Any advanced physics students/academics that have failed?

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Hello, I'm new here, and really just looking for a community/advice. I'm a physics major at Grand Valley State University, and I studied at the University of North Dakota for two years prior to this. I decided that I wanted to major in physics after a lot of thought, the catch is that I am not a conventional physics major. What I mean by this: I used to be a music student at Central Michigan University, and I've never really done much with mathematics and physics before now.

That being said, I'm absolutely in love with it. Even though I struggle often, and always seem to be a little bit behind, I want to keep pushing forward regardless.

My question to advanced physics students/degree holders is, have you ever failed a physics class? I'm not doing so great in my current physics class, which is covering electricity and magnetism, and a little bit on light. I'm feeling discouraged, and questioning if this is something I'm even capable of doing, but I don't want to settle and do something easier just because I'm struggling right now. I know it's strange, but any stories on people that overcame bad grades and still went on to understand the physics presented to them could be very inspiring to me. So please, if you're willing, I'd appreciate you sharing. How did you overcome this? Why did you receive a poor grade? Did a poor, but passing grade affect you later when applying for graduate schools, and if so, how did you resolve that issue?

thank you so much for listening to me, and sharing your advice and knowledge with a not so young anymore, but novice physics undergrad.

[Moderator's note: Please do not disclose personal data.]
 
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  • #2
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I thought EM was by far the most difficult of the standard physics courses.
 
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  • #3
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See if we one or a couple of your classmates wants to study together. That can be a huge help.
 
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hutchphd
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I am willing to guess that a large part of your problem is lack of math background. If you are serious about this change you must make up that deficit soonest. And that will not be easy.
Also you will need to learn to study science: general understanding is nice but until you build a solid edifice of knowledge you will likely struggle. You need to be honest about how hard it will be and that you need to learn how to study. Talk to your profs and do what they recommend: they will help if you are committed. Know this going in and that you are not allowed to get discouraged for at least the first year...now get to work!!
And a few colleagues who can guide you (and vice-versa) is a great help.
 
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Just as a bit of encouragement, Terry Tao, perhaps the greatest living mathematician, failed Quantum Mechanics. The reason was his bad study habits of cramming before an exam. That did not work when a question, worth a lot of marks on the exam paper, was about an assignment they were given that he did not do, on the history of QM. Even though they were warned well in advance the question would be on the final, he was gutted, and had to be escorted from the exam in tears:
https://www.ams.org/journals/notices/202007/rnoti-p1007.pdf

I do not know if he was allowed a make up or not, but still graduated top of his class with honors. I too took a class (multivariable calculus) too lightly, came down with a cold while in the exam, and was writing rubbish on the exam paper at the end. I saw my doctor who wrote a note I was sick during the exam. I still got an honor but speaking to one of my professor's later he said it was a close thing - but they gave me one anyway. There was no need to send in a note from the doctor he explained, the rules were they could only take that into account if means failing or not. I already had 100% on my midterm so there was no danger of me failing as I only needed something like 30% on the final to pass. It just goes to show even the best like Tao can falter, not of course I am in Tao's class. So chin up - keep studying, stay positive, and for heaven's sake do your assignments.

Thanks
Bill
 
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  • #6
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Along with mathematics, studying electronics and electromagnetic field theory may be enhanced by building kits and constructing your own circuits. The idea is to ground your understanding in concrete examples.

Constructing a small do-it-yourself (DIY) or direct current (DC) electric motor teaches basic ideas and terminology with a practical application of theory. Consider making simple circuit boards with basic components such as a DC battery, wires, a switch and light bulb that emulate a basic flashlight. DIY electronics books and websites offer many examples to learn basic electronics.

As much as I enjoy reading and studying from books, physics including electronics has the added benefit of constructing a physical reality described by mathematics and explained by theory. Visual aids also help understand basic electronics, such as this rendering of the EM spectrum.


