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Difficulties encountered in my Physics degree, what should I do?

  1. Apr 5, 2014 #1
    Hi guys, this is mainly a question to people who have completed a degree in physics already, but I would love replies from anybody who has a opinion, or has had a similar experience.

    I am in the third year of a masters degree in physics. As I have progressed through the degree things have gotten tougher, but I have always managed to battle through any difficulties with hard work, and had done relatively OK...until now. I am currently taking a course in Quantum Mechanics (full derivation of clebsch gordon table etc), and for the first time after two midterms, I feel as though I am on the way to failing the course. It has caused me to really question whether or not I am even naturally smart enough to remember all of the derivations and mathematical 'tricks' involved..... because I worked so hard for it and I'm still failing! I think I had always hoped deep down I would make it to a high level in physics and maybe get a Phd, but to be perfectly honest I find myself working all the time and remaining only slightly above average. I think I need to start prioritizing here, I don't know whether to battle through again and hope that all comes good in the final exams, or look in another direction, just aim to get through the course, but actually enjoy life again!

    I love physics SO much, but I feel like I'm hitting my head against a brick wall at the moment. Has anybody else encountered big problems in their course, a module that they just found too hard for example? but they battled through it and found that they were actually good at it? Should I focus on other things and care less about my grades? I'm considering engineering as a possible direction to take, as I feel like the courses I am taking are becoming too mathematical for me. Any thoughts?

    Thanks in advance
  2. jcsd
  3. Apr 5, 2014 #2


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    I suppose I can share my thoughts. I handed in my masters thesis in feb this year.

    3rd year in a masters degree?

    How do you schedule your studies? Are you managing to fully understand the course materials before new parts are taught? Have you tried talking to your course staff about getting extra help?

    When you have been shown a derivation. Are you able to understand each individual steps? Once you do, you should be able to derive them intuitively from starting conditions without having to "remember" anything. Do it a few times for each difficult derivation you encounter and you should not need to spend too much time revising them before tests.

    If you are not enjoying life when you are working on physics then you probably don't like physics as much as you think.

    I've had a few courses that I just don't feel like putting in the effort to get a better grade for it. That meant I found something that isn't for me.

    You are already paying the course fees, might as well learn something and get a passing grade.

    You are not going to enjoy engineering if you sign up with a mindset of "I'm doing this because I'm not smart enough for physics"
  4. Apr 6, 2014 #3
    Great reply thanks! Yeah I'm in a 3rd year of an integrated masters, so next year will be my final year, but I don't write a bachelors thesis this year.

    Maybe I need to meet up with the lecturer, even though I don't see at the moment what it would achieve.

    I feel like this far into things I should have the whole process of studying for an exam perfected, but clearly I still have issues. You're right, I'm paying the course fees so I'll give it everything I have. I don't want start engineering just because I missed out on physics either.

    You've given me a lot to think about,
    Thanks again
  5. Apr 10, 2014 #4
    "If you are not enjoying life when you are working on physics then you probably don't like physics as much as you think"

    I discovered this during my Physics degree. I was fired up initially to go into the world of physics after graduating but by the time I got to 3rd year I was feeling the same as you, and not only for QM but everything. I decided that I was only an average student of physics and changed my life plans accordingly, graduating with a 2ii class and happy.

    Since then I've been an officer in the Royal Navy for 10 years and now work in the computer science field. Physics and maths are now hobbies and with no pressure to get high grades much more enjoyable. So by all means go for it but you'll still have your MSci at the end of it and the grades often matter only if you're going on to a PhD. Life is full of possibilities for blokes with that background.
  6. Apr 10, 2014 #5
    I completely disagree with this. Anyone who has been through even a few upper-level physics courses know that it has its moments. There will be times when you want to throw in the towel and go work in fast food for the rest of your life. If you haven't filled up an entire blackboard with work just to find an algebra mistake in the first line, you haven't done physics yet.

