IPSP Part 3 - I am here!! Let's make the best out of it.

And it begins…

Note: I am assuming that most of you have a high-school level of physics (that is up-to-date and not rusting for years altogether) and went through the foundational mathematical preparation in the IPSP II post. This is probably be one of the longer posts you will encounter on my blog. Let’s dive straight into some logistics and then some Do’s and Don’ts.

Coursework

Every semester, you will be taking three mandatory modules,

  • Theoretical Physics
  • Experimental Physics
  • Mathematics for Physicists

And one elective. A total of 30 ECTS per semester is supposed to be your ideal workload.

Do #1: The weekly assignments, SOLVE PROBLEMS

Each course will have assignments (homework) that you need to hand in on a weekly basis. Don’t underestimate the amount of work and time that goes into these - you will be having 3 assignments to submit every week, it can get quite tedious. You need an average of 50% on these assignments in order to be allowed to admitted to the exam. Even though the grades of these assignments do not appear on your final grade for the course, there is a robust correlation between doing these assignments well and getting good grades on the final exam. You may ask, Why?

  1. Applicability: These assignments are usually designed such that you apply the concepts you learned in the class (Expect similar problems to form a majority of the questions you will encounter in your exam). Of course in an exam, there will be more challenging problems (not necessarily harder than the ones in your assignement, just different variety making it tricky) where you are expected to learn new things while solving the problems. (Expect these problems to differentiate between someone good at the subject and someone really good at the subject).
  2. Similarity: Physics is a very objective subject. There may be multiple approaches to the same problem, but usually just one right solution. Because of this, the intersection of the Venn diagram of problems one can expect on these assignment sheets v/s the variety of problems one can expect on the exam is pretty large (Apologies for the tediously long statement; I guess you will have to get used to deciphering statements tenfold complicated in your physics career).
  3. Difficulty: Assignment problems are usually expected to be solved over a week. You are supposed to attempt them, fail, look at resources; sometimes you might find the solution - in Germany, there is nothing wrong with this legally - unless you are copying straight from a friend. But this is far away from the ideal scenario where you keep hacking away at the problem till you get it. Ideally, sometimes, if you cannot solve a problem, get obsessed with it. You will need that obsession when you are performing research. One problem at hand - not finding a solution for weeks or even months, is a common occurrence.

The first hurdle you face will be Theoretical Physics I (or, as it is called in IPSP, “TP1”)

You have never taken anything similar to such a course before. (My dataset for such a conclusion might be limited as the coursework slightly changes yearly. I make this comment based on the three iterations of this course. I have been a TA for two iterations and attended one iteration as a student). The upcoming advice applies to most first-year courses, not just this one, but TP1 is the one most people struggle with. This small section is just a headsup to pay extra attention and give more time to this subject as it might take some time to settle down with the concepts taught in this one.

Hmm, this sounds like a lot… What should I do?

The simple answer: You need to come prepared. Easier said than done, am I right? That is the exact reason for this post. I want to try to guide you in the simplest way to prepare well for a smooth start in IPSP and avoid the common mistakes I have seen people make during my years.

Physics is a subject you will only understand by solving problems. Some of the problems you solve might be directly used in a research project you will be undertaking someday. Maximize the problems you solve while keeping up with the concepts.

Don’t #1: Do not give up on a subject because you don’t understand that “one concept.”

As a former TA for many IPSP courses (not only IPSP, but at Heidelberg and Queens too), I have seen one mistake often. People start dropping out of a course, saying they will take it next year or so because “They didn’t understand everything 100%”. They strongly believe that not understanding 100% equals being a bad physicist in the future. Of course, it is essential to have a strong foundation when aiming for a career as a Physicist, but this certainly does not mean that you will be able to understand every damn concept the first time you attempt to learn it. There will be challenging and non-challenging parts of a course.

Solution? Try to stick to the rule of thirds: You should be breezing past 1/3 of the material, You should be doing well on 1/3 of the material, and you could be struggling with 1/3 of the material. As long as this is true, you are just doing average.  If the ratio is off, there are generally only a handful of scenarios (excluding the extremes) :

  • Scenario A (Good): You find a big chunk of the course too easy? That’s excellent. Use this opportunity to go in-depth and do more challenging problems (This is always true for Physics; you can almost always find a more complex problem to work on). Maybe try to help some of your colleagues who are struggling? While teaching them or helping them out you might realize there are some gaps in your knowledge here or there.
  • Scenario B (Tough but manageable): Most topics seem hard but you are still hanging on, maybe lagging a few lectures as you try to catch up (As in, the prof is on lecture 7 and you are still trying to figure out lecture 6). Honestly? You can still catch up pretty quickly by being disciplined and putting in just a little more effort.

If the scenario is further away from this, it might be time to reevaluate your priorities and put in everything you have got into focusing on the ongoing course material and foundations. There might be a small possibility that you have to restart some of the subjects.

Slow but steady wins the race. Take one step at a time; if you feel you have moved one step backward, focus on moving two steps forward (in order to catch up with the pace). No more, no less. Don’t give up and keep hacking at the problem/s at hand.

