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Feeling like giving up

  1. Mar 12, 2014 #1
    I really feel like I've hit rock bottom. I've never felt quite this way, and to be completely honest, I don't know if I can go on.

    I had an exam today that went horribly. It's in a subject that I typically score great in, and to make things worse, the professor is the person I've been working for and doing research with for the past year and a half. The class is ridiculously small, so I won't be surprised if I have the lowest score on the exam. To make matters worse, I took it in a horrible state; I was on the verge of a fever, and earlier that day, I got back an exam from another physics class. Needless to say, the grade for that exam was pretty awful as well. I did get another physics exam back on Monday, which I evidently scored perfectly on, but of course, can't feel good about yourself for too long...

    I feel like I have to study so hard to be even half as good as some people who are just innately smarter. For the exam that I got back today, I worked almost every single problem in the text in preparation, but evidently that wasn't enough. Apparently my conceptual understanding was not where it needed to be.

    This is my senior year. I'm set to graduate in the fall. I even have a really great research opportunity for the summer, and I can't help but feel like I don't actually know what I'm doing and that I don't even deserve any of it. Maybe I just sound good on paper. Either way, the stress is really killing me. The past three weeks have been back to back exams, with this one being the last. I feel like I'm in a constant state of anxiety just worrying about these exams and how I'll score on them, since unfortunately graduate schools and the educational system value grades so much. I wish I didn't care, but the fact is that grades are important, and certainly when your teacher is the person you're working for.

    I know it's just an exam at the end of the day, and that life goes on, but I can't shake this feeling. It's one thing when the whole class does poorly, but this wasn't a particularly difficult exam, and I just totally and completely blew it.

    I don't know what I'm looking for in typing this here. I just feel pretty miserable, and I needed to get this off my chest.
  2. jcsd
  3. Mar 12, 2014 #2


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    Wow, I feel so bad for you :frown:.

    I sense two things in your post.

    One, you're under incredible stress. You didn't mention how you deal with stress - exercise? Hobbies? Meditation? Volunteer work? You need a plan for how to handle stress!

    Two, I sense a bit of impostor syndrome - seriously, I want you to read this:

    https://counseling.caltech.edu/general/InfoandResources/Impostor [Broken]

    Does any of that sound familiar?

    You did well on an earlier exam (the one you got back Monday), and you're going to do research this summer. As you say, you "look good on paper". That means more than you think - those accomplishments didn't come out of thin air!

    Having three weeks of back-to-back exams is a rough road. OK, so you bombed a couple. It's a rare person who never does this, believe me.

    You're definitely in a rough patch. It won't stay rough, I guarantee it!
    Last edited by a moderator: May 6, 2017
  4. Mar 12, 2014 #3
    Thank you for the reply. I really appreciate it.

    I have heard of Impostor Syndrome, and as a female, I do think it is especially relevant. In fact, I can identify with just about all of the points listed in the article. And without completely feeding the syndrome further, I really am starting to think that maybe I just learned how to be successful in courses without really learning the material. Maybe I just learned what to expect and how to get through with the bare minimum, without really taking away a greater understanding of the material.

    I feel unbelievably stressed out. I signed up for an exercise course twice a week for this very reason, and it helps for the most part, but a lot of the time I feel like I'm wasting time that I ought to be using to study. Anytime I do anything outside of studying I feel guilty. I don't even like to cook a proper meal because it takes too much time out of studying. :(

    I've messed up exams in the past, but I think this one is hitting me really hard because like I said, it's also the professor I'm working for. I've never done badly in his class, and in general, I don't think people do, because for the most part, it isn't a difficult class. Ugh. I can't shake this feeling to the point that it's kind of debilitating. :(
    Last edited by a moderator: May 6, 2017
  5. Mar 12, 2014 #4
    Consider pushing back your graduation for a semester and spread your courses out accordingly, you don't sound like you're in top condition to perform. I was on the cusp of a pretty bad depression by the end of my senior year and had to do this. Failed some courses. Spent most of the remainder of the year with a therapist trying to get over an overwhelming sense of failure, while still keeping my mind occupied with academics.

    I took my last course, pushed through while getting some research experience on the side and ended up getting into 3 grad schools that I really liked. So a bump like this is not really going to hamper you if that's your goal, just hang on a bit more and slow down if necessary.

    In my case my problem was rooted in something outside of academics. The good thing about insecurities and weaknesses in physics is that figuring out what you need to work on is not terribly complicated, especially as a senior. You've had the discipline to make it this far. Problems in other aspects of life are much harder to get to the root of and even begin to fix.
  6. Mar 12, 2014 #5
    You're right. This may be the thing to do. I've just been so eagerly looking forward to finishing in the fall, that way I can give myself some much needed time before I get back at it in graduate school.

    Also, because of the structure of my school and the way courses are offered, of the four classes that I'll need (by next semester) to graduate, three of them are only offered in the fall. So even if I add another semester, it will really just be to take one extra class.

