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2 weeks into 1st year, I feel so lost - questioning if academia is even for me

  1. Oct 7, 2011 #1
    So high school was easy. I didn't go to an elite high school like many people at my university, but senior year I took 8 ap credits and got by with minimal work. BC calc was easy. I thought it was interesting though...and I thought I was good at math.

    but I'm not. I found that out quickly in Honors Calc (my university's Spivak course). I've never had to work so rigorously before, and I'm just not used to it or prepared for it. Yesterday I studied Ch 1 of Spivak for 90 minutes and looked at the Ch 1 problems. I didn't know how to even begin half of them...I felt so defeated. It seems like up until now I have gotten by in all my classes through some level of inborn common sense rather than having to actually learn new things...and I think I'm smart at common sense but maybe not even smart at all at "actual" learning...I want to do well in Spivak so I can prove myself, and I want to find it interesting, but so far I can't! in theory I find it interesting, but in practice I just find it despairing and depressing how hard it is for me.

    Ideally I would like to be an economist (I know, not the most popular field here). If I could place into Honors Analysis next year and hold my own in the class I would be all but guaranteed a position at most respectable econ PhD programs.

    What is this?! and worst of all, there is the crushing sense of my own intellectual inferiority - the possibility that I might not be ABLE to do this...It's hard for me to conceptualize and really "think" about these things rather than right off the top of my head having the "intuition" to know it instantly. Anyone else understand my feelings here?

    I am honestly considering going on medication to help me out. I'm wondering if any other budding academics struggled until they noticed a great benefit from having an rX? Part of the problem is that I know I'm not really working THAT hard, but I feel like I am! In terms of hours, I haven't even spent that much time trying to learn Spivak. But after trying for an hour I get frustrated and give up, rather than encouraged to have new insights. My friend who is taking Honors Analysis has graciously tried to help me but it usually comes down to: "well, some things you just have to stare at the textbook for an hour until you understand it". and sometimes I "get" concepts but then forget them later, which is a horrible feeling...

    I don't know...I just feel very lost right now. and I want to make smart decisions while I still can, before my academic record is capable of barring me from ever excelling into a great PhD program - I would only consider being an academic if I could be accepted into a top program, otherwise I would pursue other interests.

    More specifically, anyone who REALLY STRUGGLED with spivak and has advice, I would really be grateful.
  2. jcsd
  3. Oct 7, 2011 #2
    Struggled with Spivak? Let me change that for you. Struggling with Spivak is the right word for me. lol.

    Anyways, I don't know if medication is the best thing. I went to an elite high school. A lot of people there liked to smoke pot because it helped them to "relieve stress". If you go on medication, I'm not sure it would be any different from that.

    There are plenty of problems that require me to sit there for hours thinking about it. I could sit there for 4 hours and have nothing written on my paper until something pops into my head. Even then it turns out to be wrong a lot of times.

    There is no need to be depressed. If everything came to you so easily, you'd be like Terrence Tao graduating from Princeton with his Phd at the age of 20. Although a lot of people aspire to be like that, not everyone can achieve that. It also isn't surprising that you found BC calculus to be easy but then get slaughtered when you get into university calculus. According to Mathwonk, AP calculus courses do more harm than good. Don't let it get you down. You aren't the only one having a hard time. I won't believe you if you told me everyone in your class was acing the course cause that is statistically impossible.

    Refer to this thread for more information about what mathwonk said. https://www.physicsforums.com/showthread.php?t=122924

    He bashes AP calculus in around the 8th post or so, and personally, I agree with him.

    Whatever the outcome, good luck with your work.

    By the way, if you don't mind me asking, what university are you attending?
  4. Oct 7, 2011 #3
    Maybe I've just never had to work hard at ANYTHING before and don't even know what it means to work hard. That's a strange thought to ponder. I go to Chicago, by the way... Thanks for your consolation. I'll at least give this course another week of concerted effort before I reevaluate my game plan
  5. Oct 7, 2011 #4
    you'll get there man, everything can be learned. Plenty of other people have figured it out before you, so there's no reason why you can't either. They wouldn't have accepted you onto the course if they didn't think you were capable of grasping the material. You've just got to dig deep at times like this, this is what separates the men from the boys, as it were.
  6. Oct 7, 2011 #5
    It's like hearing my own voice. Everything came easy until i started on the university, where I faced the shocking and hard truth of simply not understanding it. The realization that, hey, you might not be able to.

    Well, after quitting half way into the first semester i tried again, working harder this time. It went better, but with no more than mediocre to respectable grades. After my Bachelors i was burned out and started doing other things for a year. I started on a masters degree where I AGAIN was surprised by the avalanche of work and struggles coming my way. Yup, I quit again. This wasn't for me.

