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Hovering just above rock bottom. Academic Failure requesting help.

  1. Dec 27, 2012 #1
    This was the sub-forum where I thought I may be able to find any help in, so I really hope I didn't go wrong there. So, dear readers, I come to you because I have ran out of options to get me out of the mess I find myself to be in right now. If you could lend me your honest thoughts and advice through keystrokes, I would be indebted beyond words.
    I'm a student, of 21 years old, attending a US University, double majoring in physics and astronomy. In high school (which was about 4 years ago), I was decently good in math and physics, and liked doing and reading about physics a whole lot, so I thought, "Why not in college?"
    My first couple of semesters in college was not in physics, but due to familial pressure, spent in engineering. And herein, we get into the crux of this story. I can't say if I was overwhelmed because of the immense size of such a huge campus and the novelty of it, but my academic capabilities dwindled to 0. From getting >100% GPA (AP credits) just less than a year ago in high school, I started to get C's and D's. I repeated some courses the next semester, and chalked up my failure the past semester to freshmen luck. But my second semester, I failed the same class yet again. I finally decided that I wasn't doing so well because I wasn't really content with engineering and the chemistry classes I had to take (and retake). So, I finally declare my major in physics and astronomy, and decide that I would start taking my classes more seriously. But when do I learn? I barely manage to pass my physics courses (despite successfully tutoring some non-majors), and failed my elementary math courses like single-variable calculus.
    Now, I am in my junior year, and I can't seem to leave these troubles behind me, no matter what I do. Your now idiot OP has managed to fail and retake all his math classes, from single-variate and multi-variate calculuses to linear algebra and differential equations. And multi-variate, I didn't do so hotly in the second time either. And this past semester, I have failed my first physics course (Waves/Pre-quantum mechanics). My undergraduate advisor appears patient, but I suspect she has lost hope in me as well. My current GPA is 1.7/4.0. I know, spare me...Actually, don't. At the end of every semester, after seeing my grades, I tell myself that I would do better the next. But this has never come to pass.
    I am soon going to receive a letter telling me that I am under academic probation, and that I have a semester to bring it back to 2.0 or I would face suspension from college. Ok, let's assume, I somehow rearrange the neurons in my brain to make myself more motivated, and actually bring my GPA back up to above 2.0. Let's assume, that I would somehow start doing better in all my classes, now that I've received a proper kick to my shins. I know these are very big assumptions to make, but I don't have any other choice. And final assumption, let's assume that I have turned my life around and I am a dapper, ambitious student again, and get A's and B's for the rest of my undergraduate career. Since I have lost all hopes now of applying to graduate school, what other options do I have in the area of physics that won't leave me a total failure in life? I currently get paid working at a particle physics lab in my campus, but that was only because the research head was kind enough to not look at my transcript.
    And furthermore, I would also appreciate it if someone could give me tips, on how not to go on screwing my life again. Before anyone suggests that physics is not for me, I would be quick to remind them that I have been doing bad not just in physics, but my core humanities classes as well. Not an excuse by any means, but I just thought I should mention that it's not just physics and math that I have been failing at, and it wouldn't do me any good to switch majors.
    So, now approaching my last year, I am at the end of my rope, and don't know where to turn to. If you've read at least part of this, and have some thoughts on my remaining options, it'd be great if you could help me out. So, thank you to those who read this, and especially to those who think they have something that could help me with.
  2. jcsd
  3. Dec 27, 2012 #2


    Staff: Mentor

    But why are you doing bad? is it because you dont know how to study? or are you being easily distracted?

    Unitl you find out why then you will continue to have trouble so find out why.

    You may have to drop out, get a job, get a routine, take some courses at a Community College to strengthen your weaknesses and then try to get back in. There is no shame in this, college is hard and gets harder as you progress. Each year of college is roughly 3 to 4 years of HS courses.
  4. Dec 27, 2012 #3
    See if your university lets you do something called an academic salvage.

    At my school, that amounts to going back to a community college to get an AS with a decent gpa and then resetting your uni gpa accordingly when you get back accordingly; I wish I'd done that when I hit rock bottom (not a 1.7 but close enough). Even cc won't help if you don't know how to study or prepare for classes though, and the cc might be deceptively easier (or your uni may just have hard math classes). It's possible to turn this around IMO; I failed calculus the first time and got c's in diffy q's and multi but I'm getting a's in QM, EM, plasma, and electronics (ee + physics double).

