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Feeling burnout

  1. Jan 3, 2016 #1
    Hi guys,

    Sorry if my first post has to be one where I complain, but I am unsure about what I should do next.
    I started physics kind of late, after a degree in economics, at a top tier university in Europe but a public one. Our first year was horrible, VERY theoretical and we didn't do much vector analysis either. Electromagnetism was horrible too, for various reasons. But since the first year is meant as a test (admission is granted to everyone), I thought to myself "fine", after all I have to prove something.
    In the second year we had a professor who didn't teach us anything in mathematical methods for physics, a VERY important course as you know. I still fear delta functions, I don't feel confident about the whole exchanging integral and derivatives and measure theory was pretty much ignored totally.
    To add insult to this injury, in the second year we have electrodynamics: one should in theory learn Green's functions, get confident with delta functions and do some special relativity AND E.M. in matter and boundary problems. None of this was done, because the professor is famous so he felt like doing what he fancied, which was one semester of covariant theory (useless to know in the second year). His exam was then 1st year electromagnetism (with the related hard calculations with vector products, nasty integrals...). A lot of people failed that exam. I got a decent-to-good grade, but meh, can't be happy when you get it by chance because they normalize and fail to give a proper exam. I wrote a lot at that exam, but the quality of my work was very, very low.

    Now ff to 3rd year. We get to the arguably best course in physics, i.e. QM. I had great hopes for this course and was looking forward to it. Turns out the professor is an experimental physicist (although I don't know if that's relevant), so he gave us 350 pages of latex with A LOT of unnecessarily difficult calculations (tunnel effect coefficients, all the relevant methods of perturbation theory). The notation is bad (he invented new Greek letters just for this Latex script I assume...), and while most of it feels just IRRELEVANT, sometimes he starts talking about eigenspaces, some very subtle considerations about 1st year linear algebra, and in half a page he draws elaborate conclusions about representation theory or common bases that would require much, much more attention.

    Because we had to do a lot of difficult experiments in parallel, I lost the pace with the weekly exercise sheets. Now I'm reading the solutions for the exam and trying to memorize patterns. I notice, however, that a lot of exercise sheets are unnecessarily long calculations to show a relatively simple idea, as if they wanted to keep us busy from drinking tea, or having a girlfriend, I don't know.

    Sorry for the lengthy text. The request I have is: is my situation common? How should I evade it? I feel I lost a little bit of touch in calculations, though I think I will still pass exams. More importantly, however, I feel that I haven't acquired much knowledge. The tiny bit I have is brittle, insecure. I wouldn't say I am excellent at solving integrals, or differential equations, or anything at all really. The more worrying fact is that from our scripts and what the professors write at the blackboard, it seems they understand even less/care even less.

    TL;DR: feeling VERY demotivated in 3rd year of bachelor, have been only eating ice cream for 2-3 days now. My whole physics bachelor seems a lie, the transmission of new concepts was poor, the selection of topics covered inappropriate, now I can't bring myself to like a subject when the professors don't care enough to give us a proper lecture OR a full text to read at home. Exams are random because professors have too much freedom here. I've seen good, capable people fail some exams because they focused too much on theory, or too much on the wrong exercises. A new professor teaches each year so you can't really prepare either. Now, I'm very scared of the upcoming QM exam. It could be calculating normalization factors, or using power series approaches for all I know. I know a physicist should know everything, but an exam should be fair at the same time and a person should have a rough idea of what the important concepts/calculations to know are.

    What should I do?
  2. jcsd
  3. Jan 3, 2016 #2
    Judging from what you're saying here, it does sound like you're being cheated out of a decent education.

    Here's the most valuable piece of advice I ever got though: "don't let anybody kill your love of physics". Many professors are simply awful, it happens. In your case, the education system entirely seems to be failing. Too bad. But don't let it get to you. Don't let them kill your joy.

    I suggest you take your education in your own hands. Start from the basics and work up from there: classical mech, E&M, stat mech, QM, etc. Self-study those topics as best as you can and try to get the understanding that your profs denied you. This is the best way to react to this horrible situation. But it's not the easiest way.
  4. Jan 3, 2016 #3
    Thank you for your reply. I did indeed think that too, but it is reassuring to see that it seems to be the case from another perspective (I am not the perfect student and I know my limits, but I wouldn't have a reason to lie about the above either). It's sad though. I think I will take only mathematics (analysis, algebra...) in my hands back, because it's something I like to be proficient at. While I like physics, I have come to dislike its world. At least where I study it (Switzerland), it has been very disappointing (I am not Swiss myself and was able to compare syllabi with other colleagues, whose exams and topics were much, much more balanced and enjoyable).