1606160540744.png


Despite being a continuum, humans tend to divide the EM spectrum into sections or bands depending on applications such as visible light and common television broadcast frequencies shown here.
 

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Choppy
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My question to advanced physics students/degree holders is, have you ever failed a physics class? I'm not doing so great in my current physics class, which is covering electricity and magnetism, and a little bit on light. I'm feeling discouraged, and questioning if this is something I'm even capable of doing, but I don't want to settle and do something easier just because I'm struggling right now. I know it's strange, but any stories on people that overcame bad grades and still went on to understand the physics presented to them could be very inspiring to me. So please, if you're willing, I'd appreciate you sharing. How did you overcome this? Why did you receive a poor grade? Did a poor, but passing grade affect you later when applying for graduate schools, and if so, how did you resolve that issue?
I think just about everyone who is successful in physics has encountered a major challenge in their academic career. If they haven't one is left to wonder if they every really pushed themselves.

That said, there's a difference between finding something challenging and outright failing. I don't think you'll find too many examples of students who failed a first year physics course and then went on to find success in physics later on. The reason is that the curriculum is for a large part cumulative. If you struggle with the first year material, the second year material that builds on it will be that much more challenging to follow. And the courses that you would take in your upper years and graduate school will be even more challenging still.

The possible exception here is where you have a student who learns the material well, but doesn't perform well on assessments. Things like text anxiety, unrelated social challenges, mental health issues, family responsibilities etc. can sometimes get in the way of academic performance. (Unfortunately it's much more common for such issues to also interfere with a student's understanding of the material.)

And one more thing to consider too. Many "sharp" students encounter a barrier somewhere in the first or second year of university. The problem is that in high school they got by on their natural aptitude and did little to no studying. I've even seen some students develop the attitude that studying is only for students who aren't "smart enough." They get used to some minor cramming the night before the exam and coming out with an A on the other side. Then in university they're put in a pool of other sharp students, all with a passion for science and a professor who has a far deeper understanding of the material than a typical high school teacher. The bad habits that got them through high school might work for a bit, but sooner or later, they hit the wall and need to buckle down and learn very quickly how to study in a manner than is effective for their own learning style. Successful students in this group are the ones who very quickly recognize the problem, swallow their pride and figure out those new habits.
 
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Many "sharp" students encounter a barrier somewhere in the first or second year of university.
That's true. Mine happened in some second year subjects. Most of the first year ones I already knew from my own reading before I started my degree, and even though I still worked my butt off during first year I was starting to think this is too easy. How wrong I was. To do really well you can never slack off.

Thanks
Bill
 
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DennisN
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@Bartellj , at university I only studied some basic physics, and I passed those courses. But I struggled with some other courses (see below).

The reason was his bad study habits of cramming before an exam.
I laughed when I read that. Finally, I can come out of the closet. I am not alone anymore! :biggrin:

I did that quite many times during the last years at university (not with the physics courses, though, I loved physics so I studied well during those).

The reason I was cramming later wasn't because I was lazy; it was because I did many other things besides studying. My worst cramming habit was staying up all night before the day of the test, and then take the test in the morning. I do not recommend that.

The course I struggled the most with was Functional Analysis (mathematics).
Man, I thought it was difficult. I failed two times, and barely passed the third time.
Never give up, never surrender. :smile:
 
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The course I struggled the most with was Functional Analysis (mathematics).
Man, I thought it was difficult. I failed two times, and barely passed the third time.
Never give up, never surrender. :smile:
At my school I was one of the few that liked real analysis - a compulsory subject then - they got rid of it later - a professor said most students thought it was just mind games. Many students failed, and you are not alone in barely passing the third time. For me it answered questions I could not otherwise figure out eg how do you define a^b where b is irrational. In my year only 3 people did functional analysis called Analysis A and Analysis B. They were actually Masters level subjects, but 3rd year students we also allowed to enroll. I asked for and got permission to privately study Analysis A so I could take Mathematical Statistics 3 B - not that I liked stats much but I knew out there in the work market if you have a degree in math they expect you to know stats and I did like the professor - he was a funny guy.

