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Dealing with burnout: should I continue in math?

First a little background. I'm a 3rd year undergrad in mathematics. By most measures, I've been rather successful up to this point: I'm taking graduate courses, I've coauthored a paper with a professor (currently seeking publication) and am writing a second paper on my own, and I've started going to various national conferences. So I think it's reasonable to say that I could have a successful career in mathematics.

That said, math both brings me a great deal of joy and makes me completely miserable. It's a rather unhealthy relationship. I love working on mathematical problems, but I take every instance of me being unsuccessful in solving a problem as a personal failure and a blow against my intelligence. As one might imagine, this is incredibly emotionally draining, and I have at multiple times throughout my university career considered completely dropping math and going into another, more practical field that I'm less personally invested in. I'm constantly plagued with feelings of self-doubt about my abilities as well, which also doesn't help my emotional well-being. These are all things I don't feel comfortable sharing with my friends or professors, but the cloak of anonymity of the internet makes self-disclosure a little easier.

So I guess the question is, for those of you with more experience in math or other technical subjects, have you had similar feelings? Did they pass? I thought that after I did my research and started getting some recognition, I'd finally stop worrying about these things, but the feelings have persisted.

EDIT: Coming back, the title is a bit too melodramatic for my liking... heh. My prime doubts about going on are related to whether it will be good for me emotionally, not whether I can do the work.
 
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That said, math both brings me a great deal of joy and makes me completely miserable. It's a rather unhealthy relationship. I love working on mathematical problems, but I take every instance of me being unsuccessful in solving a problem as a personal failure and a blow against my intelligence. As one might imagine, this is incredibly emotionally draining, ...
Add physics to that, and this describes me, as well. Can't give you much advice on that, as I'm still struggling with that myself, and find it really hard to change.
 
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I completely understand your post. When I started out studying mathematics, I loved it, there were no problems at all. But with time, I became more and more unsure of my abilities and I became very sad when I couldn't find a problem. There are people telling me I'm a good mathematician, but I never really believe them. I feel that I'm just lucky, that I have no real abilities. And I fear every day that my luck will just run out.

This feelings are still with me this day. But luckily, they have decreased a bit. That's right, I'm pretty sure that over time, these feelings of yours will get less (although they will probably never really go away).

That said, you mustn't pursue mathematics if you really don't want to. Doing something because other people expect you to do it, is never good!
 
Going through theorem after theorem is hard if you are unmotivated. I'd say tend more to research when math gets you down because research shows you that what you're learning is useful.
 
I feel kind of the same way about Physics right now. I like E&M, and I used to really enjoy plasma, because (selfishly enough), I felt like it was "mine", since everyone else I knew was busy enjoying quantum or astronomy here. However, after my REU this summer, I feel less motivated to continue in it.

I'm a 4th year undergrad, and it's certainly a big part of how many grad programs I'm choosing to apply to (only 2-3 out of 7 are in Physics. Everything else is in plasma or photonics for Mechanical or Electrical Engineering). I'm keeping an eye out for jobs at the moment too, which would ideally help me reach a decision on whether or not I want to go into industry. I'm constantly told how difficult it would be to transition into grad school after working for a year or two, but I can't commit myself to a Physics PhD program unless I'm absolutely convinced I'd rather be doing it more than anything else I could possibly be doing (and it's simply not looking that way at the moment). Perhaps I should be as decisive with engineering grad school as well.
 
I completely understand your post. When I started out studying mathematics, I loved it, there were no problems at all. But with time, I became more and more unsure of my abilities and I became very sad when I couldn't find a problem. There are people telling me I'm a good mathematician, but I never really believe them. I feel that I'm just lucky, that I have no real abilities. And I fear every day that my luck will just run out.

This feelings are still with me this day. But luckily, they have decreased a bit. That's right, I'm pretty sure that over time, these feelings of yours will get less (although they will probably never really go away).
This problem has gotten much less severe for me than it used to be. I've been through several episodes of clinical depression and this remains a trigger for me. I can say that I really do want to work in math doing research, but my difficulty handling failure makes it hard.
 
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http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Impostor_syndrome" [Broken]

I can very strongly relate to your situation, though for me the details are quite different. If anything I'm a little too sure of my abilities. My issue is that I'm getting burnt out not due to doubting myself but because I feel like a career in academia is a life spent fighting the system. More and more I realize how much academia really is a game--and unfortunately it's not a fun or kind or endearing one. One of my friends from Germany has told me about the system in Germany, and while I'm sure it has issues as well it sounds a lot nicer, at least in the modern era, compared to the US system. What instantly amazed me about him was how he didn't care about grades too much, even though he's very intelligent, and moreover he doesn't *understand* why US students do care about grades.

