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Other I'm a mess right now.

  1. Sep 12, 2016 #1
    Apologies for the long read.

    I just graduated with a degree in biochemistry from the University of Denver. I started off as a biology major because I naively assumed there would be less math. Lo and behold, the calculus sequence was required. Till this day, I still haven't had beyond Algebra II, and that was way back in like junior year of high school. No trigonometry, no precalculus, nothing. Somehow I managed to get my degree in biochemistry and pass the Calculus sequence.

    Well, in high school, science fiction and astronomy really motivated me to pursue science, along with a very talented and dedicated teacher who pushed me in that direction, away from a history/economics major. Astronomy and science fiction were always what motivated me to study, but biochemistry/biology itself never really sparked that fire. Finally, one day when I was struggling through Calculus, I realized, "Why the hell, if I need math for this degree, didn't I just do a degree in physics so I could go into astronomy?"

    From that day, I vowed to switch to astronomy. I was mildly successful. I did a small astronomy research project at DU despite being a biochemistry major, I was accepted into a really sweet astronomy internship this past summer where I did some really good research, and I was also accepted into a Masters program at San Diego State University for Astronomy.

    So what went wrong?

    Undergraduate sucked for me. All I remember from freshmen year was the breakup with my "first love" so to speak, and we all know how that goes. Sophomore year was recovery. Junior year was the best, because I studied abroad in Japan and didn't have any responsibilities. Senior year, my second super serious relationship with a girl I met in Japan ended at the beginning of the year and derailed the whole thing.

    Bear in mind the fact I never had a science/math education in high school, so I had ridiculous impostor syndrome in every science course I ever took at DU. I felt consistently behind my peers and unintelligent. Being a quarter school, having 4 classes and sometimes 2-3 labs to go with them felt like the never ending barrage of exams, deadlines, project due dates, etc, was just too overwhelming. I didn't like the student base at DU (most affluent white people, I'm half white and come from a poor background, and no I'm not overtly-SJW, but you'd have to go to DU to understand what I'm talking about). I would have liked to have good study habits but I also had to work to put myself through school and I still ended up 45k in student loan debt, and that was with having about 85% of the tuition covered in scholarships (I made a bad choice going to DU without a full-ride, and I own up to that).

    So, basically my mind has suffered severe damage these past four years. Its mostly stress related. I've had this officially diagnosed by a professional. Basically, my major symptoms are what you would expect with your typical overly-stressed/depressed person. I can't concentrate easily, I don't enjoy things I used to enjoy, learning new things is extremely difficult, if not impossible.

    I moved to San Diego and realized I couldn't simultaneously do graduate school and financially support myself (because I applied to an astronomy program from a biochemistry degree, they didn't offer me a TA position, so I had to pay tuition, find housing, all that on my own). I went to the first three days of class, and just those days (the "syllabus" days) were enough to know that I would fail in these upper level physics/math courses. I was lapsing back into my old mindset of being an "impostor" and not belonging.

    So I dropped out. I wanted to set up just a year long leave of absence but you can only do that if you complete at least one semester. I was running out of savings and needed my tuition, and I just knew that my mind wasn't ready to succeed in graduate school at the present moment. Right now I'm a full-time Uber/Lyft driver, which is honestly pretty sweet because I'm making my own hours and getting paid pretty well for mentally-easy work. Its exactly what I need for the next year to give my mind a rest and recover from stress.

    There's one thing that's really hard for me to get out of my head though.

    My struggle with science and mathematics has been ceaseless. I'm not a lazy student making excuses, I tried hard. Yeah, the stress really hurt my ability to learn science and mathematics, and I'm definitely sure that when I feel more positive and relaxed, I'll learn these things better (my current plan is to independently study for grad school on my own, maybe take some physics/math courses at cheaper colleges to beef me up for grad school when I return).

    However, I've done a lot of reading on spatial ability and its connection to being successful in STEM fields. I've taken several spatial ability tests, many of them set up by researchers at institutions to study these things. I've done terribly in all of them. I can't rotate images in my head clearly, I can't tell which "cube" out of a set of four "cubes" is impossible given an unfolded "cube" with patterns on its sides, etc.

    When I was in organic chemistry, stereochemistry frustrated me to no end. Without a ball and stick kit, I was useless at telling if things were enantiomers or diastereomers, etc. Yeah sure when the enantiomers were shown as mirror reflections its easy, but if you rotate that enantiomer I literally have to spend ten minutes figuring out that its an enantiomer.

    Part of my frustration also came from the exam system. I know exams are necessary because how else are we going to move so many people through the system? At the same time I knew I could learn these things if I was just given the proper resources and time, like a ball and stick kit. I'd get frustrated because I'd miss that question on a 50 minute exam with 20 questions but I knew the definitions of those terms and how to figure out what they were, given the time and resources to do so. So I felt that truly isn't fair, and my grades reflect that.

    Back to the point, I have no spatial ability. I'm not really even good at forming images in my head. I can picture things... people, places, etc. I can "hear" sounds in my head, like voices of people I know. But I wouldn't say I'm "good" at these things. When I close my eyes and picture an image, the picture itself is as if I caught it at the end of a "fade out." Its gone as soon as I see it.... and if I keep picturing it, the same thing occurs... as if this picture is in my head with a really bad frame right, like 1 frame per second or worse, and the image always manifests in mid "fade out" so its never vivid and clear.

    So yeah, in terms of spatial ability and mental imaging, I'm garbage. And I wonder if this means I will ever succeed in astronomy. I can make plots and learn things, but without these basic mental faculties will I ever have the mental intuition to be a successful researcher?

    Is there anyone out there who is like me, and who struggles with these things, and yet has been successful in science?