    Really check into the academic salvage thing, it's meant to fix bad gpa's in situations like this; and check out cal newport's blog and book for study tips:


    Last edited by a moderator: May 6, 2017
  5. Dec 27, 2012 #4


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    I don't know what options you may have. I would normally try to suggest MAYBE a master program that would allow you to get in (there has to be one), but I fear that unless you manage to improve your ability to receive good grades this may be futile.

    I can relate to your experience. I was thrown out of college the first time after failing every course epically. I came back years later and did better after living in the real world. Despite popular belief, you CAN live reasonably well without a college degree, you won't really get ahead in life but you'll get by. Anyway, I'm not suggesting to drop out or anything, just, I know the light at the end of the tunnel seems non-existence, but it's there somewhere.

    For hard truth, at this point in time, I don't think there is a place for you in physics. I can't offer any advice except maybe time away from school to spend time actually maturing may be good for you. It was good for me.
  6. Dec 27, 2012 #5
    As jedishrfu correctly pointed out, you need to find out where you went wrong. Ask yourself a lot of questions. Here are some sample questions which you should think about

    • How many hours do you study each day?
    • Do you get easily distracted?
    • Do you find the material boring?
    • Is there too much math in your studies? Do you feel like physics is not what you expected?
    • How much time of your studies is spent on exercises?
    • When you study a chapter, what exactly do you do? Can you give us an overview of the things you do?
    • Have you tried studying in groups?
    • How many times do you go to office hours or ask help on internet or forums?
    • Are you very nervous before a test? Do you have black outs?
    • Do you have difficulties to prioritize?
    • What do you do in your free time? Do you even have free time?
    • What are exactly the courses you took? Did you take too many courses?

    Another thing that can happen is that you are just too young for university. This happens quite a lot. I've heard mathwonk mentioning a lot of times that he failed university at first because he was too immature. He is now a professor in mathematics!!
    If this is the case, then you should find a job. Try making money by working. After a while, you will grow up and you will see more clearly what it is you want. Maybe you will take your studies more seriously (if you didn't take them seriously now) or maybe you find out that you want to study something different or not study at all!!
  7. Dec 27, 2012 #6
    I'm not sure what a lone BS in physics will get you, besides possibly a track to teaching in public school. If grad school is off the table there is no real reason to get a physics BS, is there?
  8. Dec 27, 2012 #7

    Vanadium 50

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    I think you're solving the wrong problem. Your problem is not "how do I convince a graduate school to let me in 3 years from now", and it's not even "how do I ensure that I am prepared for graduate school 3 years from now" although those are both good questions. It's not even "what do I do once I get my degree and end up not going to graduate school".

    The problem you have to solve is "why am I going to college and not learning anything?" Until you solve that problem, the other three are irrelevant.
  9. Dec 27, 2012 #8
    It sounds to me that Encarta has an undiagnosed learning disability. Certainly from the quality of his/her writing (good), s/he is obviously intelligent and self-reflective enough to fit in with any of our science groups. Most US universities (especially large ones such as Encarta describes) provide enormous resources for people with disabilities (including learning disabilities). Encarta needs to pony up some money and get to a psychologist who specializes in such issues. This psychologist will have paid special companies for the right to give Encarta trusted exams to measure the "way Encarta's mind works". With this *professional* diagnosis, Encarta is then entitled to get the resources s/he needs from the university.

    Unfortunately, this won't wipe out the past, so it may be worth starting over at another school. So after getting the diagnosis, I would consider finding a university with good resources (simply call each prospective school's disability services center and chat with them). But also look at schools that are also near to a good community college. Community colleges tend to be more hands on with their students, so Encarta could knock out the humanities reqs for the new university at the community college while getting used to dealing with his/her condition (i.e. gearing up for the harder science courses).

    I have an extremely bright cousin who has done amazingly well in life despite not making it through college due to an undiagnosed reading disability. Disabilities of the mind are often a source of shame, but if approached in an open scientific manner/attitude, can be overcome. In any event, please seek help right away, and not just your college advisor who is not trained (unfortunately) to identify/tackle such a problem.
  10. Dec 27, 2012 #9


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    I'm not sure how you arrived at this conclusion. It's a possibility of course, but there are a lot of other reasons that would better explain why someone would go from getting extremely high marks in high school to barely keeping one's head above water.