I've actually sometimes considered finishing my undergraduate degree and then going back to my hometown or some place nearby and opening a restaurant or cafe or something of that nature. As much as I love mathematics, I've often wondered whether my life would not be more fulfilling if I were to avoid a career in academia.
 
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This problem has gotten much less severe for me than it used to be. I've been through several episodes of clinical depression and this remains a trigger for me. I can say that I really do want to work in math doing research, but my difficulty handling failure makes it hard.
Well, if you really want to do math research, then go for it! But pay attention to yourself, the step to depression can be very small (as I know from experience). Try to find an advisor that respects this "problem" of yours, it will be a great help. I chose an advisor who also struggled with depression, and it was a very liberating experience. Somebody that knows (and respects!!) what your going through will be in a better position to guide you through it all.

Feel free to PM me any time you need to!!!!
 
Like alot of people that have posted here, math for me was really easy at first. I mean it took so little effort to do well in Calculus, Elementary ODEs and LA, intro Stats, etc. So much so, I developed a bad habit of just not studying and not attending lectures because I was so damn confidant about my ability.

Then junior level math came and it hit me like a ton of bricks. After half assing it my first quarter and dropping most of courses, I headed into the second quarter doing the same damn thing, not learning my lesson...except THIS TIME I would actually study...a bit...for my midterms. That ended in me having to drop a bunch of classes again. Third quarter came around and I said to myself "ok, this time I will attend discussion sections and try to do most of my homework" but I still missed discussion, I still never attended lectures and I still half assed my homework. After dropping more courses and doing poorly in the courses I did keep, I was sure I just sucked at math now...never really giving it my full effort.

At this point, I couldnt understand why I couldnt do in these classes what had always worked before and i was crapped out and just didnt want to do math anymore. Then my school threatened to kick me out of the major, so I had one more chance over the summer to shape up. I did.

HOWEVER, heres where the TRUE heartache began. I took number theory that summer, and I made DAMN SURE I worked my *** off. I never missed lecture, never missed discussion, never missed a T/A office hour, never missed a homework. But the homework was bringing me down. I thought for sure, now that I am putting all my effort into classes, now for sure nothing would be able to stop me right? WRONG! Nearly each and every single number theory problem assigned seemed damn near impossible. Id spend hours...entire DAYS on one problem and sometime get no where! What the hell? How could this be? This is the nightmare I was probably trying to avoid when I was being slacker...the idea that I might not be good at math DESPITE me actually putting in my full effort.

Thankfully, my other classmates and even my T/A felt the homework assignments were much harder than anything they ever had to contend with. As a group we were all equally lost and this filled me with some hope. I finally made it through the class with a B+, and though I wanted and thought Id get an A, I was happy that I made it through the class and had hopes I would not get thrown out of the major.

This fall I began the Abstract Algebra and Analysis series as well as junior level Mechanics (im also a physics major). Now I know that math problems at this level are not going to be simple quick solutions. I know now that math at this level requires more from me and I shouldnt be discouraged by little failures along the way. I know this. BUT...whenever I come across a problem or topic in ANY course I still feel some doubt about my abilities, but I try not to let it get in the way of me doing my work.

Point of this long drawn out post is this: Math (Physics and really any subject) is damn hard at a certain point. Only thing you can do is put in an honest effort. If you are working on problems with any kind of value, you will certainly come across a few you cant solve (or cant solve in the time alloted, be it on a test or as homework, because you also need to spend time doing work for other courses). This should NOT discourage you...it WILL discourage you, but it shouldnt and you just need to grin and bear it and motor on.
 
Well, if you really want to do math research, then go for it! But pay attention to yourself, the step to depression can be very small (as I know from experience). Try to find an advisor that respects this "problem" of yours, it will be a great help. I chose an advisor who also struggled with depression, and it was a very liberating experience. Somebody that knows (and respects!!) what your going through will be in a better position to guide you through it all.

Feel free to PM me any time you need to!!!!
I fell into depression during my last undergraduate year and had to stop for a whole year.

My problem was that I went into a tunnel vision, was studying 7days/week, sometimes 10h/day. I put all my energy into academic work, and neglected the small things in life, and some big ones.

I think the key is to have a rich social life. Why is it important? Because when you have activities and accointances that give you pleasure, the professional 'failures' look much less horrible because in the back of your mind you know you have those other things that fulfill you.
 
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Whenever I start feeling depressed I watch Harry Potter and fantasize about grad school being like that.
 

mathwonk

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I've even had fields medalists share with me that they sometimes wondered whether they could continue to do research they could be proud of. Needless to say i have had such feelings as well. If you are going to be in the field, the point is to spend as much time as possible at what you enjoy, namely the math itself. And try to avoid the habit of always comparing yourself to others and evaluating yourself. I suspect it feels worse to conclude that we have not tried as hard as we could have, than to try and still not become the world's best. What makes you think you won't also be too hard on yourself in any other field? It may help to get professional counseling. Those guys are sometimes quite good at making common sense inescapable. Good luck.
 
