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

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  • #26
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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?
For me, it's easy. I just give up hope of coming close to Newton or Euclid. I'm just not that smart. But what's important is what I can do, rather than what I can't. I just learned something really wacky about gamma functions, this morning, and that makes me happy.

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.
I'm an intellectual masochist. When I get a poor exam grade, get stuck on a very difficult question, or think that my life prospects are limited, that makes me feel good, because it gives me a challenge that gets me up in the morning.

When I pass all of the tests, come up with all of the answers, and everything is going fine, that makes me miserable. No more worlds to conquer.
 
  • #27
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Real world as in university world, real world as in learning is pointless unless you can reflect it well on the exams.
What about learning because you think it's fun and interesting, it makes you a better person, and you want to help the world.

One thing I don't understand is why *do* you want to be a physicist? What's your motivation? What's your passion? If you want to be another Isaac Newton or Albert Einstein, then you just have the face the reality that you probably won't be.

But why does that matter?
 
  • #28
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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.
One thing that you'll find once you get into graduate school is that the rules change, and scoring high on exams really isn't that useful for getting the Ph.D. It's often a huge shock for people that have gotten good at high exams. And then the "real world" is even less about scoring well in exams.

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.
Non-sense. If you have a decent undergraduate education, then it's not hard to get into some graduate school somewhere, at which point if you get your Ph.D., you won't find it hard to get a pretty good job that will allow you make reasonable sums of money.

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.
If you don't like physics, you aren't going to survive graduate school. One thing that you learn in graduate school is how incredibly dumb and stupid you are in the grand scheme of things and how much smarter other people are. If you love physics and what to learn new things, it won't matter.

If you want to learn something new about the universe and make yourself a better person, then physics is a really cool field. If you want to be the next Einstein, or you can't stand being number #50 and going to a *decent* school rather than a *tip-top* you have to rethink whether you want to go into the field since you are more likely than not going to burn out.

Physics is a highly stressful field. You have to learn to *enjoy* the stress, otherwise it's not going to work.
 
  • #29
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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.
I think that's non-sense. Most of the stuff that I've learned that's been useful for my career have been things that I never learned in class. The fact that I got a less than stellar GPA probably *did* keep me out of the top universities, but having looked at where my life went and where the lives of most of the people I went to school with went, I don't think that's a major loss.

College is the time when you can think about big questions like "what do I want to do with my life?" If you are only thinking about the next 2 years rather than the next sixty years of your life, I think you are setting yourself up for big problems.
 
  • #30
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But if you're a typical physics/math major who took a good number of classes for your major and are just looking to do grad school as the next step without ultra-developed maturity, I think you really need to focus on acing exams more than anything else.
The problem is that if you approach learning in this way, you are just going to totally fall apart in grad school. The first thing that you need to seriously ask yourself is why you want to go to grad school in the first place. Part of the problem is that after the first two years, no one tells you what to do and you sort of have to figure it out on your own.

I've seen it happen that people that just ace tests get into grad school, and after the first year or two, they totally fall apart. Getting your Ph.D. is probably one of the most intense and brutal intellectual experiences that you have to go through, and unless you really *love* I mean *love* your research, you are just not going to survive the process.

If you don't have ultra-developed maturity, then you just shouldn't go out for a Ph.D.
 
  • #31
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Two fish, I wonder how do you define ultra-maturity?
Being responsible, taking care of every detail in your thesis, have good interaction with your advisor and others in the faculty, what else?
 
  • #32
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The problem is that if you approach learning in this way, you are just going to totally fall apart in grad school. The first thing that you need to seriously ask yourself is why you want to go to grad school in the first place. Part of the problem is that after the first two years, no one tells you what to do and you sort of have to figure it out on your own.

I've seen it happen that people that just ace tests get into grad school, and after the first year or two, they totally fall apart. Getting your Ph.D. is probably one of the most intense and brutal intellectual experiences that you have to go through,
It actually depends. Many successful profiles among mathematicians spent a lot of time acing classes as undergraduates, along with some time afterwards learning independently about topics of interest, and the primary thing they did was enter into more advanced coursework, where the nature of thinking is much more akin to what you do in the PhD. I made the distinction between theoretical and less theoretical fields for a reason.

