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A graduate student in dire need of advice

  1. Mar 12, 2012 #1
    I am in great physics PhD program in my first year, and classes aren't going all that well. Last semester I barely made it with a 3.0 gpa, which is the minimum required. I tried to study and work on the homework gradually, utilizing my classmates to bounce ideas off of. This was a big step forward for me, considering that throughout my undergraduate career I relied on last minute cramming and last minute "homeworking." But I guess it wasn't worth all that much because I didn't do great like I wanted to. I feel rather lost, and even though I really like physics, perhaps a PhD is not right for me if I can't get my act together?

    Well, I have completely regressed it seems. Because of this, I may do worse this semester. I just have no motivation. And I should right? I got into a great school, everyone is supportive, and I just got accepted into the research group I wanted. However, this group is high profile, and it is theoretical work. How can I hope to do such work if I can't even get A's in foundation classes like classical mechanics?! I feel that I am making a grave error in aiming too high. It's stressing me out a lot. I thought I could do it, get myself to try. But I keep sinking lower and lower. I know that part of this is due to mental illness, but I can't keep blaming it on that, it seems like a cop-out.

    I guess I just want to hear what other people have gone though, if I am really making a mistake in being in graduate school, or if it will ever get better. I know that ultimately I need to make decisions for myself, but it's hard for me to think that just a year ago when I got the acceptance letter, I was so darn happy and so excited to get my PhD, and now I just want to give up completely. Someone please help, anything will do.
  2. jcsd
  3. Mar 13, 2012 #2
    Things may be different from school to school, but in my program, no one really cared whether you got an A or a B in a course. The grading system was A=high pass, B=pass, anything lower and you were in trouble.

    It's hard to say wants really going on from the outside. Everyone has terrible, terrible days in graduate school, and there is adjustment when you realize that you may well not be the smartest person in the room, but the dumbest. Someone has to be.

    Something that might help is to answer the question, so why *do* you want to get a Ph.D. in physics?
  4. Mar 13, 2012 #3


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    There's a key difference. Are you completely failing the exams? I mean at the PhD level courses, it is not expected that everyone gets A. Those courses are tough. However, you should be able to at least understand, no?.
  5. Mar 13, 2012 #4
    i have a related question: are graduate classes generally easier at low ranked schools, because the quality of admitted students is on average lower? I don't want to be posting the same thing as OP is a few months later.

    you also might have qualifiers to pass too, and those are probably going to be at least as hard as your class finals.
  6. Mar 13, 2012 #5


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    Your undergraduate should prepare you to at least survive graduate school, but you should be learning new material in your graduate courses, and manage to survive.

    The key to graduate school is to survive, period. Grades are not important. However, if you are failing (and you are the ONLY ONE failing)... There's something wrong.

    Qualifying exams are hard, and to be honest, PhD students can fail them, and flunk out of graduate school. This won't happen if you are surviving, and not struggling. You may fail the first time. Sometimes, it happens, but you probably pass your second time.
  7. Mar 13, 2012 #6
    There is no general "ranking" of physics schools, and a lot of departments are small enough so that a lot depends on the personalities of the people in the department. Also, I haven't noticed that much of a difference in the quality of graduate physics students. There are enough smart foreign graduate students that even the "worst" department can get access to very, very good people.

    You will be. Graduate school is an extremely gut wrenching experience, and everyone has terrible days when they wonder why they are there. It's something that you just get used to. Part of the difficulty is that it's sometimes hard to know if it's "normal graduate school blues" or if there is something more serious going on
  8. Mar 13, 2012 #7
    if it is true that foreign students are the smartest people at the low ranked schools then i'm at an advantage. if it is not true then it's back to square 1.

    i think the degree of gut wrenching depends on specific research done.
  9. Mar 13, 2012 #8
    I don't think you are. There are a billion Chinese and a billion Indians, and graduate schools can get the cream of the crop.

    Also, if your self-identity depends on being the smartest person in the room or getting better grades than everyone else, do not go to graduate school. If you are looking for the easiest way of getting a Ph.D., do not go to graduate school.

    No it doesn't. Graduate school is for intellectual masochists, and if you don't derive some twisted pleasure in getting the living daylights beat out of your intellectually speaking, do not go to graduate school.
  10. Mar 13, 2012 #9
    To answer why I want a PhD is difficult. It is not a clear-cut answer, and I based part of my decision on not wanting to search for a "real job." I think that I want to do something computer programming related because from what I've done so far I enjoy it (I took a c++ class and did some of my own little projects), but at the time of undergrad graduation I did not have sufficient experience to land such a job (I only had research experience in a chemistry lab, and not in anything computational) . So graduate school seemed like a good place to obtain the necessary experience/skills.