Thanks for the replies. Unfortunately for my pure mathematical career, I think I'm going to try to stop it here, before I go too far down the academic track. The primary reason is my continued anxiety over the dismal employment prospects for a Ph.D in academia, and the subpar salaries that those who actually manage to get jobs receive. It just seems mildly irrational to me to go through six or so years of study with such a high chance of that knowledge not being put to any good monetary use.

Oddly, my undergrad research experience is probably one of the things that's been most effective in steering me away. I love the work, but attending conferences and being around professional mathematicians in a non-classroom setting has removed much of the romance of a professorship. I've also already begun to experience the frustrating situation of an advisor who wants to push results of mine that I find uninteresting while being underwhelmed by the work I think has more interest and applications. I thoroughly enjoy math as a hobby, but I don't know if I could deal with it as a career, with all of the politics of academia mixed in.

That said, I don't really know what to do at this point. I'd like to end up in a career that is project-oriented, and I have at multiple times teased the CS department of my university with prospects of taking classes there. I have very little programming experience, but what I did learn I picked up easily and enjoyed, so that may be an option. Or, if I could find a more employable field related in concept to my mathematical interests (topology, geometry) that might be a prospect as well.
 
Why not try engineering?
 
Sounds like you need a girlfriend. There's nothing like having a wife and kids to feed. They'll keep you motivated.
 

JyN

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I have felt similar feelings as well. I am starting to get less and less "depressed" about not solving a difficult problem. Just accept the fact that you aren't a super genius and move on.
 
Why not try engineering?
I would consider that, but I've already started the third year of my degree and it would be difficult to switch to engineering and still graduate in a timely manner (also, I'm funded by scholarships, and my family isn't in the best position to help pay for additional years once those run out.)
 
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I'm so sad to hear that some people can have depression triggered by not solving a problem. I had never considered this as a common issue because I derive so much joy from solving problems. I'm not someone who can become easily depressed, but if anything - having a problem to solve pushes me away from depression and more towards a state of mania. I find this state enjoyable but I don't let this get out of control to the point of becoming a psychological issue.

Anyway, what I want to point out is that you all have great talent and I hope you find a way to integrate problem solving into a happy and productive life. Any failures in problem solving probably stem from psychology rather than lack of ability. The fact of the matter is that these people we call "super geniuses" have everything going for them. Not only are they smart, but they have the emotional makeup to focus for long periods of time without negative effects on their mental stability.

Of course mental well being must come first in a person's life. I know this because, although I've been fortunate (so far) to avoid emotional extremes, it seems most everyone else I care about has stuggled with depression, panic or anxiety, at times.
 
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I really wish I could hug you. You have just helped me to know that I'm not the only one in this world that feels like you.
I am just starting my third year in my undergrad mathematical career, and I'm going through my Intro to Proofs class and feeling like a complete failure.
I do fabulous on my homework where I am getting 100% on everything I turn in, but my tests have lowered my grade in that class to a B mostly due to the fact that I don't get enough time on the exams to deeply think about the problems like I do on my homework. I got so depressed after this last exam because I knew I missed key parts of the exam, and I just kept thinking about if I am this depressed now in pure math, what's grad school going to be like?
I made a personal decision for my future that since I am doing well in my Statistics class and I see more a career future in that than pure math, I'm going to change my concentration to Statistics. Maybe you should think about going into something like that?
Thanks again for this post. I really needed to hear something like this from someone else out there.
 
I really wish I could hug you. You have just helped me to know that I'm not the only one in this world that feels like you.
I am just starting my third year in my undergrad mathematical career, and I'm going through my Intro to Proofs class and feeling like a complete failure.
I do fabulous on my homework where I am getting 100% on everything I turn in, but my tests have lowered my grade in that class to a B mostly due to the fact that I don't get enough time on the exams to deeply think about the problems like I do on my homework. I got so depressed after this last exam because I knew I missed key parts of the exam, and I just kept thinking about if I am this depressed now in pure math, what's grad school going to be like?
I made a personal decision for my future that since I am doing well in my Statistics class and I see more a career future in that than pure math, I'm going to change my concentration to Statistics. Maybe you should think about going into something like that?
Thanks again for this post. I really needed to hear something like this from someone else out there.
I have the same problem. I can spend hours, sometimes DAYS working on a single math homework problem, but the feeling I get when I finally prove something is second to none. But come test time, I have no notes, no references, and certainly don't have a lot of time to really think things through and usually my test scores don't reflect my ability to solve a problem.