    As others have pointed out, it's difficult to suggest a course of action without really knowing the reasons behind why the OP isn't doing so well.

    I might point out the academic bottleneck effect that many students feel somewhere in their first or second year. Many people who breezed through high school without studying much find themselves suddenly struggling when:
    (a) they are surrounded by other people who did equally well in high school,
    (b) they never bothered developing strong studying and time-management skills,
    (c) they have unprecedented freedoms and temptations, and
    (d) they are taking courses that really challenge them on an intellectual level that require more than common sense problem solving and regurgitation.

    That doesn't offer much of a solution, but it often helps people identify the specifics of the problems they're having.
  11. Dec 27, 2012 #10
    Valid point. Retraction: replace "sounds to me" with "may be".

    That being said, at 21 this person is in real trouble. S/he claims to be "at the end of my rope", which unless being exaggeration means that they need help, more than what an academic advisor can give (I never went to mine as they were useless), and though it is a bit ambiguous, it does sound like they have tried a lot to improve but to no avail. I am suggesting at this point that there may be more going on than just "not yet learning how to study".

    I personally cannot learn through "hearing", and have done much, much better in school since I learned to replace attending classes with reading and practicing on my own. (Since I have learned this about myself, I nearly always get high scores: physics PhD program.) I know that I must have some sort of learning disability to be so different from the norm, and wish I had understood it earlier (i.e., undergrad).

    I have had a few experiences teaching learning disabled students at the university who seemed completely unable to learn the material, but get them alone and quiz them orally and they are quite competent. I don't know much about the neuro fields, but the whole thing is fascinating to me, and I am certainly willing to admit that some students need different kinds of help, and that I don't really understand how to give it to them. So I vote for an immediate trip to the specialist to either rule out psych problems, or else to locate and deal with them.
  12. Dec 27, 2012 #11
    I was in your situation 35 years ago. It's not a lot of fun. Feeling like a failure doesn't suck as bad as actually being one. You can salvage this. Therefore I am going to say to you what I wish someone had said to me (and that I had listened) then:
    You said: "Ok, let's assume, I somehow rearrange the neurons in my brain to make myself more motivated"
    If you are not motivated to succeed, you won't. If you ARE motivated to succeed, you will succeed if your goals are within reach of your abilities (i.e. IQ of 110? You won't make it in particle physics no matter how hard you try.)
    You have to choose what you want to do.
    Question - Do you want to be successful in college?
    If you do, get up every day and realize that getting an education (past the mandatory HS attendance) is a job. How hard you work at this job determines what your reward is when the job is finished and you receive the degree you wish to attain. Work real hard and you can get an advanced degree in physics. If you don't want to work hard, well then there is always that highly sought after General Studies bachelor's that qualifies you to apply at McDonalds.
    Every day you have to get up and be convinced that you want to succeed-then you will do what it takes to get it done. You may have to change habits or routines or friends. Who you associate with can have a big impact on how you judge what's important. Loser friends will not help you get out of this mindset.
    Every day there are people that wake up and wish they could go back to age 21 and fix what they did wrong. Don't be one of those. You can go back to school after 30 years and be a success - I did it. I sure wish I had applied myself to the job when I was 20 instead.
    Determine what you want out of your college career. Treat it as a problem to be solved, define it, research it and then craft a solution. You can do this. You just have to want to.
    There are some pretty smart folks here (that's why I keep coming back-hoping some smart will rub off on me) and it is apparent that there are several who are willing to discuss a path out of this dilemma. Avail yourself of the resource and take the steps that will get you back on track.
  13. Dec 27, 2012 #12
    I was occupied for the larger part of the last 24 hours, so I apologize for not being able to respond to your comments, all helpful and insightful, any sooner. That said, let me reply to as much of these responses as I can. Thank you all for responding on this post; I certainly did not expect 10 comments to my post, an achievement by the standards on this forum.
    In the last 24 hours, I have come to learn a greater deal about situations that are similar to mine. In the lab I work at, I happened to speak to two coworkers who recently graduated as undergrads. Both productive members in the lab, they had low GPAs as well early in their undergrad career. One of these escaped narrowly from academic probation, increasing from a GPA of 1.7 to above 2.0 in a semester. So, at least, now I know that it can be done. The other has repeatedly received F's and D's, and has retaken more math classes than I have. What are these two doing now? It's been less than a year since they've both graduated, and both seem to be of the opinion that if they build up their research experience, they can both get into graduate school for physics in less than a year.
    So, after hearing these folks' stories, I feel less under the sword, which may or may not be a good thing. But, nevertheless, the general consensus among similar once-hopeless-and-troubled students is that if I put the effort in, I can get my GPA to above a 2.0 and eventually even higher up. The skeptic in me wonders whether this has not been the same resolution I've held after seeing a D every semester. Yes, but I am going to have to look into better techniques for studying as well.
  14. Dec 27, 2012 #13
    I don't suppose it's because I don't know how to study, since I was a good student in high school (having put the entire effort in), and scored towards ~100% in all my classes senior year.
    Thanks for the kind words and for assuring me that there is no shame in dropping out of college, but with a family that is focusing all their free time inquiring about my collegiate progress and graduation dates, I don't think I will be able to get away with "I had to drop out of college for a while; it was hard". I am also heavily involved with the undegraduate physics clubs in my department, and dropping out would strike my friends and colleagues as suspicious, since I have led others to believe that I am doing spectacular academically.
    It seems like a shallow reason to not do something potentially useful as dropping out, but until it becomes absolutely necessary, I don't think I will want to think about that option. I expected this to be the first advice someone would give me on this forum. But really, thanks, jedishrfu for the advice. I will be putting that in the back of my mind, but still considering it.
  15. Dec 27, 2012 #14
    I haven't heard of anything like academic salvage at my campus except with freshmen, and that was called freshmen forgiveness and doesn't apply to me. But I will be inquiring about this to my advisor at the next meeting.