These mathematicians also tended to think deeply about what kind of material they enjoy. But realize that even upon entering grad school, in some fields it is typical to spend a year or two once actually in grad school figuring out what one wants to do.

Acing (advanced) classes combined with a penchant for being thoughtful about what you want to do is ultimately the combo often needed in theoretical fields.

Remember, acing advanced classes isn't the same thing as playing a game, typically they can make these courses ones designed to give one the tools to start being a researcher in a field. It depends on your field and how much there is a discrepancy between classes and research -- I know many computer science students who hardly care about classes at all, because classes simply don't matter to them.

If you don't have ultra-developed maturity, then you just shouldn't go out for a Ph.D.
I'm inclined to completely agree, but the reality is that most people are incredibly stubborn. However, these people often end up in graduate programs that let them spend a lot of time figuring things out, and may be less demanding. I discourage these types from even pursuing the PhD myself, but reality says that they won't listen. As many of these people also exit college with limited, very theoretical skills, it's in their interests to at least ace their basic classes, as that tends to get them somewhere so they can figure things out, or they tend to really mess themselves up.

Reality also says a lot of people reading this forum probably belong to this category. A lot of people just set themselves up thinking they're going to graduate school. At the very least, I'd hope they get into a master's program (especially since people with poor planning should not, in my opinion, pursue a PhD). Then they end school with no internships (because their field is theoretical), a somewhat bad GPA because they did what interested them without working the system enough, and fewer opportunities than people who're intellectually a lot less curious and a lot less smart.

I think as long as one has a plan in mind, and is very smart about things, you don't have to listen to words like "the real world just cares about exams".
 
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  • #33
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Most of the stuff that I've learned that's been useful for my career have been things that I never learned in class.
And that's how it always will be - whether one is pursuing a PhD or immediate employment, or employment after a PhD.

Nevertheless, the good message in that teacher's words is that one has to get used to the short-sightedness of the people holding the keys. A less than high GPA can keep you out of a ton of programs (indeed, some people don't make it into any). A high GPA does actually tend to do with lots of selective employers to get considered, this is a rough fact of life.

Now your case was a little different - you made into grad school and were smart about how you spent your time, and at that point nobody cares about your GPA. They see a physics PhD with marketable skills, and so you're of course doing interesting work.

Reality says that for people in the university though, a high GPA really does open doors ... because lots of employers are too dumb to know or care what deep thinking is, professional schools like law school really only care about GPA and test scores, and PhD programs in theoretical fields tend to be adamant about grades, because it's hard to show off in any other sense in those fields.


Now if you're in graduate school, not undergraduate, then exams and classes (except to make sure you don't fail quals) don't matter one bit except for one's own health and training, and one should forget about them and think about bigger things.
 
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  • #34
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I failed to stay in the field, I no longer feel bad about it. You need to learn how to not get upset about anything. Why do you want to accomplish anything? You will probably never even come close to Newton or Euclid. Therefore why set yourself such high *must do* goals? Family and friends are not much help. Try Epicurus.
 
  • #35
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Nowadays I get upset if I don't understand something.
Why do you get upset if you don't understand something? The happy girl in the cafeteria doesn't understand 1% of the physics you know. She's not upset about it. Look and learn. Unless you like being upset...
 
  • #36
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If you want to learn something new about the universe and make yourself a better person, then physics is a really cool field.
How is physics any better than other subjects at making you a better person? Why not study ways to be a better person to be a better person?
 
  • #37
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Why do you get upset if you don't understand something? The happy girl in the cafeteria doesn't understand 1% of the physics you know. She's not upset about it. Look and learn. Unless you like being upset...
He is clearly getting upset because he fails to understand something that he wants to understand. The girl in the cafeteria might not care at all about physics, and is probably not trying to learn it. There is nothing wrong with getting upset over not understanding something. It doesn't mean you shouldn't try nor does it mean you need to be like those ostensibly happy people who don't share your more difficult, yet rewarding, interests.
 
  • #38
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A less than high GPA can keep you out of a ton of programs (indeed, some people don't make it into any).
If your GPA isn't awful, you'll get in somewhere.

A high GPA does actually tend to do with lots of selective employers to get considered, this is a rough fact of life.
So screw the selective ones, and go with the unselective ones.