But thats no reason to run away from something you like in order to pursue something that you think might be easier. Now of course, if you enjoy stats more than some of the other pure math subject, by all means, switch majors. But if you really love math, then I would reconsider.

Talk to your professors. See if they have any suggestions on how you might do better on exams. I find that professors in general really appreciate hard work, effort and a commitment to improve. If you've shown, through your efforts on homework, that you are a hard working, dedicated student, I am sure your professors will have no problems giving you tips on how to do better on their tests.
 
I am really in the same condition though I am not a college student. I have finished school and then dropped an year to prepare for the entrance examination to get admission to a Math course in a great college. So I have to study some advanced math. The problems are pretty tough. I had low self confidence from childhood itself. And now when I don't get problems, it increases the disbelief in my ability. Also, I have to deal with problems between my father and mother, a financial struggle and other family problems. Now my condition is that I love mathematics but am also terrified of not being able to solve problems. I feel very sad and get emotional at small things. I have always dreamed of being a Mathematics teacher and researching too. But even for teaching at high school level, we need to pass very tough exams and very few talented people pass that exam in our country. Because of this many teaching posts are either filled with temporary staff or lying vacant. I am almost completely losing faith in my ability day by day. Sometimes I can't even open my books for days and I start thinking about suicide too. It feels a little better to know that many other people have similar problem too. I really cannot think about taking up anything other than Mathematics. If anyone has a solution to my problem, please help me. I'll be really grateful.
 
I am really in the same condition though I am not a college student. I have finished school and then dropped an year to prepare for the entrance examination to get admission to a Math course in a great college. So I have to study some advanced math. The problems are pretty tough. I had low self confidence from childhood itself. And now when I don't get problems, it increases the disbelief in my ability. Also, I have to deal with problems between my father and mother, a financial struggle and other family problems. Now my condition is that I love mathematics but am also terrified of not being able to solve problems. I feel very sad and get emotional at small things. I have always dreamed of being a Mathematics teacher and researching too. But even for teaching at high school level, we need to pass very tough exams and very few talented people pass that exam in our country. Because of this many teaching posts are either filled with temporary staff or lying vacant. I am almost completely losing faith in my ability day by day. Sometimes I can't even open my books for days and I start thinking about suicide too. It feels a little better to know that many other people have similar problem too. I really cannot think about taking up anything other than Mathematics. If anyone has a solution to my problem, please help me. I'll be really grateful.
 

chiro

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First a little background. I'm a 3rd year undergrad in mathematics. By most measures, I've been rather successful up to this point: I'm taking graduate courses, I've coauthored a paper with a professor (currently seeking publication) and am writing a second paper on my own, and I've started going to various national conferences. So I think it's reasonable to say that I could have a successful career in mathematics.

That said, math both brings me a great deal of joy and makes me completely miserable. It's a rather unhealthy relationship. I love working on mathematical problems, but I take every instance of me being unsuccessful in solving a problem as a personal failure and a blow against my intelligence. As one might imagine, this is incredibly emotionally draining, and I have at multiple times throughout my university career considered completely dropping math and going into another, more practical field that I'm less personally invested in. I'm constantly plagued with feelings of self-doubt about my abilities as well, which also doesn't help my emotional well-being. These are all things I don't feel comfortable sharing with my friends or professors, but the cloak of anonymity of the internet makes self-disclosure a little easier.

So I guess the question is, for those of you with more experience in math or other technical subjects, have you had similar feelings? Did they pass? I thought that after I did my research and started getting some recognition, I'd finally stop worrying about these things, but the feelings have persisted.

EDIT: Coming back, the title is a bit too melodramatic for my liking... heh. My prime doubts about going on are related to whether it will be good for me emotionally, not whether I can do the work.
Hey Wretchsoft.

This is way more common than you think. I don't know anyone in later courses that haven't had a confidence crisis of some sort. I'm not really a great student myself, and the posts here on PF in the various sections constantly remind me of that.

I think if you take anything away from the experience of doing math, is that you can say that you tried to do something that was/is hard, and based on that alone you can hold your head up high.
 

morphism

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The good news is: you're not the first person to feel this way. It has literally happened to just about everyone I know in math, myself included.

The bad news is: the emotional problems may not go away. In fact, they might get worse. Graduate school will most likely, at some point, amplify all the self-doubt and emotional turmoil you're battling right now.

As with most problems of this type, it's hard to say how helpful generic advice will be. So, in lieu of that, I would suggest you try to contact a faculty member or an advisor and just talk things out. There really is no shame in this. It really helps to talk to someone who knows you and is more experienced and has probably gone through what you're going through.

Best of luck!
 

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