    The moments when you have an "aha!" moment are few and far between. But when they occur, they are worth all of the suffering that comes along with a physics degree, in my opinion.
  7. Apr 10, 2014 #6
    Hmmm, I was quoting Wukunlin with the first line, and not all of us 'average' physics types wind up in "fast food" work for the rest of our lives either so you need to lighten up a bit with that.

    Not everyone is capable of getting 90+ % grades from Oxbridge, no matter how hard they try. If you're really not enjoying your life, the op's words, and it's the massive amount of work you're putting in already that's causing it then maybe you do have to consider alternatives. That's exactly what my tutor told me and I'm really glad he did as it gave me other options.

    In the UK, working in physics certainly doesn't pay that well and is difficult to get into, especially now that much less than a 1st and you'll struggle to get past the competition for postgrad. The point I was trying to make was that with an MSci in physics the op has other options, sometimes it's not just a case of work harder and everything will be fine.

    I love my physics and math as much as the next geek, but you don't have to work in it to enjoy that. I wonder what the stats are for the number of physics undergrads completing their degrees and going on to work in a physics field, academic or otherwise.
  8. Apr 10, 2014 #7


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    I took graduate quantum I three times (C, C+, B, two different schools) before I really thought I was starting to get it. Don't give up just yet; most people go through that phase. It's hard to realize we'll just be average physicists, but hey, even an average physicist has accomplished quite a bit with their life. If you like the research, keep pressing on. Chances are good you won't need advanced QM in your research, so once you get past the qualifying exam you'll be fine. I took nearly 4 years to earn my masters (transferred in the middle of it) but finished the PhD 3 years later, got a great postdoc, and my dream job (teaching at a small university).
  9. Apr 10, 2014 #8


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    Well, when I made that post. I interpreted "not enjoying life" as something worse than a few difficult moments.
  10. Apr 10, 2014 #9
    I completed my doctorate so I feel I can relate my experience(s). I am not clear specifically where you are in your program. You mention working all the time and remaining (only) slightly above average. (Is something wrong with being only slightly above average in a graduate program as demanding as physics?)

    On the other hand, it seems you are worrying about the possibility of failing QM II. There I can relate my experience. You mention battling through and hoping that it all comes good in the final. I did badly (failed) on my QM midterm (hard to believe it was 9 years ago). This was the last course required and I was taking only one other elective at the same time. I put in an heroic effort, and I "hoped" that in the end I would end up with a B. The result: I got a B-. I even went to the professor afterward to discuss the grade. He told me my consistent A's in the homework were the only thing preventing him from giving me a C.
    My advisor told me this is your last graduate class, and your average is well above B so do not worry about it.

    Bottom line: Hope is not a strategy. Most of us grow up with the myth than hard work can overcome anything, but in truth, circumstances do not always "work out" even with hard work. Nevertheless, after 9 years, I do not regret missing beautiful April days as I saw so many students on campus with Frisbees, footballs etc. Sometimes a losing battle is still worth fighting.

    I could relate other encouraging personal stories where hard work paid off, and you should no doubt get some from this forum. I believe investing in hard work without the certainty of payoff takes our growth and evolution to a higher potential.

    It may not be the mathematics that is too hard. You break down deriving the C-G coefficients and you find it is mainly taking derivatives, possibly a few integrals, and a little work with operators. I personally found vector calculus in Electromagnetism more mathematically challenging, but I do not know where you are in your program. Is QM going to be a final course?

    I had a hard time memorizing all the steps in how to derive the ellipse, hyperbola, (conic section) paths from the inverse square force. I found after doing all the steps about 4-5 times I could do it. Another application far from physics is chess.

    I daresay, to many chessmasters, checkmating the opposing king using only a king, knight and bishop from a general position is not a natural process. Nevertheless, after an hour or two a day, after about 2 weeks I was able to do it. You mention being naturally smart enough. I can only advise

    If you cannot be naturally smart, be unnaturally smart.

    Enough of the pep-talk. Best Luck in your effort to find it within yourself to persevere.
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