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A bit of encouragement needed Academic probation

  1. Dec 19, 2014 #1
    I rarely post these pathetic types of threads, but I kind of need to right now if you all don't mind.

    For those that don't know me... now 38 years old, first year of grad school for mathematics. I started undergrad at 33. I am married, have A.D.D. and a somewhat busy life, but I'm very determined...

    Nonetheless, I got a C+ in a graduate class when my grades came in yesterday. This amounts to almost failure in grad school terms - I am on academic probation.

    Because of my limitations, I took only two heavy classes - advanced linear algebra and abstract algebra, and a seminar class. The seminar was pass/fail and I gave a talk. The idea of that class is to give you the required credits to keep a TAship and to do some basic research (which I really enjoy more than classes.)

    I was told by lots of people that a C means you are doing really bad, and they are very rarely even handed out, so long as you are showing up, handing in all your work, participating, etc. The algebra professor does not seem to subscribe to this philosophy. I did the best I knew how, but I can't blame him for the grade. I had a hard time with the class.

    I did very well in the more abstract stuff in undergrad, but the pace of the material in grad school, and the level of abstraction in algebra seemed to get the best of me. The professor is a classic, hard core, not-interested-in-education philosophy grad school type professor. I won't go down the road of blaming the guy. I have a sense he is explaining things very clearly - just not to me.

    Had an unprecedented panic on my first in class test, and ended up with an 11 percent.

    I am told that it is common to have "impostor syndrome" in the first years of graduate school, where you feel like you don't belong, that you are stupid, and that people are all smarter than you. But I feel like I have concrete proof of this fact. I am pretty sure I am among the lowest.

    However, I stayed in. I'm not out yet. I'm still very determined. We did lose a few people early on, and I'm not one of them.

    I found out in the second or third week of school that many people postpone the algebra sequence until later, because it is the more difficult (among Algebra, Analysis, and Topology, the latter being the "easiest" if there is such a thing). I chose algebra because I prefer it, however I am certainly seeing what people are talking about. The amount of abstraction requires a mathematical maturity that I'm not sure I have yet.

    If I understand correctly, I have a semester to fix this. Next semester is a little bit lighter in that only one class (Algebra II, same professor) is a core, and the other an elective (Foundations and Logic, which I'm really looking forward too) and I am doing seminar again.

    We are also completely moved in to our new house (oh, did I not mention we also bought a house at the beginning of my semester and moved? I really did not want it to happen that way.) and I am now on meds for my A.D.D., as all my previous coping strategies (diet, yoga, exercise, meditation, planners) just weren't enough.

    I was studying over my break, but have been moping the last couple of days. I'll get over it. My wife is extremely supportive, but I wouldn't mind hearing from some of you.

    I have another question about proofs and such I'm going to post in another thread...

    -Dave K
  2. jcsd
  3. Dec 19, 2014 #2


    Staff: Mentor

    I had something like this happen to me. I was was ten years out from college and decided to go back for graduate studies is Physics. I pushed myself as an undergrad physics major interested in General Relativity and the Unified Field Theory and graduated early but also got burned out with too many hard courses namely taking topology then abstract algebra which I thought would help me understand some cutting edge physics theory and foregoing the more basic set theory thinking my math is pretty good and I know how to do proofs (ie geometric proofs from highschool).

    The profs were kind and I passed but I just couldn't keep up. There were too many definitions of terms that depended on other terms... no of which I knew well and certainly couldn't use in a proof of any length.

    My graduate studies were paid for by my employer at one course per semester. Even at that, the load was too great and my marks were poor. I couldn't handle work and doing the coursework as well. My math skills were extremely rusty at the time and there was no time to improve them. Eventually I switched to Comp Sci since I realized my limitations and went with something I knew (I do programming) and spun it as computer modeling and simulation.

