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Advice on studying physics

  • #1

Main Question or Discussion Point

I am afraid this post doesn't belong to this forum. But, I can't think of any other place better than this to post it.

I am an 2nd year physics undergraduate. In high school, I loved physics and spent some time with it. However, I didn't get into any of my preferred universities and for that I started to feel depressed. Later, when the first semester started, I started to feel low, really really low and lost my inner motivation to study physics. Saw some kids doing advanced maths and physics in different websites at such young ages and that made me even more depressed.

I did pretty bad in first semester and barely learned anything. In 2nd semester, same story repeated but this time, I fought depression and nearly got out of it when 2nd semester final exams were very close. Again I did bad in 2nd semester but hopefully, my depression is almost gone.

Having said that, now I am third semester and 1 month of third semester is passed. I am not being able to study properly because of procrastination (which is due to lack of self-motivation) and feeling worried about my wasted life till now. I feel like I barely know anything about physics and I have literally zero problem solving skills. Whatever I want to study, I always find an excuse to get away from it and I think about my somewhat weak knowledge on basics of physics.

Can anybody say something which might help me ?
 

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  • #2
Charles Link
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You got to work with what you got. You might wish you were playing baseball in the big leagues rather than sandlot baseball, and the same applies to your academic situation. Regardless of the level, do your best to make an adventure out of learning whatever it is they have to teach you. Whether you are doing simple arithmetic or advanced calculus, it is really a very similar process. If you do well at the level you are at, you are likely to have increased opportunities, but regardless of that, try to enjoy the experience. And if their presentation of the material is somewhat dull, do what you can to find something interesting about it. Much of what you do with things doesn't depend on how much you have to work with, but rather how you work with it.
 
  • #3
I feel like I barely know anything about physics and I have literally zero problem solving skills. Whatever I want to study, I always find an excuse to get away from it and I think about my somewhat weak knowledge on basics of physics.
Going with the sports theme, getting good at physics is like going to the gym. You need to do it everyday, and you may not realize the gains until much later. You can increase your skill by practicing more physics. And I truly mean practicing, not just reading.

If you want more motivation, try to make a game out of it. You might find yourself more invested in studying.

And one more thing about gaining skill and, in particular, worrying that you will never attain it. Several years back I bought a really nice keyboard with weighted keys, but I never really got around to learning how to play. I learned some songs here and there, but if I took a long break I forgot them, so I was always starting at the same place. I remember thinking that if I practiced every day, then I could get pretty good in maybe 5 years. But it seemed like such a long time, so I was daunted and never really committed to a practice schedule. That was probably 8 years ago.

The point being that studying anything takes time and dedication and you are always better off if you actually start, even if you start later than you wanted to. So get to it!
 
  • #4
symbolipoint
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You got to work with what you got. You might wish you were playing baseball in the big leagues rather than sandlot baseball, and the same applies to your academic situation. Regardless of the level, do your best to make an adventure out of learning whatever it is they have to teach you. Whether you are doing simple arithmetic or advanced calculus, it is really a very similar process. If you do well at the level you are at, you are likely to have increased opportunities, but regardless of that, try to enjoy the experience. And if their presentation of the material is somewhat dull, do what you can to find something interesting about it. Much of what you do with things doesn't depend on how much you have to work with, but rather how you work with it.
Your comparison to sandlot baseball soon reaches its limits. "Sandlot" level Physics might be "Elementary Physics" that one could enroll in at a community college. Not yet to the level of the Physics course series for science & engineering students. Too limited in practical value. A little bit of Algebra and Trigonometry but not too tough; and the student does not yet need to think 'analytically'. The member, A Physics Enthusiast might be having a problem with Depression and could use help. OR maybe the member is finding that the major field of Physics is not for him. OR maybe, if he really is still interested, review and better preparation are what are really needed.

A Physics Enthusiast: A question you should try to understand about yourself, is , why do you choose Physics? What do you want to do as a result of having undergraduate degree in Physics?
 