Do #2: Be as unbiased as possible with your coursework

This is an important point, and I cannot emphasize this enough. Most of the students I talk to (including myself at a time) are in a rush to reach the “cool” physics; it’s usually either Quantum mechanics, Relativity, or Astrophysics for many different reasons. The thought where you think, “ Oh, I want to be an astrophysicist; when am I going to need this bizarre mathematical tool, or when am I going to need how AC currents work?” is extremely wrong. And the reason it is wrong is because you don’t know better. Let me give you my examples.

  • Example 1 : I had a thought as an early undergrad (this became better as I started climbing the ladder). The thought goes, “Oh, I want to be a theoretical physicist; it is alright if I slack more on the experimental side.” Honestly, I do not use experimental techniques in my day-to-day research. But Physics is, was, and always will remain an empirical science. Theory and experiment are so tightly bound to each other that one cannot survive without the other. I am working on the quite theoretical side of Dark Matter, but it is also one of the most significant experimental programs to search for dark matter. To contribute any new models or ideas in this field, I need to be aware of the current experimental bounds and setups. I am also the theorist on an experiment my supervisor proposed. Am I setting up the equipment? No. Am I going to perform the experiment? No. Then what am I doing on this thing? I am the one who is supposed to be monitoring “what we are trying to look for in the experiment”, “How could we maybe use the same setup to look for other things?". I need to know the experiment really well to be able to extract the most out it’s potential.
  • Example 2: This is from my Theoretical Physics II or III course; I cannot quite recall which one. There was this section on Waveguides from Jackson. I honestly was struggling with understanding parts of it. I thought to myself, hell, when will I need this? Guess what? One of the first projects I took on as a master’s student needed me to work on something to do with dark matter detection in an environment where these waveguide equations became very relevant. The project did not see the light of day because we had to scrap it (which happens too often in science), but the point is, I regretted assuming I was not going to need something in the future.

These are two of many, many more examples. Of course, it is tough to have everything you learn in your undergrad under your sleeves. But you do owe it to your future self to give your best. Also, don’t believe me? Here is a nice quick thread on Twitter (or X, sigh) on how Quantum mechanics mimics most of the fundamentals of Classical mechanics, just in a different domain (of course, you see this in books, too, as you take courses, but it is just important to know that your foundations can matter). https://twitter.com/Kaju_Nut/status/1562921965597249536?s=19.

*You cannot be the judge of what topic is important and what isn’t. Do your best to understand everything. Try to be as unbiased as possible in your learning.*

Don’t #2: Do not fail a subject

I will try to be as blunt as possible because this is crucial. Failing a subject will get you into an extremely weird loop. This is a loop where you will always simultaneously prepare for exams from multiple semesters. This is not ideal as you will be lacking in depth in a subject you could not pass in the previous year and the one you should be learning right now.

What are the major causes (besides actually preparing and, unfortunately, falling short of performing on the exam) that I’ve seen people failing multiple subjects?

  • Excessive part-time jobs - If you read this before applying to IPSP and plan to support yourself entirely by doing jobs, I would advise you upfront that it will be very difficult. IPSP can get extremely demanding at times. Demanding is an understatement. I think this can be manageable if you plan to support yourself partially. It won’t be easy but manageable.
  • Excessive partying: I think this is a self-explanatory one. Don’t expect you to get an A by doing the assignments and attending classes. You will have to put in the weekends, the Friday nights, and whatnot when it comes to that. If you are unwilling to do that, I would seriously reconsider doing IPSP. I mean that. (I am also not saying I do not have fun; I enjoyed my undergrad and am always reminiscing about my days in Leipzig. Although I am not a party person, I did my fair share of recreational activities. I was not on the desk 24x7). There needs to be a good balance between the work you do and everything else. (IMO, This is true if you want to succeed in anything - not just IPSP).
  • Poor mental health - There is no point in not addressing the giant elephant in the room. This is not specific to IPSP, but just in general. If you are not in a state where you can take care of yourself, even the simplest tasks can become herculean. On top of that, being in a new country and starting a new life, for many of us not speaking the language, can be a recipe for depression, anxiety, etc. From what I know, your health insurance does give you access to mental health care. I am not a trained professional, so maybe take the following advice with a grain of salt. One of the best ways to avoid feeling lonely and depressed while tackling this course is by surrounding yourself with a good and robust support system - friends you can trust and know will be there for you. Choose your friends wisely, see if your goals align, and have fun learning together one of the most beautiful subjects out there :)

CAVEATS

  • What to do if you fail a subject even after trying hard?
    • It’s alright, these things happen. The best thing you can do is go for the retake (re-exam), usually at the start of next semester. Ask your seniors currently in IPSP to give you a better idea of how this works. But do not, and I mean do not delegate it to the following year.
  • I had to delegate the re-exam to the following year; now what?
    • Alright, we have more or less reached the final scenario. In this case, I strongly suggest that you push the subject you are supposed to be doing this semester in the same course (i.e., say you had to retake TP1 in your third semester; do not do it along with TP3). If you need to do both of them together, prepare A LOT upfront (before the semester starts) to give your entire attention to TP3, in this case, while the semester is on.

*Try your best to avoid falling into a complete loop. One bad grade doesn’t define you. But don’t let the fear of a single bad grade cascade into fear and failure.*

All in all, I think the blog is 80% complete. I still may want to add some finesse to it eventually. I have held on to this post for long enough; it is time to post 😄

Rohan Kulkarni
Rohan Kulkarni
Aspiring Theoretical Physicist

Just a simple man trying to make a difference.