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How difficult was your path towards becoming a Mathematican or Physicists?

  1. Jul 31, 2010 #1
    I know that every once in a while, people get upset over just about anything. For us Math and Physics majors, this may be even more serious since our goals (and I know I am being biased here) are greater than other professions say, medical students, even if our stress level are relatively comparable. How many times did you break down feeling that you cannot accomplish anything and you will probably never even come close to Newton or Euclid?

    How bad do you feel when you get a poor exam grade, or get a stuck on a very difficult question, or just that your life prospects are limited. Now I know many people do not have those problems occasionally because they got supporters from family and friends and all, but how do people who to college with no one they know deal with this type of stress? Like if you are ill on an exam day, you can't really depend on anyone to maybe buy you some food after the exam etc...

    I know I am getting off-topic, but I really want to hear some stories.

    EDIT: I also love to hear stories where families do not support you and such.
    Last edited: Jul 31, 2010
  2. jcsd
  3. Jul 31, 2010 #2
    Very good question. I'd like to know about this too since I'm gonna be starting college myself (away from my home country) in a couple of weeks. Some anecdotes/advice would be really great.
  4. Jul 31, 2010 #3
    Well, when you are trying to understand some phenomenon, there's no space in your brain for ego. You learn to look at the problem objectively, and fairly, and try to evaluate it...

    Eventually I found that this state of mind can be applied to a lot of other things. Even, say, one's place in the world. If you think about it...the natural "skill" of all people creates a distribution, a talent distribution. You are somewhere on that distribution. That's it. There's no need to link your spot on that distribution to your worth.

    Nowadays I get upset if I don't understand something. I don't get upset if I have a bad grade. There is a difference. One mourns something personal, the other mourns a spot on a distribution.

    As far as a support network in college, that's what friends are for ;-) get some, they're more valuable than half the textbooks.
    Last edited: Aug 1, 2010
  5. Aug 1, 2010 #4
    Ive had a tough road. Mainly my fault though. I pretty much cruised through Calc I and II with no problems whatsoever, it was real easy for me (actually all math was). I had a bit of a hiccupp in Calc III but was back to cruisin to A's for lower division Lin Alg/Diff Eq. I guess I needed a wake up call, because when I hit upper div math I was completely lost, but I approached it with the same arrogance that I did my first two years of college math. Hardly took notes, certainly didn't study daily or even weekly. Paid for it after my first quarter.

    Now you'd figure I woulda learned my lesson after the first time, but I didn't and I messed up again my second quarter and I still didn't learn after that one and put my academic career at my school in jeopardy. Now I'm playing catch up.

    Granted I had some serious health and family issues going on during the entire school year last year, and I was having a hard time concentrating and feeling motivated to work hard, but I also think that I milked my health issues and personal issues as much as I could and should have been able to pull myself together sooner.

    In any case, this is the second time I'm in school for the sciences. First time I was just not mature enough to be in college on my own, got thrown out then I didn't bother to come back for 3 years and when I did come back I majored in a social science just to graduate quickly. After I was done, I went off to work for a few years and realized that I threw away my chance before and wanted to go back and finish what I began so long ago. So after ALMOST messing it all up a SECOND TIME, Im not making anymore excuses and I'm not gonna rely on my natural talent alone. Ive finally realized that to do well in math and physics, even if talent, require a **** load of work.

    Thankfully, my wife is awesome and has been supporting me these past 3 years. Hopefully after I'm done with my second bachelors, I can go on to grad school. Tough road, but made much much tougher by my immaturity and arrogance. I advise anyone one who faltering in their studies to step back and stop blaming the professors, the textbook or your classmates and focus on doing things differently than whatever it is you are doing now.
  6. Aug 1, 2010 #5
    This is a great topic and sort of captures the idea of this forum, in my opinion.

    For me, things have been very out of the ordinary. I won't go into it because it's a long story but the jist of it is that I never expected to go to college at all let alone study Mathematics.

    I've ran into some hard times in some classes, but I try to always enjoy what I'm learning and doing. I "practice" math every day for a few hours. I say practice somewhat in jest because for me doing math is something that I enjoy and need to be a part of my day. It really helps me to keep focused and keep a certain light-headedness during a semester.

    Also, because you brought up the topic of medical students -- my girlfriend is a pre-med student just starting her senior year... She is way more uptight about everything than I am. She has 3.9 GPA and her course load per semester is always way heavier than mine. I may take two courses a semester that require a lot of attention while she generally takes three to four, and of course she has labs, which I don't.

