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I just started undergrad as a Physics Major, and have lost confidence

  1. Sep 9, 2014 #1


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    I tested out of my maths, and was placed in Calculus II, and being 16 I don't have time to be a full-time student (nor the mental capacity) so I only am taking two more classes, Physics I for Physics Majors, and Sociology. Going into the school year I felt very confident in Physics and kind of shaky on calculus (I self-taught all the material beforehand so I figured there had to be some stuff I didn't know and my placement was wrong) however, now that the school year has started that has flip-flopped. I feel very confident in Calculus (scored a 100 on everything so far, and the material ahead I know most of). But my Physics is shaky, I scored a 92% on my last quiz (much to chagrin of my dad, and I agree with him. A physics major would have scored a 100%), and some of the questions are very ambiguous in their wording, but I blame myself, I should be smart enough to understand what is asked of me. I struggle on simple problems (as you'll see in my post history), but do well on questions the rest of the class had problems with. For instance apparently most of my class missed this problem:

    I got it on the first try, but a simple problem involving dropping keys from an elevator shaft to find floor you're on, I struggle, and I feel so dumb.

    My quiz I got a 92 on because I was asked to find average speed of a trip where I go somewhere in x time stay for y time and come back in z time and I am given the distance to this place. So I calculated it, and got the answer, but received partial credit because I left out the y time. I felt so dumb, and frankly discouraged.

    I know I can do physics, and I still feel that spark when I learn about it. I just don't know if I am smart enough to do physics, and that scares me. I work hard, but the amount of work I put in seems to not be directly proportional to results.

    So advice, should I change my major to mathematics or am I being a drama-queen and should stick with physics (where my true love lay)?
  2. jcsd
  3. Sep 9, 2014 #2


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    Unless you got a 15%, one class shouldn't be a deciding factor in a decision as big as switching majors (unless you just disliked the class/subject, but that isn't the case here since you do enjoy physics).

    Often in physics (and math), you'll find that no one usually gets a perfect mark. That is because the tests are designed to challenge you.
  4. Sep 9, 2014 #3
    IMO, that is a completely useless and silly attitude to have and it will guarantee your failure at everything, even if you have great aptitude at it.

    Drama queen^Drama queen :eek::bugeye::surprised:smile:

    And that question you got marked off on above, you just had an absent-minded brain freeze and forgot to toss in the y time. It's not like you didn't get some important concept.

    With the kind of attitude you are taking towards it all, I mean even Feynman would've end up quitting in 'failure' from physics.

    So forget all the silly ultra-perfectionism and 100.0-chasing nonsense and just sit back and enjoy physics.

    I would routinely do weird, dumb things for no clear reason on tests, like in trig I might apply the correct formula 10x in a row and then for some who knows what reason suddenly put down the answer for sin(x) when it was asking for cos(x) so I only got 100s very here and there. It's not the end of the world.

    Relax and enjoy. It sounds like you are great at physics and math.
  5. Sep 9, 2014 #4


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    That's what I've been told, and I guess I just go too fast. When I slow down, write out my variables and try to truly understand the problem I get it right. I suppose I should stop thinking I should know it, and start trying to actually know it.
  6. Sep 9, 2014 #5
    You are doing great B3NR4Y, and as long as you keep it up tell your Dad to back off.
  7. Sep 9, 2014 #6


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    Is 92% an A,B or C (I come from a more relaxed culture where A was 75 and above:)? I know a physics PhD who as an undergrad got a major deduction on an "easy test" because he made an error copying the second last line of work into the last line of work (he missed an "i" in the last line). From his point of view, it was a tiny copying error. From the lecturer's point of view, it was a big mistake since it resulted in a periodic solution being changed to a damped solution. As his classmate, I side with him, but we know that whatever the truth was, it didn't stop him going to a theoretical physics PhD.
    Last edited: Sep 9, 2014
  8. Sep 9, 2014 #7


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    Thank you, this post (as well as others in this thread) has done wonders to my confidence. I no longer feel anxious about the future :biggrin: thank you all.
  9. Sep 9, 2014 #8
    I'll add a few things:

    1. If you're not making mistakes, you're not learning anything new, in which case you're wasting your time. Furthermore, if you're making perfects on all your grades, you need a more challenging professor.

    2. One can only become great at physics by practicing. Physics (along with math) is not a spectator sport. The ability to solve physics problems can ONLY come by working a ton of physics problems.

    3. The distinguishing factor between success and not-success isn't whether or not you can do something perfectly on the first try. It's how well you can pinpoint your mistakes and work on them until they don't exist anymore.

    4. Very often people come in here wondering if they're "innately intelligent" enough to do a physics degree. Innate intelligence plays a very minor role in success. No matter how much innate intelligence you have, it will not be enough to make you a good physicist (except for maybe 1 in a billion, and with 40,000 physics Ph.Ds in the US alone, that certainly isn't the case for all of them). Like I said before, if you can stay passionate about physics, if you're able to fix whatever problems you encounter through lots of studying and preparation, and if you're passionate enough about physics, then you can do well in physics.

