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Programs Advice for getting through the physics major?

  1. Apr 21, 2017 #1
    I'm currently a double major in physics and mathematics. I am about to finish mathematical physics, mechanics 1 (not "general physics 1"), linear algebra, and an intermediate physics laboratory course. This summer I will be taking a programming course for applied math and PDE and in Fall I will be taking Quantum theory A, Mechanics 2, advanced physics lab or complex variables, and a language course (requirement for all degrees at my school). I'll be honest with you and say this semester was really difficult for me. The courses were not intimidating, but this is the first time I've ever been challenged in this way. Mathematical physics was taught by an old man about 85 and he is getting so old that he can not hear (literally wears a hearing aid) or comprehend what the students ask in class. He posts about 20-25 pages of lecture notes one or two days before class and we are expected to learn them completely and come to class and ask questions if needed. However when we ask a question he will talk over us or basically do some sort of hand-waving to avoid answering our questions because (I suspect) he forgot a lot of the material himself and only remembers the concepts behind the mathematics and not actually how to apply it. He blatantly stated in the beginning of the semester that he was not going to teach, he was only going to answer our questions about the material if we had any. Therefore I had to learn the entirety of mathematical physics via youtube on top of my other courses and eventually just got worn out and annoyed at the lack of communication of material between professor and students and nearly gave up halfway through. Intermediate lab was easy but the lab reports would be about 12-20 pages and take ~12 hours to complete including data analysis. Linear algebra is linear algebra. Mechanics on the other hand is the one I am doing the worst in. I lack most of the physical intuition that other people have in my courses and therefore I need to work harder than others to do well. During the height of the semester I would literally spend the night at school and stay up until 4am and sleep on a couch in the physics building after drilling physics for up to 10 hours straight and then go to class at 9am. Even with this I made a C+ on my first exam and a C- on my second exam... my overall grade right now is around a C+ and my final is in two weeks. I really love physics and I do not want to drop the major especially because I am so close to finally taking a course in quantum mechanics which I've wanted to do since I was in high school. I'm afraid I don't have the ability to complete this degree AKA I'm afraid I'm just plain stupid. On the other hand 90% of my classmates have formed groups and work together to solve problems and complete homework sets and I am one of the few who work alone which obviously makes it a bit more tough. I can not work with other people because when other people are around I can not think clearly. Any advice?
  2. jcsd
  3. Apr 22, 2017 #2
    First of all, you told us how long you study, but how do you study? Do you do unassigned homework problems? Do you do problems on past exams? Do you stare blankly at a problem and think about how there's no hope in passing this class (guilty of this one!)?

    Also, your life will be much easier if you can learn how to work with other people. If you can't think clearly with them around, then work on a problem until you get stuck, and then ask them for help. And for what it's worth, I've found the homework help forum here to be invaluable!
  4. Apr 22, 2017 #3


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    Working with other people is very important, especially later on if you go to grad school. You can learn a lot from them. However, you should only start working with others when you are mostly finished or stuck on something since it is very bad to rely on other students to do the homework.
  5. Apr 22, 2017 #4


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    From my experience (I didn't grow up with the best professors during my bachelors), I can say that that is your problem. It is in general a good opportunity to learn to stand on your own feet rather than expecting mashed food from the mouth of your professor. You should be proud if you achieved that.

    That was fast...

    I don't understand what you meant by lacking physical intuition ... the absolute amount of time spent studying is just one parameter but not the most important... sometimes you can gain more by studying well for 1hr per day than staying all night up studying, tiring yourself and your brain... If you find mathematics easy then you should aim for seeing the mathematics behind the physics in mechanics...

    I don't understand your situation... is that rule something you made up for yourself or something? There are almost 0.1 jobs in which you'll be working alone, so you should make sure that you overcome this problem of yours now.
  6. Apr 22, 2017 #5


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    Usually there are several younger teaching assistants on that kind of courses to help with the questions, but looks like that is not the case in the course OP is attending. The lab reports I had to make in undergraduate studies were of similar length (about 15 pages) and took a similar time to write (actually, difficulties in getting lab reports done were the most common cause of delay in people's studies).