    So perhaps this is a good time for you to reevaluate your reasons for grad school. As an example, maybe abstract algebra and number theory isn't right. Perhaps geometry would be a better fit like teaching or perhaps applied math... You could write down the various topics in math that you like and do a pros and cons for each and maybe one will pop out that you hadn't considered.
  4. Dec 19, 2014 #3
    Yeah, I'm going through all those scenarios right now. A lot of the stuff I am interested in math is bordering on comp sci, but I really wanted to do it from a math perspective. I also don't have much of an official comp sci background to make the switch (10 years working helpdesk doesn't really count). Also, I have, for now, the TAship in math. If I switch I will likely lose that at first.

    Not ready to bail just yet, but I do need to up my game somehow...
  5. Dec 19, 2014 #4


    Staff: Mentor

    With that in mind, consider taking a course on computer modeling / simulation when you can. I took one a few years back where Java was used to simulate various physical systems. We used the Open Source Physics toolkit to develop the simulations. For me the easy part was the java, I went along with the physics even though I couldn't remember how to deal with the partial differential equations as I had done years earlier.

    The book we used was:


    also you could explore MATLAB in your free time as a tool to explore things numerically. (There's some alternatives to MATLAB namely freemat or octave or Pyzo)

    Hang in there.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 7, 2017
  6. Dec 19, 2014 #5
    I am interested in this sort of thing, and in fact I am in the midst (it's on the backburner right now) of a mathematical modeling project with a cancer research center. It sounds more impressive than it is, since I'm basically modifying some previously written code and trying to solve some differential equations numerically, but it's a foot in the door kind of thing.

    Problem is that to stay in the math program I have to get through quals, and I think I am pretty well stuck with Algebra... Well, "stuck" has a negative connotation. I happen to love the subject, (I have described my progress as a horrible accident that I can't peel my eyes off of). And as I understand it, Algebra, though I'm at the "abstract" part now, has a lot of applications down the line, if I can get through this.... I am pretty much committed (because of how I arranged my schedule) to taking that qualifier, next August at the latest.
  7. Dec 19, 2014 #6


    Staff: Mentor

    Okay, you have some time. Is there a study group of other math grads that you can join or some sort of seminar series that you can participate in.

    Also ask your adviser about what you can do to improve your proofing skills.
  8. Dec 19, 2014 #7
    I have one friend I work with, who is slightly less lost than I am, but much smarter.

    When I try to work with others I seem to get even more confused and I think working with me frustrates them. So it seems I am mostly better working on my own. It's mostly a pace thing. I'm just slow. Takes me a long time to process, but I get it eventually. Unfortunately grad school isn't slow, and taking less courses is not an option.

    Just talking it out is helping though, so thanks. I never post these kinds of threads and I feel a bit silly about it.
  9. Dec 19, 2014 #8


    Staff: Mentor

    Don't feel silly, I think a lot of grad students have these same problems and nowhere to go for answers.
  10. Dec 30, 2014 #9
    Just a bit of an update. I've made a big decision to pursue a Masters with Thesis option, rather than a PhD, and rather than a Masters with qualifiers option.

    I'm mourning the loss of the "mathematician" label I was kind of pinning on myself. But it's a good and realistic decision. I simply learn better by doing projects and researching what I am interested in, rather than taking tests and such.

    At 38 years old the prospect of "I might have a PhD in 5 to 7 years or more" is not appealing. I want to hang out with my wife, go camping, take care of my health, etc. Grad school is a great challenge, but not great for my health. So the 5 to 7 years down to 2 or 3 seems much more manageable.

    I think I know my research area (Theoretical computer science, specifically complexity theory) and have some ideas in mind, in general, for specifics. But I'll start another thread for that.


    Dave K
  11. Dec 30, 2014 #10


    Staff: Mentor

    That's great! It will remove much of the anxiety now and then you can maybe reconsider later on.
  12. Dec 30, 2014 #11
    Yes, it doesn't preclude a PhD later of course. Though the total time would be longer.
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