    But I'm definitely going to have to keep this in mind. I really appreciate your input. It would have been one thing to have just gotten back the bad exam this morning, but failing my boss' exam feels like the absolute worst. The worst part about it is that I'm going to have to talk to him about it at some point, and truthfully, I'm going to have to try really damn hard not to burst into tears while doing so.
  7. Mar 12, 2014 #6


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    Your health is important! I know you "know" that, but I'm not sure you *know* that. I made a lot of mistakes you're making when I was in college - I felt all time away from studying was wasted time. My health, and my learning, suffered because of the choices I made. Specifically, I cut out sleep, which is a horrible, horrible idea. Oh btw, how much are you sleeping every night?

    Don't be ashamed to visit the mental health clinic at your school, or elsewhere. I did, and if you get someone good they can really help.

    And Lavabug has a good points. Life plans are important but realize the deadlines you set for yourself are arbitrary. Be flexible. You sound like you're very driven, which is great - but please remember to be kind and gentle with yourself!
  8. Mar 12, 2014 #7
    I've gotten into the habit of sleeping more -- in fact, maybe too much! But usually about 7 to 8 hours a night.

    I do think that I will seek out some professional help. Thank you, again. It really is so helpful even to be able to talk to someone about all of this. Now I'm just dreading having a similar conversation with my teacher.

    Honestly though, in some cases, I don't know what I can be doing better. For the exam that I got back today, I really did feel ready walking into it. I'd practiced so many problems that I figured I could deal with any configuration. But when the problems proved to require a greater conceptual understanding, I realized I was lacking in that respect. If working tons of problems doesn't help, what will?
  9. Mar 12, 2014 #8


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    That's not too much, it sounds about right because sleep is absolutely critical. And it's good that you're considering talking with a counselor. They really can help!

    OK, I just remembered another mistake I made :smile: - I didn't join study groups. Working with others gives you a different perspective on the material and it can really help your understanding. Now, you said the class was very small. That might mean forming a study group is difficult, but it's worth the trouble.

    Also, you said you were getting a fever when you took the exam. That's not trivial and you should mention it when you talk with your professor.
  10. Mar 13, 2014 #9
    Maybe they aren't innately smarter. Maybe they are just doing things in a more effective way. Not all of it is a matter of what brain you have. A lot of it is how you use it. That can make a huge difference. My performance in school tended upwards as time went on, when, for most people it's the opposite. All about the study skills and knowing how my own brain works (and maybe getting more and more serious about doing well).

    Also, being so stressed out and getting discouraged is an indicator that you are spinning your wheels and not performing as efficiently as you could. I know the effects of that first-hand. My ability to follow lectures, in particular, is rather drastically affected when I'm feeling really depressed. When I'm feeling my best and the lecture is good, I am a champion at listening to lectures. I'd take no notes and could more or less reproduce the whole lecture myself, just by continually summarizing the contents in my mind, over and over, while listening for more and adding it on to the summary. But when I'm feeling bad, I'm about the worst listener ever. I can hardly keep my mind from wandering for a minute. Of course, this is one reason why lectures are bad--it takes iron focus to make it through a whole 50 minute lecture. Reading is probably even worse. Problems are a little better because you get actively involved, but it can still be hard.

    I think the best state for studying is when you feel like you would do it anyway. I remember one summer I was preparing for grad school and self-studying various branches of math to see which I would like to study further. I dug into this graph theory book, just out of sheer fascination, reading and thinking about it for hours, with no exams or any pressure to keep me doing it.

    Not healthy. You have to try to find a way to get rid of that guilt. I know what it's like. With my dissertation, it was almost impossible for me to rid myself of the guilt of not working because the thought of not getting the PhD after putting 7 years into it was not a nice one. But the guilt just makes things worse. It's not your friend. That's what made the PhD a really terrible experience for me. That unbearable guilt for doing anything besides work on the dissertation. That's how you get burnt out. Guilt is not your friend. It's better to not care about doing well than it is to be plagued by guilt all the time. If it's a choice between being failing and being guilty and failing, obviously just failing without guilt is better. Guilt leads to failure, anyway.
  11. Mar 13, 2014 #10
    I concur with the above statements. I too was plagued with guilt 99% of the time as a senior and was miserable, stop that.
    IME, there is a point of diminishing returns. There's only so many variations of quantum many body angular momentum problems and dirichlet field boundary value problems you can do before it all starts looking the same and you're just expending your energy to gain nothing in return other than exhaustion (and maybe some minor improvements to your speed doing math in your head), which is a very bad idea if you're only a few days from an exam. This actually has resulted in me not reading problem statements properly since I was so into the groove of reading half the problem statement (or just looking at the diagram/picture), calculating everything I could with that info, then proceed to do what was asked (not a good idea in a timed environment!!). A little bit of surprise/excitement isn't a bad thing, that's half the fun of physics isn't it?