What subject did I have the most trouble with - it was Operations Research. The classes and tutorials were easy. I got past exam papers - they were easy. I went in - but the exam, while not actually hard, was tricky. The professor chatted to me about it later, and said he thought I would ace an honor, which is why he set it a bit harder than normal so it was more of a challenge. I hate that - exams are stressful enough without people trying to challenge you - it should test your knowledge of the material - not your ability to creatively think under pressure.

Thanks
Bill
 
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etotheipi
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I hate that - exams are stressful enough without people trying to challenge you - it should test your knowledge of the material - not your ability to creatively think under pressure
I don't agree with that! A good exam is supposed to challenge your ability to solve difficult problems using the theory you learned, not just see if you are comfortable with the theory!
 
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I don't agree with that! A good exam is supposed to challenge your ability to solve difficult problems using the theory you learned, not just see if you are comfortable with the theory!
A good exam does both imo. A student that is comfortable with the material should pass. A student that mastered the material should get a high grade.
 
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  • #13
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A good exam does both imo. A student that is comfortable with the material should pass. A student that mastered the material should get a high grade.
This is how my dad (an elementary school vice principal and a pretty smart guy) explained it to us kids: You want an exam to have questions set with a variety of difficulties. That way you have questions that can distinguish between students with little achievement and also questions that can distinguish between students with high achievement.
 
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@Bartellj , at university I only studied some basic physics, and I passed those courses. But I struggled with some other courses (see below).


I laughed when I read that. Finally, I can come out of the closet. I am not alone anymore! :biggrin:

I did that quite many times during the last years at university (not with the physics courses, though, I loved physics so I studied well during those).

The reason I was cramming later wasn't because I was lazy; it was because I did many other things besides studying. My worst cramming habit was staying up all night before the day of the test, and then take the test in the morning. I do not recommend that.

The course I struggled the most with was Functional Analysis (mathematics).
Man, I thought it was difficult. I failed two times, and barely passed the third time.
Never give up, never surrender. :smile:
Thank you so much for your response!! I'm not sure why, but this really helps me. My cohort is all a bunch of "physics kids" who took high school physics classes, and calculus, but I never touched any of that so I feel really behind, but I'm going to keep at it, and work really hard this next semester to make sure I get where I want to be.
 
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  • #15
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@Bartellj , at university I only studied some basic physics, and I passed those courses. But I struggled with some other courses (see below).


I laughed when I read that. Finally, I can come out of the closet. I am not alone anymore! :biggrin:

I did that quite many times during the last years at university (not with the physics courses, though, I loved physics so I studied well during those).

The reason I was cramming later wasn't because I was lazy; it was because I did many other things besides studying. My worst cramming habit was staying up all night before the day of the test, and then take the test in the morning. I do not recommend that.

The course I struggled the most with was Functional Analysis (mathematics).
Man, I thought it was difficult. I failed two times, and barely passed the third time.
Never give up, never surrender. :smile:
Haha...
I failed 4 times in a graduate course in Condensed Matter Physics I;
just couldn't memorize by heart all of my notebook from class, and the exams were these type of exams where you are supposed to remember the material perfectly; in the last exam I already forgot the definition from high-school of magnetic flux.
:-(

At least I have a Bsc...
 
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I had to check my records. It turns out my undergrad over 40 years ago, I had a D- in math, (but I passed), and a D+ in Quantum II. I should talk about the grades a little. I remember the D+ in quantum specifically. I talked to the professor, and he told me that I had a better than A- average on all the homework, and never missed a class and asked good questions. For some reason, I always did horribly on the exams so that is why he had to record a D+. He told me, I might have failed if I did not do so well on the homework.

I remember the homework especially. The professor had one particular assignment that took two weeks, instead of one. The professor said this particular assignment was much harder than the rest, but it was required to a greater extent and he would weight it very heavily. He said he might even fail a student who did not make a honest effort to complete it.