    Then I worked for a suited-up driver for a couple of years. Crappy job, bad working ours, much unpaid downtime and stand-by-time. One day I helped some friend with some maths, and I realized that if I werent using the maths I knew, I've thrown away quite some years on nothing. Soon I went back there and started over on my master degree.

    Classes aren't large on that level of graduation, and the professors recognized me of course, glad to have me back two years later. hehe. One of them always told me of his high expectations of me, that he believed I was gonna achieve a great deal. Which was nice to hear, of course. Well, I'm not stupid, and I concetualize and draw logical conclusions fast enough, but I get confused with a jungle of math happening on the whiteboard.

    Anyway, what was different this time is that I _really_ pushed myself. I studied, slept and excercised, telling myself that if I lost my 'momentum' in life now, I'd fall back and fail again.
    After two years and both good and mediocre exams later, I handed in my master theis (geophysics), receiving a good grade (among the three best) of 12 students.

    The road has been long. Was it worth it? probably not. If I could be 20 years again, I'd probably do something more to my talent. But now I'm here, waiting for feedback on my last job-interview. Perhaps it was worth it after all. Time will show. Well, I'll never know where I'd been today with another choice, but that's philosophy for another time.
    Last edited: Oct 7, 2011
  7. Oct 7, 2011 #6


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    It's not so strange. Apparently you never had any teachers who bothered to challenge their best students (or you never bothered to take the opportunity to be challenged). But you had better get used to it, because that's the way the rest of your life is likely to be, whatever "game plan" you choose (even if you decide to flip burgers!)

    Start finding out about your college counselling services RIGHT NOW. Leaving it for another week isn't going to change the situation much. You won't fix the problem by trying to fool yourself that you don't really have a problem.
  8. Oct 7, 2011 #7
    Some thoughts:

    First of all: not being able to handle things right now doesn't mean you're stupid or that academia is not for you. There could be (and there probably are) multiple reasons for what you're going through:

    1) College is not for slackers. You mentioned that you got past high school with "minimal work". This attitude isn't going to fly in college. Doing minimal work means that you fail and that you won't know the material. You need to work very hard in college. I have at times spend countless hours on one single problem or staring at one sentence. It happens. But persistence gets rewarded!!

    2) Spivak is a very difficult book. If you're not acquainted with proofs and rigorous mathematics, then Spivak is quite hard. It is supposed to be hard. It's exercises can be quite a challenge (even for me). So don't get discouraged. Get a calculus book that is easier and study from both books. Maybe "Practical analysis in one variable" by Estep is what you need. It's a very easy book that is still not dumbed down.

    3) You need to communicate about what you do. You need to have feedback on your progress. Maybe you also need to ask recommendation about what exercises you should be able to handle. You can use physicsforums for that, there are a lot of nice people here who are willing to help you.

    4) Your friend/tutor is absolutely right. Sometimes you need to stare at a page for a few hours before it "clicks". Right now you hit a brick wall. It happens to ALL of us. But with hard work and persistence, you will soon see the wall crumble stone by stone.

    It's not a shame to give up college. But it would be a shame to give it up if you didn't even try. I get the impression that you don't want to try your best. That would be a shame. Just go for it: work hard and persist. Then you will have nothing to blame yourself for.
  9. Oct 7, 2011 #8
    It's called a learning curve. Believe me, if you put in enough effort in 3-4 weeks you'll be enjoying this class much more. As of right now just try your best to understand the concepts and do whatever it takes. Discuss them/do homework with other good students in your class and definitely go to office hours.
  10. Oct 7, 2011 #9
    Up until now, I've always gotten discouraged when I've had to spend an excessively long amount of time figuring out one problem. I always figured everyone else just "got it" and that I was slow. What you said is some good inspiration, knowing that other people are in the same boat as me. Thanks :smile:
  11. Oct 8, 2011 #10


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    I spent half an hour yesterday trying to understand a single phrase from Feynmann's lectures on physics. I am still not sure I got it, but I am reading just for my own pleasure (?) after going to bed, so I didn't want to spend whole night awake.

    Could be it is a matter of Polish translation, could be I am dumb, could be this particular place is unclear. It is not a boat you are riding with us, its a continent sized raft.

    Welcome a board.
  12. Oct 8, 2011 #11
    I agree 100%. OP you would do well to heed this advice. Bust your a$$ no matter what you do and in time you'll reap the fruit of your efforts.
  13. Oct 8, 2011 #12
    "Busting your ***" isn't really good advice.

    How did you study the chapter? Passively reading? Active reading?

    When I began studying for my first calculus course, I read each page and understood things on the page before moving along. I also did practice problems pertaining to the concepts on that page before entering the next. Basically, a form of intermittent understanding of each concept rather than grouping all the concepts together and attempting to solve practice problems after completion of the chapter. From that method I retained more material and could do just about any practice problem after the chapter, the test scores also proved as much.

    Not even geniuses understand things off the top of their head, what makes you any better? To have an intuition of something you must be seasoned of that something.