    Personally, when I was only a few weeks from a final, I would concentrate on not spending much time on problems that looked like ones I had already solved. I purposefully searched for problems that were 'new' ish to simulate the surprise you normally get in an actual exam, without overdoing it to avoid terrorizing myself (which I managed to do half of the time). Better to have done every variation at least once than be an expert in only 3 or 4 problem types, because the shock you get when you have to do some original thinking on an exam with a question you weren't expecting throws most people off course.
    Last edited: Mar 13, 2014
  12. Mar 13, 2014 #11
    I woke up today and I'm still feeling pretty miserable. I'm not looking forward to talking to my professor about the exam, and the worst part is, I may not be able to talk to him until after next week, since next week is Spring Break.

    Every moment that I'm awake, my thoughts all come back to it, and I just feel awful. I don't have any motivation to do anything, much less to get out of bed. It's never been this bad...
  13. Mar 13, 2014 #12
    That's the thing -- when I'm not studying for an exam, I enjoy reading up on the subject, doing the homework. But once I'm preparing for an exam, it's a flood of anxiety. I also feel like it's unbelievably difficult to balance the work load. And by that I mean, if I have an assignment due in one class, I'm likely to spend the whole week focusing my attention there, and as a result, I fall behind in the other classes and don't play catch up until the that homework assignment comes around.

    All of this kind of adds to my feeling of not really being cut out for any of it. The homework takes me much longer than anyone else, and I definitely do go to others for help, but some times I become resentful, in that if I can't figure it out on my own, then I'm not good enough.

    I'm really glad this next week is Spring Break, but I'm also worried. I've really lost a lot of motivation after everything that happened yesterday, on top of some personal issues. I don't know if I have the will-power to keep going...
  14. Mar 13, 2014 #13
    Which is not helpful. Better to be motivated by interest than by consequences. Sometimes, I kind of liked reviewing for exams because I got to go over all the cool stuff I learned again and see the big picture. Don't beat yourself up for having some anxiety. It's normal to feel some of that at times. But you have to try to realize that it's just a feeling. The fear of the exam is becoming worse than the exam. Take some time to remind yourself what is interesting about the subject and get into it. Try to enjoy it. Don't suffer.

    I know what that's like, too. Sometimes, it's okay to cut corners, if you need to turn your attention to a different class.

    How do you know it takes you much longer?

    Kind of sounds to me like you might profit from a little more reflection on the concepts and a little less drill. That's my sense.

    I know we've already mentioned exercise, but one of my big tricks is going on a long, intense run, like half an hour or more--several miles. Always feels amazing afterwards, even for the next couple days. A 15 minute run usually doesn't cut it.

    If you do give up, you'll probably have some withdrawal to go through, but would it really be all that bad? Life would go on. It doesn't seem to be making you happy right now.

    In order for you to continue, it's clear to me, that you have to work on handling your emotions more than any intellectual work. Looks like a far bigger problem to me. Again, don't beat yourself up about it that you feel this way. It's normal to feel that way sometimes. But you have to stop taking things so seriously.
  15. Mar 13, 2014 #14

    You know, I really needed to hear all this.

    As far as better study habits go, you're absolutely right. I need to take a step back from the problems and really just consider the concepts at work. I'm going to try something different from now on, and see if I'd be able to teach someone a problem after I complete it. That way I really understand it.

    You're right. If I quit, life would go on, but in the long term, I wouldn't be happy with myself for quitting. Just because things get hard doesn't mean I should walk away.

    And what you said about handling my emotions is really spot on. I am taking things way too seriously when I really need to just relax so that I can be in the right state to do any of this in the first place. I'm realizing too that I do think I may need some help working on handling my emotions.

    Thank you so much for this. It really means a lot to me, and I think I see now what I need to do in order to move forward past this.
  16. Mar 13, 2014 #15
    Maybe so. Personally, I quit math after finishing my PhD because I stopped caring about it. If it had just been hard, but I cared about it, I probably would continue. I just realized that in academia, I wouldn't be allowed to follow my own path as I see fit because of publishing expectations and teaching, plus I developed a bit of an itch to do something more practical.

    Glad I could help. Hope it does get better for you.
  17. Mar 13, 2014 #16
    You've hit a bump in the road, not the end of the road. Don't give up!
  18. Mar 13, 2014 #17
    That's understandable. I really want to pursue this field, though, so I guess I can't expect it to be easy along the way -- shoot, not that it has been so far.

    Thanks again!
  19. Mar 13, 2014 #18
    Thank you, I won't! I talked with my professor today, and although he hasn't graded the exams yet, I made it pretty clear that it wouldn't be good. He reassured me that it happens and that I shouldn't worry too much, but I still can't help but dread getting it back. Anyway, feeling a bit better, but looks like I have a lot of work to do in many respects...
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