In pursuing a physics degree, I have stumbled into many problems a long the way. Here are some of them and what I wish I did differently.
1. Start Young
Chances are, if you are reading this, you are not young. This will ultimately end up being a moot point for most of you. However, I am constantly contemplating where I would be if I had started studying physics (really, science in general) at an earlier age.
I will be 28 years old and in a pile of debt when I graduate with a physics degree. If I had started young, I could see myself graduating at 21 with little to no debt. A lot of this has to do with your upbringing which is beyond your capabilities, but starting young is likely the single-biggest improvement that could be made in your pursuit of a physics degree. This is due to the length and work that a physics degree requires.
I didn’t take high school seriously and decided to not go to college after I completed high school. When I did want to enter college I had to start at square one, which was college level Algebra. Physics degrees generally start math at the calculus level. Theoretically, a great high school student could complete up to Calculus II during high school. This is a class differential of 16 or more credits (3:algebra, 3:trigonometry or pre-calculus, 5:calculus I, 5:calculus 2), depending on how your schooling system assigns credit hours. Further, this is 10 credits off of your physics degree which is a notoriously long degree to carry out.
Additionally, you could complete two introductory level physics courses for college level credit in high school. This is an additional 10 credits and keeps you out of the (usually) jam-packed intro physics courses at college. Once again saving time and money toward your degree.
If possible, you could complete college level electives and foreign language requirements. All in all, in the best case scenario, you’d be able to cut off anywhere from 1-2 years of college. Physics degrees can take anywhere from 3-5 years on average and it has taken me 5.5-6 years. A physics degree in three years is a phenomenal goal and only achievable if you start during your high school curriculum. This also keeps the money spent on college to a minimum. Even further, a good student is likely to receive scholarships if you are succeeding at this level during high school.
2. There is no need to Double Degree
Admittedly, if you are a star student who comes to college with credits already under your belt and can absolutely handle the extra coursework, go for it! However, most of us are not capable of this and the risk/reward ratio for getting a double degree is simply not good enough to permit the extra coursework.
I will be getting a double degree in Physics and Mathematics. One might think that due to the overlap I’d be studying both these curriculum simultaneously in a harmonious way. However, this is most certainly wrong. A degree in Physics uses a range of math that covers algebra, trigonometry, calculus, linear algebra, complex numbers and basic proofs, however a degree in mathematics will lead to you studying abstract concepts and much more difficult courses. Of course, more mathematics under your belt is always an advantage for a physics student, but there is a limit to what your mind can take in per one semester. Often times I would go from working on advanced calculus concepts in physics to writing abstract proofs in my mathematics courses. These things are not really similar and caused a disconnect from one other for me.
3. Research as Soon as Possible
This is one area that I succeeded in. Ideally, as a freshmen in college you want to get to know the professors in your department that accept undergraduate researchers. Learn as much as you can about what they do and their methods. Talk to other students who have worked with them to get to know who they are and if they are worth working for. Think about what it is that you’d like to research and what your strong skills are. Once you have a semester or two accomplished, set up a meeting with them and see if you’d like to begin work as their research undergraduate. Professors want students that are in their freshmen/sophomore years as this gives them a chance to train them during the first semester or two and have paybacks during the key junior and senior years.
This is an incredibly important aspect of your degree as if you are planning to attend graduate school, research in physics is almost a must. Through your research work you can acquire grants, attend conferences (and thus, network), publish your research, and give talks and presentations. These things will be very beneficial to you when it comes time to apply to graduate school.
4. Start your Physics Courses as Early as Possible
When I began taking Physics I, I already was a sophomore in college. The problem with this is by the time I got out of the basic series of Physics courses, I was already a junior. This meant that I had to take the more advanced physics courses bunched together (this is due to prerequisites). In my senior year I am taking a full semester of high level physics courses. This is disadvantageous in many ways, but most glaringly, the risk of failing is higher and failing in your senior year means you are staying another year. All around, this is a terrible strategy.
The reason I did this was that I wanted to take as many math courses in my freshman year as possible so that I could take the physics courses with an above average level of math. I thought I might be able to understand the physics better if I had more advanced math techniques on hand. This was simply a bad assumption on my part. Start early.