I remember it because it was given over Thanksgiving week. My uncles noticed me at the kitchen table and asked me about the calculations, that I was doing, and I explained it as well as I could. Anyway I got a A- on the assignment, and I think it maybe the highest mark he gave.

I still have the completed assignment after 43 years. I am very proud of it.

A few years later, after I graduated from college and graduate school, my uncle told me he would never forget how determined I was to complete the assignment, and never had any doubt I would be successful.

Although I got a D+ in the course, I asked the professor for a recommendation for graduate school and he told me he would write one for me. (I expect he played up my ability and work ethic in completing the homework and downplayed my exam performance). Anyway I was admitted to grad schools with his recommendation along side others. For the most part, I always did well on homework and not on tests.

By the way, in grad school quantum II, (the last course I needed in graduate school) it was the same story. I got a B-. The professor in grad school told me if it weren't for the homework, I would have gotten a C, and not earned credit for the course.

I always worked alone on the homework. I even got pushback from other students, because I did not work with others, and still often got the best grades on homework. Many groups wanted me to work with them.

Many students tend to blow off the homework, and I have been in courses where homework is worth only 10-20% of the grade, but I tend to get determined to complete it.
 
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  • #17
My cohort is all a bunch of "physics kids" who took high school physics classes, and calculus, but I never touched any of that so I feel really behind, but I'm going to keep at it, and work really hard this next semester to make sure I get where I want to be.
Hard work is all you need! And you are capable!

I personally went the route you described of your peers and took physics and calculus in high school. I thought I was cool for it but I really had no idea what was going on at all then lol! Teachers just gave me a bunch of equations that I memorized and spat out and then forget. Trust me, it's not worth it being jealous of them.

For me, spending quarantine watching lectures on MIT Open Courseware and Edx has finally cleared things up and really solidified my grasp on physics and math. Btw, I'm not sure of your level, but if you're at the intro physics level and feel like you need some catching up in Single Variable and Multivariable Calculus (and also Intro Mechanics and E&M), I'd definitely recommend MIT Open Courseware. They're courses 18.01SC and 18.02SC (Calculus) and 8.01SC & 8.02SC are awesome! If you do them, you'll go to class looking like a legend, but it will really just be your hard work on this content. And it's free.

Also I hope this wasn't an illegal promotion. But they're awesome and will help you work hard!
 
  • #18
DennisN
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What subject did I have the most trouble with - it was Operations Research.
I have never heard of it. Is this it: Operations research (Wikipedia)?

If so, it sounds very fun to me :smile:. I loved Markov chains and Markov decision processes.
Very cool and very useful, e.g. in computer science and technology which was my field.

Another course besides Functional Analysis that I remember I struggled with was Digital Electronics.
I wasn't particularly bad at it, and I didn't think it was that hard. It just happened to be that the course was for some reason particularly difficult at the school I was attending. I failed once, which made me realise I had to put in more effort, and I passed the next time.

EDIT (added for fun):

Regarding my struggles with Functional Analysis, it actually had a psychological impact on me.
I sometimes still dream that I have one more compulsory mathematics course left to finish at university - Functional Analysis. :biggrin: I am not joking.
 
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George Jones
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My question to advanced physics students/degree holders is, have you ever failed a physics class?
Rainer Weiss was a co-winner of the 2017 Nobel Prize in physics.

'Then, in his junior year, Weiss flunked out of school entirely. He fell for a woman he met on a ferry from Nantucket to Boston. “She taught me about folk dancing and playing the piano,” he says. Weiss followed her when she moved to Evanston, Illinois, abandoning his classes in midterm. But the affair fizzled. “I fell in love and went crazy,” he says, “and of course she couldn’t stand to be around a crazy man.” Weiss returned to MIT hoping to take his finals only to find he’d flunked out.