    I'm privileged to be able to study a subject that I absolutely love, all the time and from early on in my academic career. For my girlfriend, her undergrad studies are simply a vehicle to get her somewhere else -- she's studying these biological sciences not because she loves them, but because she has to to get to studying the thing that intrigues her most: medicine.
  7. Aug 1, 2010 #6


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    I haven't yet finished my path, it's some sort of a never ending story which has an ending.
  8. Aug 1, 2010 #7
    I have never thought about it like this. I would never compare myself to anyone like that - and anyone that does is doomed to failure. Everyone thinks differently.

    I had one bad exam grade when I was at undergraduate - and I wasn't happy about it. I sat back, did my best to figure the reasons why and promised to myself that I would sort it for the next course. Sometimes it happens, it happens to the best of students - difficult courses can even catch the lecturers off-guard - we are people.

    I lived away from my family for my undergraduate, and I never really spoke much with them about my PhD. I supported myself financially throughout, working 20-25 hours per week during undergraduate. It was difficult, but meant that moving on to a PhD type work load actually felt like a blessing. Sure, I was probably more busy - but it was doing things I actually enjoy.

    My family were always available to talk to if I had a difficult time or something, but I preferred not to involve them too much with my studies. It's difficult to convey to someone that hasn't been to university before just what it's like.

    Also, re: your remark about medical students - it's never a good idea to compare your course to anyone elses. Often it's a real 'grass-is-greener' scenario - and the only result is that you'll get more stressed :smile:
  9. Aug 1, 2010 #8

    This is about how I feel as well. Understanding is the most important thing for me. If you can understand it the test scores should reflect that. Homework I get mad at, feel incredibly stupid, want to give up, etc. I never feel that way with a test score...unless it's something really stupid that I realize the moment I step out of the door. :rofl:

    As for being the next Newton or Euclid. I gave that up a long time ago. What did it for me was reading all of the incredible things some people did in their teens and I never even thought about that stuff when I was a kid.
    Last edited: Aug 1, 2010
  10. Aug 1, 2010 #9
    The population of the world is far greater now than in the days of Newton and education is available to just about everyone. Chances are, we have many scientists and mathematicians far greater than the "old giants", they're just hard to recognize because of the ever increasing expectations of society.

    There was a time when a high school diploma was considered respectable. There was also a time when a bachelors degree was considered respectable. Today, only a graduate degree is considered respectable.
  11. Aug 1, 2010 #10
    I apologize for being rude in advance, but if you were able to cruise that many As without so much work, I don't think you can complain because you were "slacking off". I am speaking for people who truly tried their bests, but there are just so many obstacles in his or her way that prevents him or her from reaching their goal. But I thank you for your story.

    But when you ask for letters of rec, applyin to grad school, getting a position, etc, no one cares. We are papers to them. One of my teachers told me when I was in high school, learning is pointless in modern education, instead learn how to score well on exams, welcome to the real world.

    No the comparison was to show that even though we put with the same amount of effort, it seems like medical students have more opportunities in the real world. As in just $$$. Academia fields like Physics and Mathematics have a more hopeless future because not all of us are Euler and Maxwell here, and I feel like the only gain from pursuing this field is just to become as great as them, if not just even getting to graduate school.

    For the family part, I wanted to hear more stories where the student has no family support, basically schooling and feeding himself at the same time while family discourages him or her from pursuing this field. I feel like this is stressed especially hard on Asian families, either go to medical school, finance, or engineering. Otherwise, don't even use the family's surname anymore.

    I know, ability will never keep up with demand.
  12. Aug 1, 2010 #11


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    This advice is best ignored and forgotten.

    Scoring well on exams is what helps you look good for applications, but it ends there. What you learn is the most important part of your education. Once you get into the real world, no one cares what your GPA was or how well you scored on any individual exam.
  13. Aug 1, 2010 #12

    Real world as in university world, real world as in learning is pointless unless you can reflect it well on the exams.
  14. Aug 1, 2010 #13


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    The point is that life doesn't end once you get in to grad school - even if it's a big name, prestigious top 10, ivy league school with a nobel prize winning supervisor. Once you finish, you have to apply what you've learned in order to accomplish anything, whether it be in academia or business or even in your basement.

    In general, understanding and marks go hand-in-hand, so there's no real issue. If you really understand a subject - yes there may be times when you don't score as well as you might like on exams, but you just have to move on from this.

