How to Study Physics

Contrary to what the title suggests, this article is not a guide about how one should learn a physics topic such as mechanics or electromagnetism. It is instead a guide to studying physics, i.e., how one should go about becoming a physicist and what path one should take. I felt the need for this article arose from the number of questions regarding this on websites such as Quora, particularly from Indians. “How can I do an MSc in Physics after studying Computer Science?”, “Can I become an astrophysicist after doing aerospace engineering?” and many, many other questions along the same line. It is tempting to just say “no”. However, the real answer is a little more nuanced than that. Be cautioned that this is just a personal opinion through the eyes of an undergraduate student so take it as such. (Also note, that unless stated otherwise when I say physics, I mean all kinds of physics: theoretical, experimental, applied, astrophysics, etc.)

A good place to start is to ask ourselves why such questions are commonplace. I believe that the main reason is due to the fact that children in India are pushed into engineering and medicine, fed with fantasies that if they do engineering or become a doctor their life is set. It is only while doing the degree (or once they are done) that they realise their interests lie elsewhere. It is also possible that they have watched a bit too much of sci-fi and have no idea what real physics is about.

I shall first talk about what I consider the ideal path to a research career in physics. After that I will try to give a general answer to these questions.

Step 1: High-school mathematics and physics – It goes without saying that you absolutely should have done high-school maths and physics. In mathematics, you should be comfortable working with pre-calculus material (functions, algebra, trigonometry), basic linear algebra (vectors, matrices, determinants) and basic calculus (being able to compute basic limits, derivatives, integrals) and of course other mathematics you pick up along the way like complex numbers and sequences. In physics, you should understand mechanics (kinematical equations, Newton’s Laws, etc.), electromagnetism (Coulomb’s Law) and other basic ideas. Unlike the maths, college-level physics is often built from the ground up.

Step 2: GET A DEGREE IN PHYSICS – I absolutely cannot stress this enough. If you want to do research in physics, a bachelor’s degree in physics (maybe mathematics with a good component of physics) is a must. You have to have a thorough understanding of mechanics (Newtonian as well as Lagrangian), special-relativity, electrodynamics (including relativistic electrodynamics), statistical mechanics (which includes thermodynamics) and quantum mechanics (a lot of stuff). If you are not thorough with at least these topics, it is going to be very hard to be admitted to a master’s degree programme in physics. Most master’s degrees in physics have a significant portion which requires intimate knowledge of quantum mechanics. For example, quantum-field theory, condensed-matter physics, quantum electrodynamics and even cosmology. Even if you are admitted, it’s going to be unbelievably difficult to keep up. The gist of it, if you want to study physics in the future, do a bachelor’s in physics.

As I write this article, I realise that I am not qualified enough to give further advice. However, I will say this much. Do a master’s degree in physics or a closely related subject. And after that you have your PhD to do.

Lastly, to address the question I set out to answer. “Can I do physics after _______ engineering?”. As you’ve read this article you might have gotten the answer you were looking for. Have you studied Lagrangian mechanics? Have you studied relativistic electrodynamics? Have you studied statistical mechanics (thermodynamics at the very least)? Have you done (introductory) quantum mechanics? If you said yes for 4 out 4, congrats! You will likely be fine. If you said yes for 3 out of 4, that is still alright. There’s a good chance you will be admitted to some MSc Physics programme, although you might struggle a bit. Any fewer than 3 and I strongly advise against studying physics (as a career at least). If you have a passion for physics, study it in your free time. There is a whole world to be discovered there. But changing your direction like that is tough so stick with whatever you’re doing unless you’re ready to sacrifice a year or more of your life to preparing for a master’s programme.

I hope this article has helped some of you. Experts, please feel free to leave any feedback you might have.

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