Weiss says he was unfazed. “People say, ‘I failed out of college! My life is over!’ Well, it’s not over. It depends on what you do with it.” He took a job as a technician in MIT’s legendary Building 20, a temporary structure erected during the war, working for Jerrold Zacharias, who studied beams of atoms and molecules with light and microwaves and developed the first commercial atomic clock. Under Zacharias’s tutelage, Weiss finished his bachelor’s degree in 1955 and earned his Ph.D. in 1962.'

From

https://www.sciencemag.org/news/201...pout-who-invented-gravitational-wave-detector
 
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  • #21
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I have never heard of it.
It is basically applications of the Simplex Algorithm:
https://personal.utdallas.edu/~scniu/OPRE-6201/documents/LP4-Simplex.html

The direct proof why it works isnt hard - but since we mentioned Functional Analysis, if I remember correctly, it's a simple corollary of the Krein-Milman theorem:
https://users.math.msu.edu/users/ivanisvi/Krein.pdf

There are standard computer packages for doing it, so when given an optimisation problem the trick is putting it in a form where it can be used. Sometimes that is not easy to spot - which is what I meant by some questions being a bit tricky. It wasn't really my thing which is why I only did one subject in it - although up to 4 were available. The degree I did now has a specialisation in it:
https://www.qut.edu.au/courses/bachelor-of-mathematics-operations-research

Thanks
Bill
 
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I am a big fan of inspirational stories but be careful.

1. There is a big difference in dropping out of MIT in the 1940's to1950, when far fewer people went to college, and college costs were cheaper, than today.

2. We only hear of success's of college dropouts like Bill Gates or Rainer Weiss, but there are thousands of others who were not successful.

I dropped out of a program once. Worked a few years, got new recommendations, took more tests, went back, and was ultimately successful. It was a long process, and took a lot of convincing. To be honest, I feel it is unlikely I would be as likely successful today, as when I dropped out. On the other hand, when I dropped out, and in my early studies, there were no personal computers, no computer database and encyclopedia resources, and I did not have many of the advantages that students today have.

I would be reluctant in saying my "success" story would be repeatable. I would be not at all surprised if more able people with more determination than myself fell through the cracks and were unlucky.

I think if circumstances cause one to forgo college or other educational opportunities, life is not over, and so much can still be done and circumstances ameliorated, but at the same time, "failing" is not a trivial issue. It is always important to do your best under any circumstances.
 
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A good exam does both imo. A student that is comfortable with the material should pass. A student that mastered the material should get a high grade.
Evidently these days that's what most schools do. The difference is a schools view on what mastering the material means. In some schools it is the ability to extend the material under exam conditions. In others it's more difficult questions that may or may not extend the material. In math more difficult often amounts to being able to carry out a calculation the theory behind which is not an extension of what has been covered but is harder to do. Extending means proving a theorem you have not seen before, or applying a technique to something not seen before, sometimes even both. I have come across all on exam papers. Another is you might have 10 questions of which you only have to do 8, so there is some choice the student has in what they answer. Often the choice is between a more difficult calculation or extending the theory. You need to watch it though - some professors get miffed if you do more than the 8 and will actually deduct marks for doing it. That happened to me once. The professor saw me later and said he didn't do it in my case - but please don't do it again or he will deduct marks - instead he took the questions I answered with the lowest marks. Most though will simply take the questions with the highest marks. Some even will just add up all you did so you can get over 100%. Before doing an exam in a subject with a professor you never had before best to ask their policy on the matter.

IMHO extending the material is best left to assignments. But then you have the issue of 'cheating'. Some professors I had set assignments, a different one for each student, and one of the assignments appeared on the exam eg write up the last assignment you were given. It's my favorite approach - 'cheating' is still possible, but whether you figured it out yourself, or had help from another student, a tutor, the professor taking the class, or simply did some work in the library, you saw how something new is solved and had to reproduce it on the exam paper. They did ask though if seeing other students for them to first see what work they have done - all the tutors and professors did that anyway. Here we do that in homework help.