    The habit of learning what you need to know for the exam and then dispencing with it is best left inside the walls of your high school.
  15. Aug 1, 2010 #14


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    You're comparing apples with oranges here. Medicine is a long-established profession. Mathematics and physics are academic disciplines. And there are all sorts of examples of physicists who've parlayed their PhD or other work into private industrial ventures that have earned them far more than any physician can earn.
  16. Aug 1, 2010 #15


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    Years back, I was an amateur astronomer interested in exploring galactic gravitational interactions. Not long after, I was a published author on that subject. Today, I have no lack of related subject matter, and all kinds of material and feedback that is related to the original paper. Don't give up!!
  17. Aug 6, 2010 #16
    I have to disagree with you here. You teacher was probably an idiot, or bitter (perhaps both). First of all, if you learn (really learn and practice what you lean), you will do well on the exams. Just learning to do well on exams is effective only so far (certainly not with higher level math and physics as the material is very deep and ecclectic) and offers you no help when it is time to do research and your own work.
  18. Aug 7, 2010 #17
    "Just learning to do well on exams is effective only so far"

    You are not offering the remotest argument against what gretun has written there. I don't think (s)he states that learning is itself not needed at any stage, just that learning well in many university settings is good for your future only if it shows up in the exam results.

    Depending on one's background, the school may not be so exam-centric, but in an exam-centric school, gretun's words do hold true.

    Now *just* doing well on exams is not enough, either, I agree with that too.
  19. Aug 7, 2010 #18
    Well, academia is academia - I don't think the fields of physics and mathematics are exactly at fault. I'm sure someone with the skills in physics and mathematics, if inclined, can learn to do well at another lucrative career. Medical students spend years and years in school, then take on residency, where they get paid very little, and finally get paid quite well once they get their final positions, hopefully. Even then, doctors can run into trouble.

    Admittedly academia is a very hard path even *after* one gets one's first few postdocs, since getting a tenure position is hard.
  20. Aug 8, 2010 #19
    My brain is pretty slow today, but I think that you don't really have a point. Mine was, of course, that learning only enough to do well on exams is not effective after a certain point. This was in response to gretun's high school teacher telling him to just do well on exams because that is all anyone cares about in the real world. I don't have much of an argument, but I believe it holds water. I am not sure how a school's regard for the importance of exams is dependent upon one's background, but I think I follow you.... Of course doing well on exams at an "exam-centric" school is will make you successful, on paper and for only a little while. But this is not enough to be successful. The whole point of my post was that at a certain stage of learning math (in my experience), one cannot simply rely on exam grades. Learning, in itself, is beneficial in math because the more knowledge one has the better. One cannot prepare only for an exam once at a certain level. It is important to truly understand the material in upper level math courses. But, after all, you wrote that you agree that just doing well on exams is not enough, which was my whole point. So I am still unsure of what your reason is for replying to my comment.
  21. Aug 8, 2010 #20
    I was making what I would call an obvious (and far from insightful) remark, which is nonetheless important and filled with truth. It was that your remark was not responding to gretun's high school teacher truly, I think. I think the high school teacher was addressing what matters truly while you're in the university - that was the 'real world' being discussed.

    To get into grad school, or to get employment, especially in math and physics, typically a good GPA is very crucial, and correlates with almost all that matters. After all, even letters of recommendation may need to come from people you take classes with, more than in the most lab/project-based fields (if we're talking about theory here at least).

    Basically, I was clarifying what was meant by "real world" and under that (albeit confusing) definition, I think the high school teacher's words had a lot of truth to them. I think focusing on emphasizing "learning" over things like exams sends the wrong message to the college student, because you're judged on what you present.

    Now if one can present what one "learns" in top quality publications, sure that works out. But I've seen that someone who gets straight A's and A+'s at a top institution of learning, has good (but no stellar) relations with faculty, aces standardized testing, gets favored over a vast majority of applicants. It's only those with truly exceptionally developed research interests while in college who can compete with those applications with less focus on test scores and things like that....specifically for theoretical fields. I wanted to distinguish this from other fields, where one can show one's enthusiasm for "learning" much more outside of exams and classes, and package it in top quality labwork and research and publication. These seem to be efforts harder to package into something that can actually be seen by schools in the more theoretical fields.

    I realize this is a strangely spun post, but hopefully it makes sense, and if not, just take from it what you will.
    Last edited: Aug 8, 2010
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