Reality says that for people in the university though, a high GPA really does open doors ...
Sure but so what? One fact about me is that I didn't get into the physics Ph.D. programs that I wanted to get into because I didn't study physics quite as hard as the people next to me, and they got better grades. Looking back at it, it didn't matter much in the long run, and I think I was *MUCH* better off studying what I enjoyed rather than being obsessed by grades.

The problem with obsessing about GPA is that you end up burning out which means instead of finishing the physics program with a lower but decent GPA that will get you into graduate school somewhere, you end up an emotional wreck that isn't able to finish the program at all.
 
  • #39
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There is nothing wrong with getting upset over not understanding something. It doesn't mean you shouldn't try nor does it mean you need to be like those ostensibly happy people who don't share your more difficult, yet rewarding, interests.

I second this, and would add that perhaps if one doesn't get upset if one doesn't understand stuff, maybe the degree of caring about it isn't there. Maybe one should in fact "like" being upset to an extent, because there really is a pleasure in soothing your frustration with actual understanding.


How is physics any better than other subjects at making you a better person? Why not study ways to be a better person to be a better person?

Because to become a better person is something you DO, not study. One can study philosophy of ethics and a few things, but physics makes you a better person in the sense that spiritual (not necessarily religious) inquiries can. They have you thinking about the answers to big questions. Physics is a beautiful subject because it's about studying the workings of things bigger than yourself, and enjoying the luxury that you can even fathom any of it in your mind.

Plus, its difficulty will make you a better person. Sometimes just going out and appreciating the big stuff humbles you and fills you with joy better than most things can, and humility + intelligence are huge steps towards being a warm and useful human being.
 
  • #40
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I'm inclined to completely agree, but the reality is that most people are incredibly stubborn.
Most people aren't that stubborn. If you are stubborn as hell, you'll make it through the Ph.D., and I'm not worried about you. The people I do worry about go into grad school without thinking through why they are going to grad school, and then drop out first or second year once they find out how intense things are.

Also grad schools are different from Ph.D.'s. Most grad schools are professional masters which are a completely different beast from the Ph.D. program.
 
  • #41
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If your GPA isn't awful, you'll get in somewhere.
Well, this thread talks about mathematics, which I know more about than the physics programs, and since GPA isn't the only thing in question (test scores, etc are there too), depending on the admissions cycle, you may not get in somewhere, even if you apply to some less selective schools. I consider a 3.3-ish GPA to be not AWFUL, but it's apparently considered pretty awful in the scope of admissions ... especially if one is unpublished, and doesn't have great test scores. Because reality is, other people simply have rosier looking applications.

I'm thinking of the admissions cycle for the PhD students who became first years this past year.

I think there's a big gap between being careful about making sure one obtains a good GPA and obsessing about it continually unto burning out. Like I said, I don't see a straightforward piece of advice to give. For people with very theoretical background, without tons of connections, who love the stuff they study and want to continue in grad school, it can simply be much safer to bite the bullet and do well on some tests. One hopefully can still enjoy studying math or physics in the process.

The other thing is, I'm including the massive number of people who may be contemplating math or physics PhDs, but are really just math and physics majors with fantasies in their heads as to what they could do after graduating. Keeping a high GPA can help with internships, employment, professional school, and grad school admissions in theoretical fields, and at that a lot. I think you can certainly manage to do great things without one, but I prefer not to give that benefit of the doubt to people's character, which has to be pretty strong.

Now if someone is truly exceptionally focused at math or physics, and has the ultra-maturity factor I was stating earlier (which I don't find common enough), they'll figure out how to make things work, and I don't even need to give them anything but the most specialized advice.

I do understand what you're saying, though.
 
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  • #42
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Most people aren't that stubborn.
Depends what you mean by stubborn. They aren't stubborn in the sense that they don't always have the grit to finish a PhD.

But many of them don't like it if you say "That just doesn't represent the maturity you need going into a PhD program," and they'll try to justify otherwise or start ignoring you.

And sure, these people may be weak at heart, but love to talk big stuff to you, and may fail at completing the PhD ultimately.

I find people are stubborn before they face the really hard stuff, and talking about a PhD is considerably easier than actually figuring out how to do it.
 
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