Friday, May 25, 2012

Advice for NUS Physics Undergraduates

So, you are a Physics major. When you talk to people, most of them gawk at you, recalling their inadequacy in Physics and say that you must be a genius. Some of them ask about the Big Bang, String Theory, and grossly misinterpret Quantum Physics, and you'll have to be the one to explain Physics in layman terms.

That's easy enough. That's what got me into Physics in the first place. That and the beauty that calculations based on simple physical intuition in principle predicts (up to a certain accuracy) how the world behave.

That is all you had in your high school education. Now as you learn the level one Physics modules, it gets a bit tougher. You have to crack your brains, be accurate, right, fast, and understand a lot more. We say physics is a lot of understanding, no need for memorizing.

Once you understand the concept behind the phenomena, you'll be able to derive the equations governing it! It's still true, in essence. In practice, you might find writing important equations on your cheat sheet helps a lot. At least for some modules you don't have to memorize the equations. However, for all modules, you'll have to know how to apply them. Ask yourself: what is the correct situation, correct relationship, correct function? Then apply the equations correctly.

That requires a clear mind. A clear mind comes from being in the present moment during study time. That is not playing with electronic devices and other distractions during lectures. Or if the lecturer's style does not suit you, it means getting the discipline to pick up the books and study for yourself.

Go beyond what is required for you to know. That's how you sustain your interest in Physics. It's not about competition, and it's not about knowing more than your peers. It's about seeing how does this module helps me in understanding the universe, our world better?

Read popular science and science fiction. Too often the physics that we'll learn in university goes straight to the maths and principles without the inspiring motivations behind it. Popular science authors like Stephen Hawking, Brian Greene, Michio Kaku, Carl Segan all seek to make Physics understandable to the masses (that means little or no equations in their popular science books), and thus the concept explained is very clearly and cleverly combined with animations and visuals to make your imagination soar. Science fiction authors takes a further step into unknown areas and takes a little liberty on accuracy to create wonderful stories. Issac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke sometimes wrote fictions that turn into reality.

If you study for your passions, you'll find yourself driven to study and enjoying the process. Your passion may involve wanting to become a teacher, wanting to be a financial banker with a Physics outlook, or a future Nobel-Prize winner, the next Einstein and so forth... be clear of your direction, then aim for it.

If you find yourself in Physics just because you hate biology, can't do proving, dread long lab hours, then you might as well drop it Regardless of if you are a first, or even a second year student. By your third or fourth year, you'll either suffer long enough to make it worth the degree, or you had learned to love Physics. 

The level two modules is quite a big jump of rigor compared to level one modules. It is the basis of the Physics that most stuffs in PhD. level qualifying examinations is based on. And once you had completed the level two physics modules, you are much more capable and stronger than those who participated in the International Physics Olympiad. You understand now most of the basics of Physics.

Note the word basic, from now on, it's applying your knowledge to help you understand the world better.
Referring to the module mapping somewhere else in this magazine, there are a few avenues for you to go into for the third and fourth level modules.

For the more theoretically inclined: Mathematical Methods are essential. Relativity, Cosmology, Particle Physics, Electrodynamics, along with their prerequisites are also important for the background knowledge to further study on about Quantum Field Theory, Standard Model, String Theory, and Beyond.

For the ones pursuing a more industrial path, do take those that the NUS Physics website recommends for the specializations for Physics in Technology.

Other than those, for the multidisciplinary inclined, biophysics is a good path to go. Or Nano-physics, go for the minor in nano-science too. 

For me, the specializations are not worth it to take if you feel that you'll have to constrict your honours project to fit it in. However, if you feel that you've been passionate in the field, then by all means do it!

If you think you want to learn faster or want to clear modules ahead for the Final Year or SEP, do welcome to take level three modules in your second year and do the advanced ones. It's not much harder as long as you have the prerequisites taken.

Do take some level five modules too if you can fit it in and then realize the level of spoon-feeding you guys are being spoiled at lower level modules.

For the detailed review of each of the modules, do refer to

Finally, do take your GRE and apply for the PhDs at least one year before graduation if you plan to go for higher studies straight after. That's all I have now. Meanwhile, keep being inspired. Remember, we are the ones dealing with Time Travel, Multiverse, Nanoscience, and the working knowledge of the universe.


Anonymous said...

Hi Xin Zhao,
thanks for your very kind and thoughtful advice. Im an electronic and electrical engineer with hons, and am very keen to pursue a masters in physics in Nus. It has always been a dream. Do you know if I'll be eligible with a gre?
I've applied before without it and failed to get in.

Ng Xin Zhao said...


If you really want help, please consult the website and email the relevant people in NUS Physics Department.

I find it quite rude of you to not leave an return email address when you are asking a direct question and expecting an answer.

Short answer: I dunno. Reasonable answer: of course you need GRE!