    You haven't tried new forms of studying and medication is the last route you'd want to go.

    Get more than 5 hours of sleep each night. Even if you think you need to study, take your mind off of reading and studying and just deal with it when you wake up. Being slow throughout the day won't help you study any better or grasp concepts quicker.

    Take vitamins (It is always good to keep up with this, for me, it has become number 1 on the shopping list every 2 months)

    Exercise (release some of that pent up stress)

    Eat more vegetables, fruits, nuts, etc... (mother was right all along!)

    Spend time studying like you have been but change up the usual style of it.
  14. Oct 8, 2011 #13
    What's wrong with advising someone to work hard at something if at first they don't succeed?
  15. Oct 8, 2011 #14
    It doesn't help him or her, and everyone knows (or should know) they need to work hard in order to succeed. What he is looking for is another method of trying to understand the material. And as you can see from his post, he read for 90 minutes yet didn't understand how to go about solving the problems from the text. Did he work hard? Yes, he did work hard, but the work is misplaced and utilized the wrong way.
  16. Oct 8, 2011 #15
    I fully agree with what you're saying. I was only seconding micromass' suggestion, not adding any precise guidelines to follow as micromass pretty much said it all. I threw in a generic "work hard & you'll reap what you sow" because I get the impression he's giving up way too easily.
  17. Oct 8, 2011 #16
    Work through the book examples with pencil and paper. Writing down whats going on always helps....fill in the gaps, although I've heard that Spivak doesn't really leave gaps.

    You need to be working a solid 5 hrs a day....8 on Sat, and a few on Sunday in college if you are taking hard classes.

    Work through it...a few years from now you'll wonder what you thought was so hard about Spivak.
  18. Oct 11, 2011 #17
    Now that I look back, it's always been like that for me. At some point, everything started to feel "too easy" and I just got very disinterested and things lost the charm they once had.

    I find that micromass' precisely outlined things. Thank you for input. I'm off to work. :)
  19. Oct 11, 2011 #18
    Well I dropped down to the 2nd quarter of the intermediate calc sequence. I simply didn't feel like I was making any progress in Spivak's book. I think I need a slower introduction to proofs. By the end of this year, I will still be able to complete calc and intro to analysis - so if I choose to do so, I can still take analysis next year. It won't be as easy as if I completed all of the honors calc sequence, but it's definitely doable. Thanks for the advice everyone. If there are any econ grad students who have advice about what math is important for PhD programs, I would love to hear your input.
  20. Oct 12, 2011 #19


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    You are lucky, I found this thread.

    What Math is important? Let's see.... Real Analysis (obviously includes all that nice calculus stuff with rigor you are learning; differentiation, integration, differential equations, etc...), Calculus of Variation, Measure Theory, Topology [Point set, convergence..] Mathematical Statistics, Mathematical Optimization (Static [LP, NLP...] and Dynamic [optimal control, and so on]), Set Theory, Stochastic Process, Linear Algebra (EXTREMELY IMPORTANT, and also Matrix Differentiation, we don't use the index notation physicists use for this). Also, Stochastic Differential equations are useful.

    and these are the basics. Some economists are now using some differential geometry as well.

    For an idea, hmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm I think Mathematical Economics by Takayama will give you an idea of basic topics, although is not a comprehensive book.
  21. Oct 12, 2011 #20
    Ummmm..... I don't think this is true. Even if you work your rear end off, econ and finance programs are really hard to get into.

    Yes, but you get used to it. You hit your head against a wall for a few weeks and then after doing that, you understand something, and once you've figured one thing out then next time you have a hard problem, you'll remember that you survived something before.

    If you don't feel stupid, then you aren't being challenged enough. If you want to survive, you have to come to terms with your own stupidity.

    I don't think it's going to help things much, and there is a good chance that it will make things worse.

    Something that you have to learn is to deal with that frustration. In graduate school, you will be looking at problems that you can spend *months*, *years*, or even *decades* working on with no apparent progress. Right now with Spivak, you know that there is an answer. When you do research, you may be working on a problem with no answer, and you may spend years of your life figuring out that your approach just won't work. My Ph.D. dissertation was all about "how I failed to figure out how supernova work"

    Then pursue other interests. Seriously. The amount of frustration that you are dealing with right now is only the tip of the iceberg.

    Something that works for me is that I feel good when I figure something out. I feel good even when no one else knows or cares that I've figured it out.

    That keeps me going. The problem is that if you insisting on getting into a "top program" that means that social approval is the thing that you are trying to get, and if that's your main motivation, it's just not going to work. There aren't enough spaces, and you can work your rear end off, and in the end get rejected and rejected and rejected. It stings a bit for me to be rejected, but I keep going because the pure thrill of discovery is enough for me.

    If it's not enough for you, then you really need to find another field, because the path you are on just will not work.
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