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How Do You Deal with Physics Burnout?

  • Thread starter fizz92
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I am beginning to feel the pangs of burnout. I enjoy learning about physics and math, but my physics classes are more killjoys than anything else. I was always a 4.0 student in college before I changed my major and I work very hard, but it seems that hard work doesn't pay off in physics classes. As a result, my grades in physics aren't all that great (think C's). I feel like physics is the major I've been searching for and wouldn't be quite as satisfied with any other major as far as I know, so I keep pushing on. I don't know how much longer I can do this, though. I feel like I've lost myself. I don't feel like I'm living life anymore. I'm losing my motivation and hope.

Additional considerations: I have only taken physics introductory classes so far, I am almost done with my required math classes, and I have taken all of my gen ed classes. I switched my major to physics quite late, and had virtually no formal knowledge of physics prior to this. I do not find my math classes to be nearly as hard as my physics classes. I actually enjoy them and consider them to be "breathers" from my physics classes.

What do I do? How do I get my sanity back? I'm feeling pretty desperate right now, so all suggestions are welcome!
I was always a 4.0 student in college before I changed my major and I work very hard, but it seems that hard work doesn't pay off in physics classes.
In my experience, this is true; hard work doesn't pay off in physics (directly) the way it does in the standard curriculum.

Physics teaches (and requires) as skill that's not used much in any other courses: how to translate from words to math. That, in its essence, is physics: how can I go from a qualitative description of what is happening around me to a quantitative one? Once you master that step, the physics is done, and the only thing left is solving the math problem.

Most of the students that I encountered when I tutored or while I was a TA had a two-fold problem learning physics: first, their math skills weren't up to par, so the math wasn't transparent to them, and second, the had never had any practice solving word problems, so they didn't know how to begin to approach the actual physics portion of the problem. Based on your post, it sounds like the math part isn't your problem, so I'm guessing that what you find difficult is the second bit: the translation.

My advice (for intro level students) on this has always been the same: learning physics isn't about memorizing how to solve specific types of problems. It's about learning the interrelations between all of the various concepts you encounter. For instance, consider momentum. Off the top of your head, how many different ways can you think of to express momentum in terms of other physical quantities? Now, do the same thing for power. For resistance. For charge.

Once you've internalized all of those interrelations, solve problems is easy, because it (at the introductory level, at least) just comes down to figuring out what you know, what you want to know, and how what you want to know can be expressed in terms of things you know.

This doesn't really change at the higher level, either; the only thing that changes is the level of mathematical sophistication used.

(Note: it's possible I'm way off base here, since you didn't really say what was causing you to struggle; I'm just going by what was typical for students I encountered.)

EDIT: I notice that I didn't really address the burnout part of the question. Let's see:

For me, burnout happened twice. Once during my sophomore year as an undergrad (although it had been build for a long time) due to a general hatred of the education system in the US. My solution was: I flunked out of undergrad, and took three years off working in the IT industry before I went back to finish my schooling. This burnout wasn't related to physics, though, and my "solution" was probably a little extreme.

The second time was just before spring break during my first year as a PhD student; at that point, the stress of the course load got to the point where I couldn't sleep, and I wound up missing about a week's worth of classes due to exhaustion. Fortunately for me, spring break happened, so I was able to take about two weeks off from course work, and was in better shape when I came back.

So, in both cases, time off helped. I'll note though that I'd be a bit worried about you experiencing burnout after only the intro courses; that suggests to me that you are working inefficiently (Which is why I answered as I did above).
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Yeah, that's definitely the bulk of it I'd say. I know that I can eventually master this stuff, but the problem is that it's taking too long for me to do this. I suppose that my C in physics is proof of all the hard work I have done improving my problem solving skills thus far. If not for the hard work, I would have gotten an even lower grade.

I guess my other concern is if this is good enough? If this kind of pattern were to continue, I may very well graduate knowing just as much as any other physics student I graduate with, but my grades may not actually reflect that. How would I be able to go on to graduate school?

And as far as inefficiency, I've been told numerous times that my studying methods are a bit much, even before I began studying physics. I just study 24/7 and leave little room for anything else. Before physics, this type of studying gave me sort of a rush and made me feel really really good, especially because it paid off every time. This method backfires badly with physics. Oddly, I found that when I did slightly less studying for an exam and simply memorized equations, I got a better grade! Now I'm stuck trying to figure out how to actually learn the material and get a decent grade in the class at the same time.


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Are you saying that you are studying and learning for physics exactly how you were for math, or is it different? Because physics is very mathematical, the math of physical systems. My guess is you are trying to learn concepts and general principles but are neglecting the math.

Or I may be wrong, but if you study for hours and still don't do well, you are studying the wrong things. In non-proof math courses, one tries to solve problems as efficiently as possible. I would keep this approach. Use your book and focus on solving problems, I think the problems will illustrate the concepts.

PS. Hopefully this approach of problems before/cotemporaneous with concepts will work better and give you more free time.
What in the world are you talking about??

Hard work always pays off! I would suggest you to talk to your professors if you are having troubles. If you are as motivated as you allude to, you should have no problem getting them to help you better understand the material (typically even the worst professors are kind [if not at least helpful] to students that show brilliant motivation [at least in my experience]). The thing about Physics is that no matter how hard you work, YOU WILL HIT A WALL, and that wall will be very steep. Now, once you hit a wall there are two options: 1) Smash through it with your own two hands badass style, or 2) Email your professor, tell him your progress on a given problem, and then ask for some guidance, or 3) Some other strategy that I'm oblivious to.


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You may want to start by asking yourself a hard question or two. How is it that you know that physics is the right major for you after only a couple introductory courses that you're struggling with? Are you sure you're not just interested in popular physics books?

Next, if you're still sure that physics is the right path, make sure you do at least some things that keep the flame of passion alive while you're in the trenches. Do some independent reading. Work on a project that's completely your own. Go to departmental colloquia. Talk to senior undergrads or graduate students about their thesis projects. Most importantly, take time to explore your own ideas.

Finally, make sure you take care of yourself. This means getting a decent amount of good sleep, eating well, exercising, making the most of down time, and organizing yourself to minimize the stresses and pressures that all students experience.
My usual study method for physics is reading the book and solving problems until it all becomes cheesecake to me. If I get stuck, I'll either look the answer up (only to give myself hints and help myself along) or ask a more advanced physics student for help. This method actually works, but it takes a long time to get to the point where I feel confident in the material. That's the problem. I suppose I could ask my professor for more help as well.

And as for being a physics major... Well, I know for sure that I enjoy math, especially as it applies to physics. With that being said, I suppose that another field could be appropriate for me as well. I'll keep this in mind.
What is your real reason for being interested in Physics? Is is just because of the pop culture? Maybe it is not the right field for you.
Physics is more difficult than math or other sciences because you got to think deeply and understand things deeply. I would even go to the extent of saying that it is the most difficult subject to master. Its not like engineering or computer science where you can just breeze over things and still ace the courses. Nevertheless at the undergraduate level, it should be not be too difficult and actually it should be quite exciting. It tends to get more difficult and more boring at the grad level where most of the time you are just working out the math or working out complex calculations.
It tends to get more difficult and more boring at the grad level where most of the time you are just working out the math or working out complex calculations.
What? What's this? More difficult and boring? "Just working out the math or working out complex equations" is the fun part. If you find that boring, why are you in physics?

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