    5. Physics is a fascinating and wonderful subject. Getting caught up in percent scores will only cloud that. If you nurture your passion for physics and go above and beyond in it, then your grades will be fine. Worry more about doing physics than what you make on physics tests, and you'll be surprised about how well you'll do on the tests.
  10. Sep 9, 2014 #9


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    More confidence-building words. The main reason my dad is all over me about my grades is I'm on a scholarship so maintaining a 3.5 + GPA is absolutely essential if I want to continue going to university (my parents will not pay for it, nor let me take out student loans, go figure). I find the stress of keeping that GPA causes my GPA to drop, currently I have a 4.0, not much to boast about considering I'm only in the third week, but my first exams are next week so that's when the true tests of my knowledge start.

    I also think part of my discouragement came from the culture-shock of the self-teaching -> college learning. When I self-taught I didn't bother with putting "+C"'s at the end of integration problems, and I just completely neglected to teach myself some trig identities or things I found useless, like approximating an integral or calculating Riemann sums, same with physics I did practice problems out of the book but never really did the "concept" problems that help with understanding. Definitely think that's where my fear stemmed from.

    Another thing that may not help with Physics is the fact my class was given the first edition text book from Pearson as part of a test-the-waters type thing so every question that I find the wording is ambiguous a part of me dies because I don't know if it's my lack of English knowledge (my first language is French) or if it's the author didn't correctly type the question clearly. Thankfully, the quizzes in class are written by the professor and the wording is fine, and apparently the Exams are departmental and not written by the textbook people. The only problems I really struggle with are the homework and excercise questions.

    If anyone is wondering the book is "Physics: Principles and Practice" by Eric Mazur. Definitely not a standard textbook, he doesn't even introduce the idea of 2 dimensions until the 9th or so chapter.
  11. Sep 9, 2014 #10
    Adjusting to rigor in college is also something I had to deal with seeing as how my high school wasn't very good. When faced with these adjustments, you will adapt, though. And what's more, you'll also figure out which of those math topics will be useful to you and which won't. For instance, many integrals can't be solved by finding an antiderivative, so you will need to find a way to approximate them. Also, Taylor series, for example, show up a lot in physics.

    Unfortunately in our current academic world, scholarships are based off of grades, not fluency in the subjects. Fortunately, fluency in the subject usually means you can make good grades. With three weeks in, you've still got a lot to experience. I find many people don't even really get into "college mode" unless they're FORCED to (due to realizing it's more difficult than they thought). I'm sure you'll be prepared, though. Like I said, if you like physics enough to study it until your brain is throbbing, then you can do physics.

    If you want to hear it from someone who isn't me, then I give you this story: I once asked Brian Greene (Reddit AMA) what he would say to someone who wants to study physics but has any hesitations about it. He told me "you have to do what fires you up, and if that's physics, then go for it." So, go for it.

    Et si tu as toujours des difficultés, nous pouvons t'aider--c'est pourquoi nous sommes ici! (I had to fit in a line of French, as someone who loves the French language but has to teach himself since he doesn't have any room in his schedule to take a French course).
  12. Sep 9, 2014 #11


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    In the US, this can vary depending on the school. When I was in high school many years ago, 92% was the boundary between A and B. I suspect this is still true in many high schools. On the other hand, at the college where I work, the correspondence between percentages and letter grades is up to the course instructor, who must publish it in his/her course syllabus. Only the letter grade (including + and - variants) is reported when filing grades. I always used 90% as the boundary between A and B.

    Wow, I've never heard of a scholarship with such a stringent criterion. The strongest I've seen is 3.0.

    At any rate, it's too early to start freaking out about grades. It's very common for first-semester college freshmen to get a shock when they take their first midterm quizzes or tests. They have to adjust to the increased rigor of college-level work.
    Last edited: Sep 9, 2014
  13. Sep 9, 2014 #12


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    I got lucky learning French haha, my mother's mother's side is from Belgium/France, my mother's father's side is from Lafayette/Acadia (Louisiana). At home we only spoke French, and I was born and lived in Belgium until I was 10 and thus have dual citizenship (dad is full American). Bon à entendre, tout le monde ici est très agréable, contrairement à "d'autres" forums.

    But yeah I definitely will stick with Physics, I drive through a semi-rural area to get from school to work and at night the sky is so rich with stars and just looking at them makes me feel a drop in my chest, immense excited-ness, not to be crude but it's almost orgasmic, and the "a-ha!" moment when I realize the solution to a problem is incomparable, and addicting.

    Thanks for your help.
  14. Sep 9, 2014 #13


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    It might be 3.0, my parents told me 3.5. Possibly because they're being like engineers and adding in a cushion for extra safety? Not sure, haha. But my Physics Professor does a 10 point grade scale, so 90-100 is an A. A low A was not something I wanted because a high B will knock the total into REALLY low A or REALLY high B.
  15. Sep 9, 2014 #14
    My family is also from the Lafayette area. Small world indeed.
  16. Sep 9, 2014 #15


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    Oh nice, do you go to LSU?
  17. Sep 9, 2014 #16
    I've private messaged you as to prevent this thread from getting too off topic.
  18. Sep 10, 2014 #17


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    Just to throw a spanner in the works; both your answers in the attached image in OP are wrong.

    The question asks for two significant figures, you gave three for both answers.

    Those online quizzes are notorious for accepting wrong answers and marking correct answers as wrong.
  19. Sep 11, 2014 #18


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    Very often when a student stops worrying about getting perfect scores or perfect A's, they can actually start learning a lot of physics!
  20. Sep 11, 2014 #19
    This seems to be the case most of the time.
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