    Is there any other advice you can offer someone like me who is currently in a limbo after having dropped out of graduate school? I'm not a lazy person, and now I'm questioning if graduate school really is for me... if astronomy really is for me. I have other hobbies... I dance and I like video games and reading and movies... I like a lot, and I feel like the academia route is going to burn me out worse than undergrad, and I don't want that to happen. I can't give up my hobbies, I need them to keep me happy. At the same time I would like a Masters or PhD for the added security those degrees provide. A PhD in physics can land you some pretty sweet jobs outside of academia. And I do genuinely want to make a contribution, however small, to science, during my life here on Earth. But I'm also now considering a career/life outside of science/academia, but perhaps related to science. Something that more directly benefits humans alive right now.


  2. jcsd
  3. Sep 12, 2016 #2


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    Hey ColtonCM.

    I'm a little confused about the astronomy course you want to take - usually astronomy is studied physically via astro-physics which is quite involved and the PhD programs often build off of a standard physics undergraduate with qualifying exams that reflect standard graduate topics and astro-physics specific ones.

    In terms of raw physics, I'd have to say that visual intuition is probably a must in a big way but the real thing is being able to bridge your language with the one in your learning resources.

    What I mean by that is that you have to find a way to take your version of the world and build on it slowly where you constantly find a way to bridge the way someone else describes it with how you can internally [and intuitively] understand it.

    With mathematics though, the basic ideas can be expressed in ways that can be understood by a lot of people - but the difficulty that mathematics has for many people is that it is both abstract and specific and that means that the complexity covered in something like a formula or a result is quite high.

    It's like being able to manage a thousand outcomes versus a million outcomes and be able to write those million outcomes in a really compact form. This is often why it's difficult for people to do mathematics because the language represents really complex things in a very compact way and many unfortunately don't realize this and can often believe they are incapable of understanding it because they expect it to be a lot like their "mother tongue" when in fact it isn't.

    I think that for the states [United States] I'd focus on getting into a teaching university [i.e. where the focus is on teaching outcomes not research outcomes] or a community college if you really want to get an idea of whether you can stick it out and build a solid mathematics education.

    Mathematics is a language - much like English or French [or any other language for that matter] and you will need to spend a lot of time to become fluent.

    I have a mathematics degree and I can tell you that it does get easier as you put more and more work into it but if you haven't really spoken the language much then you will need to understand that you will be like a kid in primary school or early high school and it will take time to become fluent.

    Physics is very difficult and PhD level physics is really really difficult. I'd start by looking into community college first and then taking it from there.

    It might also help if you get an understanding of how you see the world [and possibly any learning disorders] and take that information with you to see what schools may offer you assistance given this information [if they do] and what their assessment is of you getting through the coursework.
  4. Sep 12, 2016 #3
    Yep, me too. It caused me quite some grievances in calculus III when we had to find volumes of these exotic shapes. But outside of that, it never really caused me any harm. Mathematics has been invented precisely to eliminate these kind of dependence on spatial ability. Whenever I did math, I literally never had to picture a rotating cube (which I wasn't able to do anyway). Sure, we had to find the symmetry group of a cube, but I always used a small model for that.

    So yes, the statement that you need spatial abilities and mental imaging to succeed in science is very wrong.
  5. Sep 12, 2016 #4
    I switched from a biochemistry route to an astronomy route by applying to Astronomy Masters programs.

    I'm not sure what you mean by qualifying exams, here in the U.S.A., outside of the GRE tests, there aren't really any exams you take to get into graduate school for a Masters/PhD, they just review your application, letter references, etc. and decide if you'd be a good fit for the program.
  6. Sep 12, 2016 #5
    You don't need to take an exam to be accepted, but you need to take an exam (or two, or three) to progress through the degree. These do test your knowledge, and sometimes are administered before at least some graduate courses are completed to test undergrad knowledge.
  7. Sep 13, 2016 #6


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    Is it a physics masters program or a astronomy specific program [i.e. without the in depth physics that you would study for qualifying exams]?

    In other words - is it astrophysics or is it without the astro-physics and a focus on observing stuff on the astrophysical level without analyzing it in the way they do in the context that a physicist would?
  8. Sep 23, 2016 #7


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    I'd just like to say that I understand what you're going through. I'm by no means as invested as your are, but am facing similar doubts about the future. I want to dedicate myself to this but find it exceptionally mentally taxing and have quickly discovered how little importance mental health is actually given (at least from my physics instructors - it's very much a breadcrumbs approach to learning). I struggle mightily with spatial ability and due to working part time through school, it takes away a ton of time that is absolutely necessary to get the grades.

    I hope you decide on what is best for you, though I will suggest you do something I did a few years ago (and will have to do again). It's not as scientifically verifiable as this crowd would like (I'm making value judgments without much to back it up with).

    Write the following on index cards... 4 physical things that are important to you, 4 people that are important to you, 4 places that are important to you, 4 memories that are important to you, and 4 goals you have. In the end (this is the hard math part) you should have 20 items looking back at you on the table. Try to be specific. For people, try to avoid writing "friends" (but something like parents is okay). For goals - try to avoid "make enough money to support a family." That's frankly a result.

    Take 6 things away. You don't have access to these places, things, people or you diminish the importance of that memory or you give up on that life goal. That wasn't too hard. It's about to get very, very personal. Take away five more things. Take away four more things. Finally, you're left with five things that matter to you. Cut out two of them.

    If you do this "properly" (if there is such a way), this should take you a very long time - which isn't a huge surprise since you're essentially mapping out your future and these decisions will come along. But you'll have three things that matter the most to you right now. These three things have probably actually been guiding your behavior and you very likely can trace backward their affects.

    Plan accordingly.
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