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I need reassurance

  1. Mar 13, 2008 #1
    ... or encouragement, or advice, or guidance, or help, or a miracle, or something. I will be overwhelmingly grateful to anyone who takes the time out to read my rant and offer some words of assistance.

    I go to the University of Waterloo for Mathematical Physics. I'm almost through my 2B term, and I can only describe my situation as uncertain.

    I love physics. I am enamoured with relativity and gravitational physics and the mathematical framework in which these ideas are formulated. I dream of becoming a professor of physics as one would dream of becoming a rock star.

    My marks in first year were less than stellar. Having left high school with a 96 average in Grade 12, I was incredibly arrogant and thought that I could get by without doing any work. In addition to my poor attitude, many of the courses (chemistry, labs, first-semester physics with a terrible professor) were uninteresting, and so I didn't take them as seriously as I should have. I finished 1A with a 75, but got my act together in AB and got an 83 term average (though this figure is somewhat misleading - I got 3 90+s (2nd year astrophys course, physics, and calculus), a bunch of 80s (chemistry courses and labs) and a 64 (programming - don't ask)).

    2A was much, much better. I finished with a 93 term average, and all my marks were between 92-94. This term has been going very well so far (better than last, actually), and I'm working on a term research project with a professor (which will lead to a published paper).

    So what's the problem?

    I feel like this is all a big fluke.

    I'm not very smart. I guess I'm smart enough to get those kinds of marks, but I don't think I can push them any higher as it stands now. I'm working about as hard as I can, and there's not much else I can do.

    I think I'm a slower learner than my peers. I have trouble grasping concepts at first, but when I get them, I REALLY get them. It takes me time to go through my assignments. I get lost in messy mathematics easily. I get confused easily. In the end, everything seems to work out, but it's terribly frustrating in between. Even now, typing this post, I feel inadequate, inferior, and stupid, when I think about my one friend who gets 100% in nearly every course, or my other friend who does 2 assignments in the time it takes me to get through one, and who studies 1 hour to my 4, and matches me or does better than me on midterms and exams.

    Sometimes I can't finish every question on an assignment by myself. Talking about the question with my professors or my friends usually resolves the issue, but it seems that there's always something that I couldn't quite get, or that I missed, or that I couldn't figure it out, but others could, and when the solution is revealed to me, it seems so obvious, like I could JUST get it, but it was out of my grasp at the time.

    So there's uncertainty 1): Am I doomed to be as dumb as I am forever? can I improve my intellect, my abstract reasoning skills, my problem solving skills, and my physical and mathematical intuition to match my peers? Can I think faster, learn faster, see things faster? I'm not expecting myself to be a genius, but certainly there are means of improvement? Certainly there are systematic means to going about developing problem solving skills (and no, "just solve lots of problems!" is not the answer, because I can solve as many problems as I want at a given difficulty, but that won't help me crack the bonus questions and the "Part C" questions in the course notes - there must be a way!)

    Test writing is also something I hate. I can't stand the pressure. I can't focus, and I miss little things that add up. The worst experience is what I call a "mental block," when I don't quite know how to solve a problem, but I have ideas stewing in my head. Instead of just writing them down, developing them, seeing where I can go (at the very least, getting some part marks), I don't write anything down until there are 5 minutes left, at which point I finally decide to just write it down (of course, not having enough time to finish). It turns out I'm usually correct, or correct enough to get several points for the question - but it's always too late...

    ... and I mean, I always tell myself, "THIS test, I won't make the same mistakes I made last test! THIS test is going to be a good test. THIS test I'm going to read the question carefully and make sure not to miss anything, and I'm going to check over my answers carefully!" but of course, the same thing happens. Try as I might, the same problems creep in, test after test after test... and I always have this feeling as if the only reason I did well on a given test is because the test was easy and that anyone should be expected to do just as well or better.

    so I guess that was uncertainty 2), and now on to uncertainty 3). Suppose I do keep up these results. Suppose they even drop a few points by 4th year (which I expect them to - I mean, the midterm average for the 4th year GR course was less than 30%, and some of the brightest students in the school are taking it)... what are my chances of getting into grad school? What kind of marks do they want? What are they looking for in a student? I am no Feynman. I am simply a passionate physics student who knows his CURRENT limitations (but I cannot believe that these are permanent limitations) and who would love the opportunity to learn, discover, and teach physics in academia.

    is there anyone that can relate? is there anyone who has a friend that can relate? is there anyone who has had similar uncertainties and insecurities? what is my prognosis? how can I improve?

    yeah... sorry about the long ranting post (and this is just the tip of the iceberg, when I think about it! :() - this community just seems like a place with a lot of different people from different places at different stages in their physics education, and if anyone has wisdom to offer, it would be here.
  2. jcsd
  3. Mar 13, 2008 #2


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    Hang in there, once you start grasping the concepts you will be able to build upon them and new material will seem easier.

  4. Mar 13, 2008 #3
    A big fluke? All that happened is you learned how to best teach yourself the subjects you are taking.
  5. Mar 14, 2008 #4
    hey hey, dun get disoriented. Feymann was described by his peers as slow when they were explaining problems to him adn all Feynmann would do was to ask questions like he didn't know anything at all. Then all of a sudden, he could point out what was wrong!!!
  6. Mar 14, 2008 #5
    my advice to you, since you seem to have a great passion for physics, is to read and start discussing physics with others (these forums are quite a good place). This will broaden your knowledge very much and should give you the intuition and confidence you need to tackle those difficult problems. These difficult problems will usually have a leap of logic which is not apparent to many, find out whether the leaps which you're struggling with are mathematical in nature or require knowledge of a physical concept and find out what you need to work on.

    And a 93 average is nothing to shake a fist at, so you're far from dumb. There are people likely in your program who may try as hard as you and get much lower marks.
  7. Mar 14, 2008 #6
    If you compare yourself to others you may become vain and bitter, for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself. Enjoy your acheivements as well as your plans...

    On my take, many people learn at different levels. There are too many variables at play to say whether one is truly learning faster than another. While one person may accept 2+2=4, you may go out of your way and ask if 2+2=4 then does 4+4=8? The other person may have not even considered this.
    Another point is, just because you made good marks at such and such time, does not entitle you to receive good marks at any other time.
    My suggestion is, just keep study.
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