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Any physics majors feel too dumb to be majoring in physics?

  1. Apr 30, 2012 #1
    I am so discouraged right now.
    In calc2 I must have like a C+ average. And I work stupidly hard and still don't obtain what I thought I could get. I understand so much of the theory though, because the math department sort of treats everyone like they're math majors and that they need to know everything.

    Physics 2 is quite the opposite. I have an A. I know next to nothing. I hardly study. I was reviewing earlier today and learned how little I know. I was doing some halliday textbook problems (the problems difficulties were one and two dots) and i spent like three hours on only a handful of problems, not being able to solve any completely by myself. (had to look up help on the internet). and i read the chapter too!

    I feel like I try so hard. I know a lot of my professors said they worked hard to get through problems, but they couldn't have worked this hard.

    Just feel like I have everything working against me. I'm stupid. A girl. But I love physics, and it breaks my heart thinking I might have to change my major when I don't want to..

    what do i do? do i just work on everything during the summer? .. :(
  2. jcsd
  3. Apr 30, 2012 #2
    I dont have such problems. I had a BS degree back in 1988. later I was an MS student and teaching assistant but gave up them both because university was very stressful for me.
    now I am 49 and I study physics in a self-thaught manner. no exam, no grade, no stress, great pleasure.
    I am working on general relativity and quantum field theory.
  4. Apr 30, 2012 #3
    Excuse me! I'm not a girl, and I think that's offensive.

    First things first. If you’re getting a "C+" in Calc you need time with a tutor to work out the area(s) you're having issues with. Calc requires you to have a good foundation in the prior math courses. It' possible your calc grade reflects inadequate prep for the course. Hence, get a tutor or your teacher to figure out what's happening. If you're getting an "A" in physics and know nothing, you may have a teacher issue or misinterpreting assumed progression. Your grade should reflect what you know. I suggest you sit down with the physics teacher and show them the textbook work you are having problems doing. You may find out the teacher isn't to that material yet or some other reason.

    Questions will seldom get answered before they are asked. So ask.

    Hang in there.
  5. Apr 30, 2012 #4
    I think this usually happens to every physics majors, or math majors, or anyone who's serious about what they're studying. I myself would get this every once in a while, and I observed that some of my peers would talk or at least it's implied that they think might not have the aptitude to do physics; these even come from the students who do quite well relative to the class.

    The best you can do is to buckle up, continue studying and get better grades, that is, if you still plan on majoring in physics.
  6. Apr 30, 2012 #5
    This happens to most people in math or physics at some point. There will always be stellar students out there but most of us go through this. I got a C in calc 2 and now I have a math degree. Depending on your school sometimes calc 2 is a 'weed out' course where they really are trying to put pressure on you and doing poorly doesn't necessarily mean you're "bad at math." It will mess you up though if you don't take calc 3 seriously. Just keep focused and don't let it get you down. You passed the course, move on.
  7. Apr 30, 2012 #6
    I feel you. A little pressed for time right now, I'll report back to you later tonight on exactly how I feel. One of the main things eating at me is that I think i am not creative enough for physics/math. I can solve the problems and, after enough practice, incorporate clever techniques into my toolbox but I feel like it won't be enough when it comes to higher level classes. Do you also feel like this?
  8. Apr 30, 2012 #7
    Thats exactly what I was thinking. I really feel you have to be creative picking and choosing what formulas are going to work and realizing there's other crap you have to throw in there too
  9. Apr 30, 2012 #8
    I'm very nervous about quantum mechanics, modern physics, etc
  10. Apr 30, 2012 #9


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    I only felt too dumb to major in physics....oh, maybe every single day I was a student. I still can't believe I actually finished :biggrin:!

    Stick with it. It doesn't get easier, but it does get really really interesting!
  11. Apr 30, 2012 #10
    I think you totally underestimated how hard people try.

    Blaming your gender is the last thing you should do.

    Good luck.
  12. Apr 30, 2012 #11


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    Maybe Halliday has the wrong presentation and problems for you. It generally gets mediocre reviews on Amazon - 12 of 23 are 3 star or lower.

    I had huge problems with calculus, not with the intuitive aspects but the lack of physical application / motivation for so many of the problems. The problems seemed to usually be just empty symbol-shuffling with no connection to any plausible situation. I am told some people (math major "naturals") can limit the amount of disconnected facts they need to cram into their head by remembering the steps of the derivation and re-deriving as they go, but it seldom works for me.

    I find the purely symbolic, unvisualizable "Bourbaki virus" approach to be a huge impediment in most math literature. I have a sneaking suspicion that these mathematicians go to great pains to erase the method that they actually used to arrive at their conclusions and substitute more "elegant" or "rigorous" but less intuitive proofs. Also math seems to have a zillion dialects which represent the same or similar things, and I suspect these may largely be to keep potential competition and unwashed undergraduates off the bull-mathematicians' academic turf.

    There are lots of different approaches to any given math/physics problem, you need to find ones that work for you. For me I like the unified approach of Geometric Algebra (Hestenes, Dorst, Cambridge group) which is concise, mostly visualizable and can do everything from relativity to QM to group theory and beyond without so much tedious mucking about with tensors and matrices. I also like finding analogous problems and using them as models for things I don't understand. For instance the complex matrices in AC electrical circuit analysis are very close to the math in QM, and the optics of media with continuously variable refractive indexes gets you most of the way through general relativity (no frame-dragging, but it beats trying to imagine curved 4-D spaces).
    Last edited: Apr 30, 2012
  13. Apr 30, 2012 #12


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    yes we all do, indeed anyone who does not feel such insecurities is probably in denial.
  14. Apr 30, 2012 #13
    are you sure you always have? Think back to introductory physics and calculus courses. Were you understanding most of what was taught? In my case, I can implement techniques after learning them but am left with little working understanding of what I just learned. It works just fine for now but I'm afraid that eventually, my luck will run out despite my interest and fervent effort to keep it going. Creativity isn't in me. Should I look elsewhere?