    What's the actual content of the courses you're participating in? Does the math. phys. course contain differential equations? What about calculus of variations? Does the mechanics course involve Lagrangian and Hamiltonian formalisms? Mechanics problems can often be solved in many different ways, either by Newtonian method of finding out the forces acting on the bodies or by simple energy, momentum and angular momentum conservation arguments.
  7. Apr 22, 2017 #6
    It's good to hear that you are looking forward to learning quantum mechanics; I think secretly every physics student does.
    It seems that you have the work ethic to study but if you haven't already you should search for studying techniques to improve your grades/ understanding.
    Also you said that you studied all night i.e. cramming then sleeping 5 hours (maximum) on a couch before sitting an exam. Why?
    Sleeping is very important to cognitive function even more so than some extra marks in an exam you are probably going to forget about shortly after.
    A healthy mind resides in a healthy body and depriving yourself of sleep unnecessarily is not wise.
    Working hard is important but also working intelligently( i.e healthy sleep schedule, exercising regularly, proper study techniques, etc) is equally important.
  8. Apr 24, 2017 #7
    The last thing we have learned is the lagrangian and this week we will do a bit of Hamiltonian dynamics (last week of the semester). Yes the math physics course contains differential equations, complex analysis/variables, the entirety of linear algebra, dirac-notation, tensor calculus, differential geometry, mathematical operations in numerous coordinate systems, etc. Calculus of variations is not directly included in math physics but we are required to learn the amount necessary to understand and derive the Euler Lagrange equation in Mechanics. If given a choice I would always use Lagrange lol.
  9. Apr 24, 2017 #8


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    He posts his lecture notes and expects you to learn them? The nerve of some professors! /sarcasm
    Sorry, I don't really mean to make fun of your situation, but this does come across as a lot of "I'm not doing well and here's a long list of reasons why it's beyond my control..."

    If you go far enough in academia, you're eventually going to encounter professors who you can't learn from as effectively as from others. It's not a great situation to be in, but you have to figure out a strategy to get through it in the most successful way possible. It's important to remember that this style of teaching may work well for some students and in a way it makes sense - why would he spend time going over stuff that you can read/watch on your own, when instead he can offer that lecture time to address specific challenges that students are struggling with?

    If the class really isn't working for you, you could drop it and try to pick it up later, but that often comes with a cost. A lot of people just learn from the textbook or use online resources to supplement the material. While that may not be ideal, and likely isn't what you've paid for, in some cases, it's the easiest and least consequential solution to the problem. You could go to the professor during his office hours and ask for some advice on how to get more out of his classes.

    If you're looking to cut time down to complete lab reports try:
    1. Putting more time into preparation. Some students go in with tables pre-made and most calculations already worked out. Then doing the lab and analysis is merely a case of filling in their own tables.
    2. Learn the specific things your TA/professor is looking for in the evaluation of the report. Often students waste a lot of time on things that don't really make that much difference in the long run such as fancy tables, formatting, fancy figures, long regurgitation of supplementary material than can be referenced, etc. You still need to produce a neat and professional report of course, but pay attention to where your time is spent.
    3. Consult with others who have done that particular experiment before if possible. Are there tips or tricks to the setup? Is there a step missing in the lab manual?
    4. Get the report done as fast as possible after having completed the experiment while everything is fresh in your mind.
    5. Look up Parkinson's Law.
    6. Lab reports take time. Budget accordingly.

    As pointed out above, this is not healthy. You can't expect to learn much of anything if you come to class as a sleep-deprived zombie.

    Looking forward to next semester, look for ways that you can put this time in earlier in the semester. Avoid sacrificing sleep, because it will hurt you in the long run.

    You know that's not true. I might go out on a limb and guess that things came relatively easy for you in high school. You didn't have to study that much and did well, maybe even very well. The problem is that often when students experience this, they pick up this idea that having to study is a sign of weakness. Then once they start taking challenging undergraduate classes, they're in a different environment: their peers are all highly motivated and highly intelligent, the workload has increased, and all the "slackers" who would have curved the grade in your favour have dropped out. What is likely more true is that you're closer to the average among this group of highly motivated students who are all passionate about physics.

    The key to getting through this is and doing better is learning better study habits. That's a lot easier said than done, but it is possible. And for the record, getting through a physics degree IS a lot of work.

    Work on this. The ability to work with others will serve you well through life..
  10. Apr 26, 2017 #9
    I wouldnt worry about struggling with mechanics, because that is the course I struggled with the most. Im taking the graduate version and still struggling! For some reason, mechanics is just hard for me. It does not say youll struggle in quantum, electrodynamics, etc because I was able to succeed in those courses with a lot less work than I have put into the mechanics courses at the same level!

    As for working with others, it is a skill you need to work on. You say it is hard for you to work with others because you cant think, a suggestion would then be, do some problems on your own, and the next time you go to class ask someone how they approached the same problem to see their thought process. Since you already attempted the problems, you wont have any problems saying what you did.

    Good luck!
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