Thanks
Bill
 
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You are far from alone. I was in your shoes once. I failed upper level EM the first time I took it, the second time I took it I got one of the highest grades in the class.

The first time: I had just finished lower level 2000 physics, and Physics Math Methods Course. Got an A in all of them. I thought this success would continue with the same amount of effort (Practically none). This was simply not the case. I literally thought I knew everything at that point, I got a 1/30 on my midterm because I assumed Gauss' Law worked for a configuration with no symmetry.

My Professor said "Your performance is rather dismal, you should change your major"

The second time: I started working on the material over the summer for the fall semester. I did 130 problems out of Griffiths before the semester even started and probably did 70 more throughout the semester and that made all the difference. Unlike 2000 level physics which is easily reconcilable because you practically already know it, 3000 level physics requires that you read the book and do as many problems as possible (at least that is what worked for me). At first you'll have to look up the solutions somewhere but eventually you'll hit your stride and you'll know when you've done a problem right.

The same professor the second time around said

"I'm very pleased with your progress, whatever you're doing keep doing it and one day I think you might be good at it"

"I did 200 problems for practice"

"I believe you, keep doing it"

His praise meant a lot to me because I know he doesn't give it to everyone.

I'm not going to toot my horn too much because I still have a long way to go but that was a happy moment for me. If I can go from a 1/30 to one of the highest grade in the class, so can you.

I think a lot of students initially struggle with upper level material because they have skewed expectations ( I certainly did) that their success from lower level classes will continue just because. The fact is that 3000 level material is quite a bit more advanced than 2000 level material and requires much more work, humility, and patience.
 
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  • #25
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You are far from alone. I was in your shoes once. I failed upper level EM the first time I took it, the second time I took it I got one of the highest grades in the class.

The first time: I had just finished lower level 2000 physics, and Physics Math Methods Course. Got an A in all of them. I thought this success would continue with the same amount of effort (Practically none). This was simply not the case. I literally thought I knew everything at that point, I got a 1/30 on my midterm because I assumed Gauss' Law worked for a configuration with no symmetry.

My Professor said "Your performance is rather dismal, you should change your major"

The second time: I started working on the material over the summer for the fall semester. I did 130 problems out of Griffiths before the semester even started and probably did 70 more throughout the semester and that made all the difference. Unlike 2000 level physics which is easily reconcilable because you practically already know it, 3000 level physics requires that you read the book and do as many problems as possible (at least that is what worked for me). At first you'll have to look up the solutions somewhere but eventually you'll hit your stride and you'll know when you've done a problem right.

The same professor the second time around said

"I'm very pleased with your progress, whatever you're doing keep doing it and one day I think you might be good at it"

"I did 200 problems for practice"

"I believe you, keep doing it"

His praise meant a lot to me because I know he doesn't give it to everyone.

I'm not going to toot my horn too much because I still have a long way to go but that was a happy moment for me. If I can go from a 1/30 to one of the highest grade in the class, so can you.

I think a lot of students initially struggle with upper level material because they have skewed expectations ( I certainly did) that their success from lower level classes will continue just because. The fact is that 3000 level material is quite a bit more advanced than 2000 level material and requires much more work.
Yes, in my intro to combinatorics and graph theory, first time I failed but the second time got I believe 110 out of 110. I also did quite a lot of problems I believe more than 100 problems, but I didn't count them. They were quite a lot. (I had a something like a month to prepare for it).

But nothing beats learning for QFT I, if I had the time to go over Peskin and Schroeder thoroughly before the exam in QFT II I believe I would have aced it like I did with QFT I.

Mind you in 2019 it was offered QFT III, I wonder which topics were covered in that course...

P.S
I did quite a lot of problems, so many problems that some questions are bound to reappear in the test... haha.
Hey, an exam is the last place where you need to be surprised with the material, you need to come to the exam well prepared.

But research is a totally different ball game than taking exams....
 
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