  • #5
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You’re preaching to the choir! Im 28 and just now started Calculus. My first physics class is next spring. Its a reality that there are some 18 year olds at my school already taking differential equations and double majoring no problem.
But here’s how I look at it. Ive come to really love mathematics and physics. Four years is going to come around whether you want it to or not. In that fourth year, would you rather have the degree or not have it? Should be an easy answer.
I try not to worry about what other students are doing. It’s counterproductive and out of my control. But I focus on what I can control, and that is working really hard and getting the best out of my education which hopefully results in great grades.
Maybe some of these thoughts can be of use to you.
 
  • #6
A Physics Enthusiast: A question you should try to understand about yourself, is , why do you choose Physics? What do you want to do as a result of having undergraduate degree in Physics?
Because I love physics. After getting my degree, I plan to proceed to get M.Sc. degree in physics.
 
  • #7
symbolipoint
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Because I love physics. After getting my degree, I plan to proceed to get M.Sc. degree in physics.
Now you have a goal. At some point, you need to make a more specific decision. What do you want to investigate academically as advanced degree student or as research professor? What might you instead want to do in industry, outside of academic work? Can you find the motivation to push for your degree/s in Physics?
 
  • #8
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Even great mathematicians like Terry Tao and physicists such as Witten didn't go to ultra prestigious institutions and everybody knows how well they did. Its more the work you are willing to put in. So see if reading the bio's of people like that helps. If not then I think you should see a professional - preferably a psychiatrist who will, if they are any good, give you a full battery of tests to rule out physical causes then can attack why you are feeling the way you do. But stick it out - I, and many others I know, went through patches like that - it wasn't school for me - it was at work. I rose very quickly but as soon as the next step became pure management I stalled which depressed me for quite a while. I am retired now and see that they were correct - my management ability was not that good - I was OK - but others were better. The only issue I have now is they should have chatted to me about it - but then again so should I - I just kept it inside. But people notice and during that period it was commented Bill is not as happy as he used to be - I guess everyone involved was a bit wrong in that one - but mostly me. So another possibility is perhaps seeing a Councillor at your university? I saw a Councillor at work that did help a bit. But if it persists please do see a psychiatrist if only to rule out physical causes.

Thanks
Bill
 
  • #9
Because I love physics. After getting my degree, I plan to proceed to get M.Sc. degree in physics.
Now you have a goal. At some point, you need to make a more specific decision. What do you want to investigate academically as advanced degree student or as research professor? What might you instead want to do in industry, outside of academic work? Can you find the motivation to push for your degree/s in Physics?
What I think @symbolipoint is getting at is, what do you want to do with your love of physics? There is more that you can do with yourself than getting degrees, although that is the first step. But if you become too focused on the "steps" then you will lose sight of what you are walking towards. So the question remains, what do you want to do?
 
  • #10
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Even great mathematicians like Terry Tao and physicists such as Witten didn't go to ultra prestigious institutions and everybody knows how well they did
Sideshow Bob: You wanted to be Krusty's sidekick since you were five. What about the buffoon lessons? The four years at clown college?
Cecil Terwilliger: I'll thank you not to refer to Princeton that way.
 
  • #11
What do you want to investigate academically as advanced degree student or as research professor?
I don't have much idea on these topics. As for now, all I want to do is to make a solid foundation on physics so that I can have a better understanding of advanced research areas related to physics.
What might you instead want to do in industry, outside of academic work?
I am not sure what you mean by this. If you are talking about my backup plans if I fail to study physics, I am afraid I have none. However, I have a very strong attraction towards mathematics.
Can you find the motivation to push for your degree/s in Physics?
I have no clue what you mean.
 
  • #12
What I think @symbolipoint is getting at is, what do you want to do with your love of physics? There is more that you can do with yourself than getting degrees, although that is the first step. But if you become too focused on the "steps" then you will lose sight of what you are walking towards. So the question remains, what do you want to do?
My knowledge in physics is not that high so that I can talk about research areas in which I am interested. However, I'll be pretty happy to do theoretical physics and mathematics.
 
  • #13
Charles Link
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I don't have much idea on these topics. As for now, all I want to do is to make a solid foundation on physics so that I can have a better understanding of advanced research areas related to physics.

I am not sure what you mean by this. If you are talking about my backup plans if I fail to study physics, I am afraid I have none. However, I have a very strong attraction towards mathematics.