    I did completely fail the midterms in two classes last semester, and managed to do better on the finals so I earned B-'s, and although I feel as though I understand things better, there are still holes. And I still get stuck on some of the mathematical manipulations in my statistical mechanics class this semester.

    My main worry is how this affects my ability to actually do computationally based research, and if I should just stick what I have experience in and work in a lab. I keep worrying that I chose the wrong group and that after a summer of trying and trying to get something started the professor will be annoyed/disappointed/unimpressed and kick me out.
  11. Mar 13, 2012 #10
    What is this mental illness that you have? And is it under control?
  12. Mar 13, 2012 #11
    I was diagnosed with dysthymia when I was 18, and have been on medication before. But I have difficulty in reconciling the idea of such an "illness" and the fact that I'm just an overprivileged, middle class white american who can't accept reality. Is a pill going to make me happy? Psychology/psychiatry says so.
  13. Mar 13, 2012 #12
    Sounds like 3 components here:

    1) Work Ethic / Study skills need improvement - this should be pretty straightforward to remedy (do some reading and seek some advice on effective studying, then just execute!)

    2) Mental Illness - not a cop out, seek treatment or support group

    3) Imposter Syndrome - totally normal, understand it & talk about it.

    Good luck!
  14. Mar 13, 2012 #13
    To talk about the last thing you said first, I would have to say that there are people out there who get the help they need through medications. I get a little irked when people talk about pills that are supposed to make them "happy" instead of realizing that some of medications used by psychiatrists are there to help offset certain imbalances that might make a person act out in a non-acceptable manner such as overly aggressive or combative. It's my understanding that these pills help individuals to think with a more sound mind and not to "flip a switch" on moods.

    Now your original situation of feeling like you didn't have enough experience or were unprepared for working in the industry after graduating, while a completely valid feeling, is one that in my mind was a little unfounded. There are entry-level jobs for a reason. Most employers realize that students out of the university or whatever will mostly likely not have experienced single particular/proprietary products while in school.

    Other than that, I think you realize by now that last minute cramming is not going to help you very much in graduate school. Graduate school is not easy and you are going to find stressful situations there just like any other job you might hold in the future, whether it be from dealing with the subject matter, coworkers, etc...
  15. Mar 13, 2012 #14
    Do whatever it is that works....

    I do get the anecdotal sense that people that work in academic physics have a much , much higher rate of mood disorders than the general population. People have done studies that indicate that the rate of bipolar disorder in writers is much higher than the general population. One other thing is that there are not that many professional physicists with diagnosed schizophrenia, but I do get the anecdotal sense that the number of professional physicists with family members with schizophrenia is much higher than the general population.

    This makes sense to me since you *do* have to be a little odd to want to get a Ph.D., and thinking that you can talk to God about the beginning of the universe is something that will get you locked up outside of a physics department. Also, once you start knowing the professors, you'll find that a very large number of them either have mood disorders or have close family members with mood disorders/schizophrenia.

    There is a balance that you do have to work out. Some people find that taking mood stabilizers, stabilizes moods a bit too much and kills creativity. On the other hand, you aren't doing anyone any good if you can't get out of bed. There's also a fine line between being seen as "pleasantly eccentric" and "bizarre and dangerous" that one also has to work through.

    One thing that helps some people is to "see through the mood." One thing that I like about physics is that there is an objective universe outside of the mind, so just because one feels miserable or great, the universe doesn't care.
  16. Mar 13, 2012 #15
    Being a researcher is a a "real job." You get money in exchange for services. That's a job.

    One thing about graduate school is that by definition you will be doing things that you have no experience in, because what you are working are tasks in which *no one* has any experience in. As far as the fear of the professor. There is a large amount of "human chemistry" involved here, and probably the most important thing in doing successful research is to find a supervisor that you are compatible with. There are professors that are jerks, but there are also graduate students that seem to thrive when working with someone that is a jerk.
  17. Mar 13, 2012 #16
    The way that I think about moods is that it's not an "illness to be cured" but rather a "personality quirk that needs to be managed."

    Also taking mood stabilizers are sometimes like wearing glasses in that they help you to see reality more clearly. Someone that is in severe depressive or manic state is not seeing reality very clearly, and that can be dangerous. A lot of "social reality" involves figuring out how others perceive you, and being severely depressed or manic causes that to go bad.

    If you need to drink a cup of coffee to get yourself out of bed in the morning and vitamins to feel good, then do it. If you need to take lithium to do the same thing, then do it. I don't see anything really different between SSRI/Lithium and caffeine. For that matter, lots of people take alcohol to relax, which is something I've never understood, but whatever works for them.