    I'll keep what you said in mind though. Maybe it will change, but it's good to spot the problem as fast as possible.
  5. Jan 3, 2016 #4
    You shouldn't hate the physics world because of your bad experiences at your uni. Sure, take mathematics in your hands, but do give physics a fair chance.
  6. Jan 3, 2016 #5
    Alright, I will. At the moment, it seems difficult to discern physics from my uni, but I'm aware it could be such a "minor' issue.
    Thank you.
  7. Jan 3, 2016 #6


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    Sorry you're having a rough time of it.

    From my point of view, there does seem to be a bit of a pattern in what you've posted though. You've mentioned multiple classes with different professors over multiple years and in all of them they are not teaching the way you feel they should or they are not covering material you feel they should be covering. I certainly get that not all professors are great instructors. This is something every undergraduate student has to deal with. But if it seems like it's every professor you have... maybe the issue isn't the professors.

    With regards to the issue of professors not covering certain things... they should be handing out a syllabus at the beginning of the term. If they're not, you and the other students should be asking for it. This will give you a list of topics that the course is going to cover, a list that you can hold them too. This will also give you some direction for your own reading if you're finding that the lectures aren't cutting it.

    With regards to professors grading on a curve, that's fairly common too. Experienced professors are usually pretty good at setting up fair exams, but if you're getting guys that are teaching the course for the first time, it's quite possible they'll make the exam more challenging than it needs to be. The good news is that you don't have to take this as a reflection of you're abilities as a student. Sometimes a problem is just unreasonable and the only thing that's fair about it is that it's just as unfair to everyone in the class.

    One final thought. If you're really unhappy with the quality of the education you're getting... leave. There are a lot of other universities out there. Maybe it would help if you could find one that jives a little better with your learning style and expectations.
  8. Jan 4, 2016 #7
    Thank you for your reply. I agree that my experience might be in part due to what you're saying. However, in my opinion, it's a minor factor. I will also mention that the university in question is ETH Zurich. I don't really know if it has fame of being a 'bad' university (regarding teaching) in the world, but it costs very little to access it ($700 per semester, roughly) and they grant admission to everyone. Because comparable universities cost much more (remember, however, that ranking does not immediately correlate to quality of education), they always say that they have to fail a lot of people, otherwise it would be too convenient, otherwise everyone would come to ETH to study. Because of this and of other reasons, they grant a lot of freedom to professors.

    Going into more detail about your suggestions, sadly we are not always handed a syllabus. If so, it reads like this: (from German, I won't translate as I want to give you the idea only)

    Inhalt: Stichworte: Schrödinger-Gleichung, Formalismus der Quantenmechanik (Zustände, Operatoren, Kommutatoren, Messprozess), Symmetrien (Translation, Rotationen), Quantenmechanik in einer Dimension, Zentralkraftprobleme, Potentialstreuung, Dichtematrix, Schrödinger-, Heisenberg-, Dirac-Bilder, Zeitumkehr, Störungstheorie, Variations-Verfahren, Drehimpuls, Spin, Drehimpulsaddition, Relation QM und klassische Physik.

    As you see, it is VERY general. Most professors then thrive on the fact that they can choose to do perturbation theory in 10 pages or in 100, by putting unnecessary details. Same goes for other topics. This is how exams are made difficult too. We don't have the privilege of getting a syllabus which says, for example: QM in one dimension: "scattering matrices, transfer matrices, full stop". That would be too good. People wouldn't be FORCED to visit lectures anymore, as they currently are. Indeed, visiting lectures or having friends who can give you good lecture notes is essential, because supplementary material is often inadequate for exams (which don't necessarily focus on checking your knowledge as much as having an exam which will give normally distributed grades). This gives rise to opportunistic behavior, and sadly as a non-native German speaker, it is more difficult for me to make connections than the average guy. At the same time, I don't really think one should be forced into smiling or spending time with people just to get lecture notes, so I don't connect a lot with this in mind. The few friend I have either complain like me that the professors are bats**t crazy, or are much, much too focused to understand what's happening around them. A friend of mine actually has top grades (mine are decent only) and he barely sleeps, skips lunch a lot of times, is always nervous because he must do xx pages per day, studies on the bus back home, etc. In my opinion this is too much, doesn't give you a good skill set for later in life and is a good way to warrant entering a mental institution in 5-10 years (I don't speak out of envy, really, I wouldn't do it for a lot of money either, probably, I believe in working hard but smart and a maximum of 60-70 hours per week, more leaves marks on you)

    Overall, I have been lazy SOME times. Generally, I'm hard working too, though. I pull 8-10 hours per day and maybe not 12. On weekends it's probably 7-8. Sometimes I get a day off when I feel tired. The general impression I have, especially when I compare to my previous economics experience (also at a top tier EU university), is that a lot of work we do is unnecessary, and involves: simplifying formulae, finding notes, understanding what the exam will be like (who cares about understanding the essentials of the course anyway anymore??). If the same professor taught every year and the material was standard, we would have a) good scripts, optimized to give the essentials b) a good interplay of subjects, where for example mathematical physics would start at the exact point where analysis/calculus ended c) good lectures, which people would enjoy visiting d) a good atmosphere, where there would be a feeling of trust between professors and students e) a more enjoyable experience overall, which would translate in greater happiness and self-confidence, which would translate into better physicists/professionals later. If all these factors were present, clearly, everyone would get top grades, or at least, professors would have to think more about giving fair exams, instead of scribbling down a couple of difficult exercises from a textbook like they currently do.

