university like?

Physics lectures are delivered via PowerPoint slides and a lecturer “explaining” the concepts in the slides. The lecture notes will be provided via an online portal, but there are some professors who are reluctant to provide lecture notes. They will write out the lecture materials on the whiteboard and you are expected to copy them. This helps to encourage you to not sleep during lecture.

Important notes about the lecture:

  1. Attendance during the lecture is voluntary, unless otherwise stated.
  2. Lecture notes will usually be given before the lecture. The lecture notes will have some skips in derivations but you should be able to figure out on your own.
  3. The content in the lecture notes will usually follow a particular physics textbook very closely. For instance, a year 2 electromagnetism module will follow the classic EM textbook by Griffiths  – “Introduction to Classical Electrodynamics” while a year 2 thermodynamics module will follow a standard thermodynamics and statistical mechanics.
    Caveat: Those books are expensive – $50+ for a book which will be used for 1 or 2 modules. If you are not well-off, you do not have to buy those books. Alternatively, you can borrow them from the university’s library.

From my own experience, you could easily pass the module by reading the lecture notes and doing the tutorials. (More about the tutorials later) You do not have to attend a single lecture! In fact, there are people who do not attend neither lectures nor tutorials and you will only see them during tests and exams. They are commonly known as the “phantoms”.

Just like buying a car, you can “test drive” before you commit. Lecturers do not check the attendance during lectures and the timetable for the modules can usually be found online. You can just go to a level 1 physics lecture in a nearby university and sit in. I do not encourage you to sit in for higher level physics modules as the higher level modules has a lower number of enrollment which will cause you (a gatecrasher) to stand out.

Bad lecturers

This is unavoidable due to the current university climate – emphasis on research instead of teaching excellence. This results in some really bad lecturers, who are able to publish papers regularly but their lectures are just a complete waste of time. I have encountered a lecturer who wrote a question on the whiteboard and stared at the whiteboard for 30 minutes. I do not know if he is incompetent or just unprepared.

There is another type of bad lecturer: Overzealous lecturers who throw in bits of year 4 knowledge in a year 1 module with minimal introduction. Most people will just be lost sheeps during the lecture and it will be a waste of time. These overzealous lecturer will insist in covering a lot of content. They seem to think that their students are only taking their modules for the whole semester.

At the end of the semester, you will normally be asked to provide feedback regarding the lecturers and tutors. Please give your honest feedback so that the university might be concerned enough to change this situation.

Physics tutorials

The tutorials are typically bi-weekly, which will add up to 5 or 6 tutorials per physics module. The questions are typically short but the same cannot be said of the answers to the questions.

For lower level physics modules, a graduate student will be in charge of the tutorial classes. For most of the higher level physics modules, the lecturer will be in charge.

These tutorials help in the understanding of the topic. You have to complete the tutorials, or try to complete. From my experience, it is not wise to spend long stretches of time pondering over a single question. You will be very busy in university and that time could be better used elsewhere. Suggested answers to the tutorials will be given out after the tutorial, subject to the lecturer’s approval. You could save some time by looking at the suggested answers.

Note: I am not encouraging you to give up on the tutorials.

Physics lab experiments

You will be exposed to various equipments as a physics major. In the first year, you will encounter basic things like basic electronics, lenses, spectrometer, lasers, etc. The fun stuffs will only begin in year 2 and 3, whereby you will have fun with interferometer, scanning tunnelling microscope, X-ray diffractometer, atomic force microscope, etc. The experiments will help to train your data analysis and report writing skills. You will be proficient in excel after all the practice in year 1 lab.

Note: I recommend that you learn and use LaTeX for your lab reports. The learning curve is quite steep. I took a year or so to get used to it.

Taking physics in the university is a fun experience. I enjoyed the exposure to the many different physics theories – General relativity, Quantum mechanics, Electrodynamics, etc. You get to see most of the logical steps that had been taken by physicists of the past in order to obtain the results.

If you love physics, I would strongly recommend you to major in physics. It might not be an easy journey, but it sure is a fun one.

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