    Thanks for the links, I am usually skeptical of books that claim to help in these situations, and I am not sure how helpful this one will be, but since I have nowhere else to go, I will be looking into this. Thank you.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 6, 2017
  16. Dec 27, 2012 #15
    Thanks for being honest. I don't want to consider dropping out yet, until I've explored all the options I have left. And to be honest, it seems like I have received enough of a kick in the rear to start working hard now, and until I've gotten knee-deep into the next semester, I can't say whether this kick has been effective or not. Regardless, I hope to begin reading up on next semester's physics material over this winter break (Griffith's "QM" and Boas' Math methods).
  17. Dec 27, 2012 #16
    Well, I only considered grad school off the table, because I thought that I was a hopeless case. But certain developments in recent hours have led me to believe that I am slightly farther from rock bottom than I've initially believed to be.
    For instance, I've been told that there may be a higher chance of getting into grad school if I take a year after graduation to gain some more research experience.
  18. Dec 27, 2012 #17
    Thanks for the uh, diagnosis, javanut, and I would give more credence to your advice if not for the fact that I was doing excellent in high school, which would not be the case if I had a learning disability. I was able to put the effort in then, and came out to in the top 2% of the graduating class. Unless, the case is that I've developed a disability once I became an undergraduate, I don't know how this could hold true. But I shall certainly work towards finding the root of the actual problem, which is more likelier, due to not studying effectively enough. Thanks for your help!
  19. Dec 27, 2012 #18
    I do like your idea of going to a specialist, to rule out problems. I don't know how helpful that will be, but I'd like the peace of mind. Thanks!
  20. Dec 27, 2012 #19