I have no clue what you mean.
You really are not alone. I am retired now, and I think I had a reasonably successful career working as a physicist, but as an undergraduate student, and even as a graduate student, it was very difficult to see where what I was learning was going to fit into the job market. Ultimately, it all worked itself out, and much of what I learned in school was put to good use.
 
  • #14
symbolipoint
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I don't have much idea on these topics. As for now, all I want to do is to make a solid foundation on physics so that I can have a better understanding of advanced research areas related to physics.

I am not sure what you mean by this. If you are talking about my backup plans if I fail to study physics, I am afraid I have none. However, I have a very strong attraction towards mathematics.

I have no clue what you mean.
You really are not alone. I am retired now, and I think I had a reasonably successful career working as a physicist, but as an undergraduate student, and even as a graduate student, it was very difficult to see where what I was learning was going to fit into the job market. Ultimately, it all worked itself out, and much of what I learned in school was put to good use.
What Charles Link said is a risk. His study worked well for him. One needs to think about one's future. One may also need advice or counseling. You might earn a degree in Physics (undergraduate); but if you are not good enough for MS &/or PhD, then you want to find a job in the nonacademic world. What will you want to be doing as what kind of employee? Or maybe you do go on for advanced degree. Will you find a position in a college or university, or will you need to work in the nonacademic world, and then again, doing what and who for?

One day you have to get a job.
 
  • #15
What Charles Link said is a risk. His study worked well for him. One needs to think about one's future. One may also need advice or counseling. You might earn a degree in Physics (undergraduate); but if you are not good enough for MS &/or PhD, then you want to find a job in the nonacademic world. What will you want to be doing as what kind of employee? Or maybe you do go on for advanced degree. Will you find a position in a college or university, or will you need to work in the nonacademic world, and then again, doing what and who for?

One day you have to get a job.
Yes, I do have to find myself a job. But, I want to focus on the present rather than focussing on the future. I can tutor students which seems to be a very good business in my locality and it'll give me enough to live a life. I have also started programming though I don't know what the job options are. The thing is when I study, I hardly care about getting a job.

I am pretty sure I'll be able to do well in physics once I start doing it in a proper manner. I just need to get rid of my negative thoughts.

My problem is that whenever I start reading a topic, I feel like my basic knowledge on that topic is not good and I get back to a high school level physics book which I find boring (as I know almost everything) and I eventually give up (still I can't solve every high school level physics problems which annoys me so much. Sometimes, I feel that the mathematics required to study that topic is not known well to me which I find highly annoying and I return to a mathematics book. But, I can't study it properly because maybe I feel that I need to know the basics clearly which leads to the basics of calculus while reading calculus, I feel that maybe I should understand it rigorously and my thoughts lead me to learn real analysis ... or sometimes I wonder why I can't solve all problems of trigonometry or pre-calculus level maths while I know almost everything that is needed to solve them. Then my thoughts make me to practice, say, trigonometry problems but then I suddenly I remember that I was intending to read a topic of physics required in my course and I can't continue.

This way, I confuse myself. I want to study everything and this has appeared to be a curse to me. I have put my thought process. Now, maybe all of you can understand what is exactly happening inside my head.
 
  • #16
Charles Link
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One suggestion is to make use of the Physics Forums when you get stuck. I think you will likely find you can get some very good answers and explanations to some of your questions and homework problems . It may be optimistic of me, but I think you might be surprised at how helpful it can be. In school, the teachers don't always have time to give a lot of individual help, while on the Physics Forums, there are people who do have the time.
 
  • #17
Choppy
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What do you mean when you say you're did "really bad" in your first and second semester? This can mean different things to different students. Some assume any score less than 100% is "really bad." Others mean that they're struggling to pass the course. There can be a lot of variation in between, and what to do about it often lies in the details.

One concern that I have is that if you're just doing the same thing over and over and you're stuck in the latter category (barely passing), it's highly likely that this pattern is going to repeat itself. Rather than looking backward and thinking about how much time and effort you've invested to get where you are, it's more important to look forward. You don't want to be graduating in three years time with a GPA that keeps you out of grad school and no marketable skills. That's an outcome you have the power to change.