    I can follow a formula, but am hard-pressed to diverge from it and apply other knowledge that I know.
    Last edited: Apr 30, 2012
  15. Apr 30, 2012 #14
    Yeah they did. The way the system works is that you always end up working hard and feeling stupid, because if you aren't working hard and if you don't feel stupid, then the material is too easy, and the system makes you work harder.

    Part of surviving physics is getting used to feeling stupid. I'm so used to feeling stupid at this point that it doesn't bother me too much.

    1) If you feel smart, then it means that you aren't challenging yourself enough.

    2) One advantage that men have is that it's more socially acceptable for men to do stupid things and to aggressively put through themselves into stupid situations. (Think of the TV series Jackass). Also, a lot of physics tends to be alpha-male stuff in the sense that you have what is the equivalent of a bar-fight only with equations. It's more socially acceptable for men to punch each other in the face, and much of physics involves doing that with equations.

    I do know of women that have figured out how do deal with this, and it's probably a good idea if you find the local "old girls network".

    1) Most important thing is to realize that you aren't alone and what you are going through is pretty standard and normal (google for the impostor syndrome)

    2) Feel good about yourself when you get something done. If you get an A, then you got an A. Feel good about getting the A rather than question yourself.

    3) Realize that as you get deeper into physics, you will feel more and more stupid. I can honestly say that I am more confused about physics now that I was when I was a college freshman, because I know more things to be confused about. You will feel stupid, the trick is getting used to feeling stupid.
  16. Apr 30, 2012 #15
    I felt as if I as treading water.

    I remember very well the feeling that I had in Introductory Calculus, because one way that I got through it was to remember *exactly* what I felt at a specific moment, and then promise myself is that if I got through it, they I'd help whoever is ends up there next. Which is why I'm here now.

    Writing diaries, short stories, and poetry is useful for this. The other things that are useful is to read biographies. You'll find out that Einstein had his bad days. The other very useful thing to do is to find a social group. Feeling stupid and insecure becomes a lot better when you are with a group of people that are feeling the same thing.

    The *psychology* of getting through physics is just as important, perhaps more important than getting the equations right.

    The point of intro physics classes isn''t to teach anything creative. Try this. Write a paragraph. Now write a paragraph but think about every letter as you are writing it. You will find that you'll be thinking too much about each letter to think about the paragraph.

    OK, physics works the same way. There are some basic grammar and techniques that you have to learn, and if you have to think about each equation, then you'll never be able to think about doing something new. The point of intro physics is to have you repeat the techniques so that you can apply them without having to think about them.

    You can get the creative stuff with undergraduate research, and even then you'll find that the creative moments are few and far between.

    Once it becomes second nature, then it will be easier. Also a lot of creativity involves applying things to "weird situations." For example, once you know PDE's left and right, you might find it in an unexpected context.
  17. May 1, 2012 #16
    I feel the same way, and so do the top few students in my class. I'm starting to believe that being made to feel stupid continually by arrogant & unhelpful professors is part of the "training" to do some serious intellectual gruntwork on one's own. So worry more about learning and understanding what you're doing (hopefully, enjoying it along the way) and remember that no one was born knowing what they need to know to get through a QM course.

    Take the blows to your intellectual self-esteem on the chin with a good sense of humor and just keep studying. There's nothing that a solid, several month long string of proper study habits can't solve.
  18. May 1, 2012 #17
    I found most of my professors to be nice. I've felt really dumb even in "easy" classes if I had a bad professor and confident even in "hard" classes if I had a nice one.

    I've thought about the "niceness" of professors correlated to their field of study. The best teachers I've had was an astrophysicist and a condensed matter experimenter. The worst teachers I've had were both particle physics theorists.
  19. May 1, 2012 #18
    I'm not so concerned with profs being good at explaining things verbally, as long as they make an effort. I do have a problem with profs that spend too much time on the trivial basics, then make up a final exam that every single student fails, then insult students in exam revisions. (ie: 1 or 2 problems, 100% of the grade that are four standard deviations higher in difficulty than any problem solved in-class or in the bibliography, often involving tricks that only the prof would know as he came up with the problems).
  20. May 1, 2012 #19
    Fine. You feel stupid. What are you going to do about it?

    My philosophy is that if I feel stupid, I should accept it, and then revolt. Change it. What am I doing wrong? Will working another hour on that concept/problem be worth my time or should I finally seek some external help? Accepting that one is stupid is a great way to get smarter and this loop of "feeling stupid ---> countering with trying to be smarter ----> feeling stupid again ----> trying to be even smarter" will always be there, which from where I stand, looks pretty cool.

    It's the same when you talk to people who you think are smarter than you. If you'd like to have an "intellectual life", it's a bad idea to spend time with people who are as stupid as you. Find smarter people.
  21. May 1, 2012 #20
    You being a girl is irrelevant. Your professor is making it a bit easy for you students or else you wouldn't be at an A near the end of your semester.

    Students (or some) typically go through a roller coaster of emotions, smart at top, then comes the drop, dumb, "oh I am smart again", drop, "oh... I am dumb again." Put some effort into your physics work as you are majoring in it, and go to a tutor to help you see things your book (calculus) isn't showing you. Read a different text to see if you may understand it a different way. Sometimes the exposition of texts is what throws you off, I had to retreat from Stewart's calculus to Thomas/Finney Calculus and that helped a lot in terms of understanding what I was doing rather than aimlessly plugging in numbers and getting a result back.
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