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    Gaining more research experience is not a fix for your problem. Getting bad academic results currently is your problem needing to be fixed. One might believe that you are taking too many hard courses each semester and have not yet fully understood some prerequisite topics for the university course which you get the C's and D's. Some members might be interested to know what course you have had in each university semester, or at least the first or second semester. We may like to judge if you are overloaded.
  21. Dec 27, 2012 #20
    I wasn't suggesting the gaining-research route as a standalone solution to my current predicament. Rather, I was suggesting that once I've fixed my grades to getting A's and B's, graduate schools might overlook the fact that I did poorly in my early undergraduate years, if I have some decent undergraduate research experience. They probably won't overlook my early grades completely, but I thought having some undergraduate research would be less of a deterring factor than my other talents.
    About my course load, the first semester in college I took, 1) Freshman English 2) Chemistry for Engineers 3) Calc 1, and 4)Some non-major physics course (that I took because my advisor was kind of lackadaisical w.r.t my interests in physics. I didn't know what course to take, so I took the first one I had the prereqs for).
    A courseload from a more recent semester, like the last one had me taking 17 credits, after which I learned never to do that again. I took 1) Calc II, 2) Calc III (Multivariate), 3) Electricity and Magnetism, 4) Mechanics and Heat Lab, and 5) Astrophysics 1.
    In later semesters, I've tried to take just 1 math course per semester, with a core humanities so that I could maintain what perspective I had left.
    Last semester (Fall), my courseload was thus:
    1) Diff Eqs, 2) Waves, 3) Observational Astronomy, 4) E&M lab, and 5) Biological Anthropology lab (core requirement).
    If not for the fact that I was taking 3 lab classes, and often had 3 lab reports to hand in during some weeks, last semester would've went along a bit nicer.

    Thanks for the help!
  22. Dec 28, 2012 #21


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    Assuming you've taken 3/8 of the credits you will take in college (perhaps a fair statement, since you are 3 semesters in and it takes most people 8 to graduate, you've also taken decent course loads thus far and plan to take lighter ones) and you receive all As (4.0) from here out, your GPA will be roughly a 3.1*. You must realize this is very low to get in a decent graduate program. That's with getting a perfect score from here out.

    If you receive an average score of a more modest 3.7 (roughly an A minus at a lot of schools) and all other considerations apply, you will receive a final GPA of 2.95. This is below the mandatory cutoff for most graduate programs. You WILL find it difficult to get in somewhere if your GPA is less than three.

    It is therefore IMPERATIVE that you do whatever you can to essentially "win out" the rest of college. You must play for keeps now.

    Research may or may not help this situation, so far as graduate programs are concerned. (it has been my personal observation that those with low GPAs are not helped by research so much as those without research are helped with high GPAs).

    *Assuming also that none of your old grades will be struck from the record for some reason or replaced by newer, better ones.
  23. Dec 28, 2012 #22
    If I were you, I would spend a minimum of 6 hours a day, including on weekends and holidays, just on work. Time yourself and allow no play or time off until the day's 6 hours have been completed. 3 hours for catching up on the work from previous years that you perhaps didn't do which caused your poor performance. The other 3 hours for material that you're currently doing. This should be enough to fill up the gaps in your knowledge from the past few semesters within the next semester, while maintaining a good grip on your current courses.

    And if you find that the strong work schedule "bores" you, then perhaps it is because you do not have a natural interest in the subject, or perhaps that there are things causing you to be very distracted and/or demotivated. Getting rid of those distractions would be the concern if that were the case, and I would spend a minimum of 20 minutes daily to resolving such problems, until the problem is solved.

  24. Dec 28, 2012 #23
    You'll forgive me if I am not incredibly sympathetic to your case, but it seems after reading this whole thread that you know what the problem is. You say, "I was in the top 2% when I put in the effort."

    Trust me, you aren't the only person to struggle in college, the current system is not great at preparing students for the rigors of college and the responsibility of SELF MOTIVATION.

    As a caveat, I also under performed in undergrad but later corrected my study habits and graduated first in my class from medical school...

    Couple thoughts:

    1) Perhaps you should consider a different major? If you aren't intellectually excited enough by the material this could be contributing to your lack of motivation.

    2) You need to grow up. Like one of the previous posters said, higher education is not like being in school, it is a job. You should be working from 8 AM until 5 or 6 PM every day and a half day on weekends. No Facebook, google chat, TV, or anything else during those hours. Not only will your grades skyrocket, but it is amazing to have evenings free to be an adult and have a life.

    3) Finally, figure out what motivates you? For me, I had gotten married and so the desire to provide for my family is what finally kicked me in the butt. Do you have a dream house? Print off a picture and hang it on your desk. A dream grad school? A dream award? Having a picture of these to look at and help you strive for greatness when you are tempted to get on Facebook instead of keep studying.

    Hope this helps, and dude, wake the freak up. You are clearly intelligent, stop messing around, and work.

    Edit: I agree with bipolarity, but didn't see that because I was typing this reply :)
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