First, I think you need to decide if this is the right time in your life to be studying physics. If you're really desperately struggling with motivation, then maybe you need to take some time off. Go work abroad for a year. Or stay home and work. Or study something else. That doesn't mean that you've failed. It's okay to take time off and come back when you're ready. There's no point to finishing early if you're not getting the best education you can out if it.

If you decide pursuing physics right now is the right path for you, it's also important to remember that what seems like a question of motivation may not always be motivation. Consider the periphery. Are you taking good care of yourself? Getting good sleep? Exercise? Socializing? Giving yourself down time? Etc. All of these things can have a powerful impact on your day-to-day academic performance. And a couple semesters of less-than-stellar performance can compound.

Are you making time to pursue your own interests? It's real easy to get caught up in all the assigned coursework - jumping from assignment to assignment to studying for mid-terms etc. But do you spend time reading up on stuff that interests you? Do you have your own projects to work on? In my experience making time for these kinds of things keeps you motivated and helps to develop context for stuff that you're covering in your coursework, making at least some of the heavy lifting much more manageable. To this end as well, it can really help to socialize with other people who have similar interests. And I mean really socialize, not just friend people on Facebook. Sometimes its amazing how a simple conversation can invigorate you.

Another factor that can help with motivation is to consider your routine. How regular are your study hours? What time of day do you do most of your studying? Does it help to change it up? Are you taking frequent breaks? Are you taking too many breaks? What distracts you and can you mitigate distractions?

Finally, it also sounds like you may benefit from reinforcing your foundation. No one remembers everything, but if you're really struggling with a lot of the assumed knowledge, it might be important to take some time (maybe even a semester off) and review everything that you're supposed to know. And while you are studying, continue reviewing it on a regular basis.
 
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My knowledge in physics is not that high so that I can talk about research areas in which I am interested. However, I'll be pretty happy to do theoretical physics and mathematics.
Have you done Multivariable Calculus yet? If so please read the following two books - especially the second one - but reading the first one before is a good idea
https://www.amazon.com/dp/0521876222/?tag=pfamazon01-20
https://www.amazon.com/dp/0750628960/?tag=pfamazon01-20

As a reviewer said about the second book:

Symmetries to make you weep

If physicists could weep, they would weep over this book. The book is devastingly brief whilst deriving, in its few pages, all the great results of classical mechanics. Results that in other books take take up many more pages. I first came across Landau's mechanics many years ago as a brash undergrad. My prof at the time had given me this book but warned me that it's the kind of book that ages like wine. I've read this book several times since and I have found that indeed, each time is more rewarding than the last.

The reason for the brevity is that, as pointed out by previous reviewers, Landau derives mechanics from symmetry. Historically, it was long after the main bulk of mechanics was developed that Emmy Noether proved that symmetries underly every important quantity in physics. So instead of starting from concrete mechanical case-studies and generalising to the formal machinery of the Hamilton equations, Landau starts out from the most generic symmetry and dervies the mechanics. The 2nd laws of mechanics, for example, is derived as a consequence of the uniqueness of trajectories in the Lagragian. For some, this may seem too "mathematical" but in reality, it is a sign of sophisitication in physics if one can identify the underlying symmetries in a mechanical system. Thus this book represents the height of theoretical sophistication in that symmetries are used to derive so many physical results.

The difficulty with this approach, and the reason why this book is not a beginner's book, is that to the follow symmetric arguments, one really has to have already mastered vector calculus. Ideally, you should be able to transform coordinate in your sleep, perform integrals without missing a beat, whether they be line, area, or path, and differentiate functions in many dimensions. The arguments are not sloppy, as some have claimed - it only seems so if you have not mastered vector calculus.

Tradition says that in Plato's academy was engraved the phrase, "Let no one ignorant of geometry enter here", so should the modern theoretical physicist, with Landau's bible in hand, march under the arches engraved with the words "Let no one ignorant of symmetry enter here".

Your reaction to that book will go a long way in knowing if Theoretical Physics is for you. I read it. Before I read it I was a mathematician - after I knew physics was for me and symmetry was its real rock bottom..

Thanks
Bill
 

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