    Perhaps the most worrying fact to me is however the following: to this day, I struggle to even finish job applications, and not because my profile is sub-par (a lot of friends who work tell me otherwise), but because physics has really sunk my self-esteem beneath the floor. This experience made me feel always worthless, always treated without respect, always cheated on. To be absolutely honest, this has not been the case in 5 courses (complex analysis, physics 1, physics 3, thermodynamics, general mechanics). Some were ok, one (physics 3) was a GREAT course. I loved it and rocked the exam. The professor of that course was from Oxford though (where they notoriously put a lot of effort into teaching), so he probably thought he had to give back the favor. Also, a lot of assistants told us that he really enjoyed teaching, and one could see it. One could see that he would explain ideas and some important calculations on the board, and refer to the script when he would lose too much time in details otherwise. That course was top-notch and made me realize just how bad or uninterested in teaching everyone else was. Regarding this, you can actually read sometimes the interviews students give to professors at our university. They all say the following: "One is very busy as a professor [I believe that], so one should find a good balance between spending time on conferences, symposia, research and teaching." To me, this always sound like "we're busy doing too much stuff, so the quality can't be high everywhere". And where would one diminish quality first? Certainly not research. My father studied physics in the USSR back in the days, and he always mentions how strongly he disapproves the fact that the figure of "researcher" and "professor" have been merged together. He, back in the days, had people who focused only on delivering concepts and were not allowed to do serious research, and researchers who would only read 4th or 5th year courses. The result of this has been that although my father hasn't done physics in 30 years, he still remembers electromagnetism VERY well to the point that he sometimes corrected me. Analysis is ok too for him, but there we are on par I'd say. Should we be, though, really? Makes me question the current system.

    Regarding leaving: I can't. At this point, I feel that I've invested too much to change again. Changing twice paths wouldn't land me a job for sure, at least not a traditional one. I would have to reinvent myself, become an entrepreneur, which is something I'd like to do but not this young.
    Last edited: Jan 4, 2016
  9. Jan 4, 2016 #8
    Best method is to self-study. I had mathematical courses that totally ignored proofs or intuition. I have taken it upon to understand every proof and idea presented or try to. What is too much information? I am happy when professors supplement the classroom with material not in the textbook or requires a 2nd course. For instance, my linear algebra class was taught from Anton. However, my teacher always added things to the lecture that we will see in future studies. Isomorphism and Jordan Canonical Forms to name a few.

    Sure the class was harder, but it made going to lecture fun! As yourself this. Are you unhappy because the material is not being spoon-fed to you? Or is it really hard. Do other students not get the material?
  10. Jan 4, 2016 #9
    I'd say reading a book is easier than going to class. A lot of people share this impression. I don't want spoon-feeding, but when reading a book is more time-efficient, something is wrong in my opinion. A few courses were good, as I mentioned, but take for example QM: a lot of students don't get the material either. You either invest A LOT of time into it and read into differential geometry, functional analysis, without knowing precisely at what point the idea you're looking for is presented, or you just skip the pages where it gets difficult. Most use the second approach, which is something one shouldn't have to do. By the same token, because different departments have access to practically all courses, they like to put in tough questions maybe from a year after, just to 'see how you'd do'. Since the exams are taken by 4th or 5th year mathematicians or physicists too sometimes, we can't really compete, which means they get the few 5s and 6s of the curve while we have to be content with 4s or 5s (4 being the minimum to pass).

    Then again, there are some easy bits. But all just feels poorly connected.

    Then again, I am aware I could be complaining a little, or that I could be seeing everything worse than it is. But after two years of such an approach, I feel my complaint is justified. I'm not really the person to cry straight away when things get a little uncomfortable or dirty. When they are always dirty, though... that's poor leadership/lack of interest in my view.

    Regarding hard classes: we also did Jordan normal form and isomorphisms/homomorphisms and all that little game with maps and groups in the 1st year. We also did tensor products, though nobody understood it, even after devoting time to it. That made linear algebra a little hard. The exam had a lot of proofs too. I know there is the naive idea that "a hard class could be challenging", but when you don't get to experience something easy now and again, it just feels dumb. Too much challenge can just overwhelm you and destroy you. It's something professors fake to not understand of course, because in physics there is the mantra that "more work is better", "you have to give your best", "don't live but study physics" (at least here), and for what? You tell me.
    Last edited: Jan 4, 2016
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