    For a lot of people the goal is not happiness but productivity. If you are a writer or scientists, then strong moods helps you write stuff, but if they are so strong that you can't get out of bed, then it's not helping.
  18. Mar 13, 2012 #17
    There are a lot of ways of dealing with this, but one thing that I do is to put goals for myself that are clearly and absolutely unattainable so that I don't feel bad when I fail. One thing that I was taught was that it is better to fail at a high goal than to succeed at a low one, since failure at something high (or impossible) gets you further than success at something low.

    Curiously I get more depressed when I succeed, than when I fail, because when I succeed, then there are no more worlds to conquer.
  19. Mar 14, 2012 #18
    Thank you everyone for your input.

    Daveyinez, I don't mean to say that medication is useless, or that they are to simply make you happy. I was purposefully making a cynical remark toward the state of society and its desire to have a quick fix, a "happy pill," for everything. For such treatment to work the person being treated must want to change, and it is a lifestyle change, a shift in the thought process as well the self-image. Someday I will figure it out.

    I like "pleasantly eccentric."
  20. Mar 14, 2012 #19
    i don't think you should enjoy pain though. not many do. the few who do make it through theoretical astrophysics PHDs.

    i wonder why you don't like lab work? what were you doing before? seems it'll be a bit easier, at least you'll have time to relax and there's "guaranteed" results.
  21. Mar 14, 2012 #20
    Well they say that the first step in figuring out a problem is understanding it and you seem to have a good grasp on things so I have no doubt you'll figure things out. Good luck.
  22. Mar 17, 2012 #21
    One important note is that a "happy pill" does not exist, and one can argue that that philosophically it can't exist. There are drugs that create euphoria, but while opiates create euphoria, your typical crack addict is far from any reasonable definition of "happy" even when he or she is shooting up.

    The drugs that are used in treatment of depression and bipolar disorder don't immediately change mood, and if the average person took a dose of a mood stabilzer or anti-depressant they wouldn't notice any immediate change in mood. For a lot of people, the point of medication is less to be happy than to be productively unhappy.

    It depends on the situation. There are medical emergencies in which the brain seriously malfunctions, and in those situations medication with minimal supportive psychotherapy is the way to go. There are times in which the neurochemistry is so out of balance (i.e. when thoughts become suicidal or when one is actively having psychotic hallucinations), that psychotherapy is just out of the question, and sometimes causes more problems than it solves.

    This comes up with physics Ph.D.'s and other people in professions in which you have to constantly use your brain. There is a very fine line between "good crazy" and "bad crazy." Many astrophysicists have a voice in the back of their head that says all sort of things that the average person would consider totally bonkers (i.e. God is speaking to you about the beginning of the universe), and keeping that voice under control is part of what separates "good crazy" and "bad crazy."
  23. Mar 17, 2012 #22
    Thanks a lot for this post and the one with "anecdotes about professors/scientists". It's cool to know of "others"! :-) :-)

    To add to what Twofish said, I find that as a writer, one has to always keep on learning new stuff. One cool way to learn new stuff is through adventures and meeting people and learning about their adventures. For scientists, replace "adventures" with "learning about discoveries in science".

    Anyway, apparently I have some kind of mental disorder (in the process of being diagnosed) and I agree that "heavy moods" can really get one to be creative. I have had days where I couldn't even fathom of getting up or going out. And you're really in trouble when that happens.
    On the flip side though, I've had days where I have some pretty cool thoughts and conversations (with other people too) and I strongly suspect that the best of my written work (I write short stories on occasion - if anyone's interested in reading anything, send me a PM) - was largely due to my "peculiar" frames of mind.
  24. Mar 17, 2012 #23
    Why do people have that goal? What's so great about productivity?

    Imagine you are given the choice of a lifetime of unhappiness + 100 published papers + a professorship, and a lifetime of happiness + no papers published + a lifetime in IT support, which would you choose?
  25. Mar 17, 2012 #24
    What's wrong with a quick fix if it works? Medical scientists are looking for things that *work*, not things that are a quick fix, per se. I've read that CBT works as well, maybe worth looking into (with medical advice)... if you want a "harder path", or to give up the pill...
  26. Mar 17, 2012 #25
    I used to work in a chemistry lab, and I liked it but got bored repeating the same measurements and analyzing that data. I felt that there was no room for creativity (granted I was just an undergraduate working under a postdoc and I know that it will not be that way as a grad student). Later I did some stuff with granular materials, but felt that I had too much freedom and no direction, since there was no solid theory to guide my experimental exploration. I don't want what's easier, I want to challenge myself.

    I know there is no such thing as a "happy pill" just as there is no such thing as a quick fix in my opinion. Productivity in my case is key to raising my spirits, helping me feel more satisfied with myself rather than wallowing in self-loathing and lethargy.

    Once again, thank you for all of your advice, I really had no one to turn to.
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