1. Limited time only! Sign up for a free 30min personal tutor trial with Chegg Tutors
    Dismiss Notice
Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

Is it time to quit?

  1. Sep 6, 2012 #1
    I love physics.

    I truly love physics, but I fear I'm just not any good at it.

    A few days ago I took the comprehensive exam for my PhD. I'm 90% sure I failed. However, this is my third attempt at such a exam. 2 written exams and one oral (which I'm told I almost passed).

    Now I'm wondering if maybe I should just give it up. I'm clearly don't have what it takes to be a physicist. Though I feel my problem solving skills have really improved through these tests they are clearly not where they should be for a professional physicist. Also, my experiments have not progressed as much in the last year as I feel they should.

    It's true that there may be reasons for my difficulties. I'm trying to do a PhD in experimental physics with a 19th month old child and, until this week, no daycare. I've not been able to commit the time I would like to my studies. But perhaps this is just another reason to stop.

    Or maybe I'm just making excuses.

    I really don't know what to do. I love my work and have so much passion for my research and my field, and it hurts to find that I'm no good at it. But is it worth pursuing if I don't have the needed skills.

    Should I just cut my losses and find a new path?

    I welcome any comments or help anyone can offer. I'm glad I could get that off my chest.
  2. jcsd
  3. Sep 6, 2012 #2


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Education Advisor

    I guess the question is, if you have failed, do you have much of a choice in the matter? Most schools that I'm aware of won't let you keep trying the comprehensive exam until you pass.

    If it is your choice, you have to take a serious look at why you're not able to pass this exam. I have two young children myself and I definately would not have been as successful as I have been if we would have had them while I was in graduate school. Other students seem to be able to do it though. If you've been giving it a serious effort and nothing really seems to be clicking, maybe it is time to move on.
  4. Sep 6, 2012 #3
    How do you do actually DOING research? Working in a lab? Writing software or building instruments? There are a lot of people in the world who struggle with the theory or are poor test-takers but do great on practical tasks. Are you one of those people? If so you could still be a success if you choose your thesis carefully.
  5. Sep 6, 2012 #4
    Are you one of those people that have test paralysis? Is there material you feel you just don't know well enough? Are you going into the tests relaxed and well rested or are you cramming until the last minute (bad idea, btw)? Rather than looking here, you need an informed objective opinion. I'd start with your professors to see where they feel you are the weakest and use that input to develop a remediation program. We all know people that did their research project in 2-3 yrs and we know some that took 5,6, or even 7 years (lol, my fusion friends). Discuss your project with your advisor to see if you are spinning wheels, on track, or slower than mud.
  6. Sep 6, 2012 #5
    That sucks man. I had the same thing. I loved doing my research, couldn't pass that test and got booted out. Science dreams dashed, career dreams gone. I've tried finding a 'new path' but I cant go get a different degree and work on a marketable skill set at this time so I just work entry level jobs.

    I dont think you should quit. There isnt much out there for the failed PhDs. Keep trying until you succeed or they force you out.
  7. Sep 6, 2012 #6
    Of course not. I thought I failed a class pretty badly this summer - I didn't. Got a C, but I didn't. Exams aren't physics. You should realize that by now.

    Also, what do you call a man who graduated from medical school last in his class? Doctor.
  8. Sep 6, 2012 #7


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Homework Helper

    I wouldn't worry too much about the apparent lack of progress with experimental work. Experiments always take longer (independent of how often you increase your time estimates).

    But for the rest, the other side of the "don't worry, everything will work out all right" type of advice is the definition of insanity: repeating the same actions and hoping for a different outcome next time around.

    Maybe it's time to do some hard thinking about what you ARE good at, and what you realistically might be doing 5, 10, or 20 years from now, rather than looking on the downside of everything in the short term.
  9. Sep 7, 2012 #8

    Vanadium 50

    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Education Advisor
    2017 Award

    I'm not so sure this is a good idea. There is an opportunity cost here. Is it doing the OP a favor to kick him out after four, five or six years instead of two or three? This is why many - probably most - places limit the number of attempts.

    Going from "almost passing" to "90% sure I failed" is not much progress. I think before a fourth attempt the first thing the OP needs to do is figure out why he's not making any progress with subsequent attempts. Otherwise attempt N+1 will look a lot like attempt N.
  10. Sep 7, 2012 #9
    No, don't ever quit. If you love doing physics, then keep trying. Einstein did poorly in school (if you believe the stories). Doing well at school is really only a small measure of your potential success in a career, IMO. What you need to do is focus on your self-confidence and build that up, and don't keep trying to knock yourself down.
  11. Sep 7, 2012 #10
    If you want to keep doing research, see if you can transfer to a different field that has collaboration with your current lab. There's no place with higher competition than physics.
  12. Sep 7, 2012 #11
    It is hard to believe that conjecture. Einstein, after all, was doing research research papers at the start of age 13.
  13. Sep 12, 2012 #12
    Thanks for all of the responses.

    My University not not have a limit in attempts by number, but rather one must successfully pass the exam within two years. This, in practice, effectively limits how many times you can attempt the exam. By this standard, I have one chance left to pass.

    Earlier today, I met with the head examiner to review my paper. In his opinion, my greatest enemy was time.

    I am a competent mathematician, I can do it and I work at it but I'm prone to silly mistakes sometimes and it can take me a long time to go through the problem whilst checking that I've not dropped a sign somewhere (for example). As such I was only able to attempt four problems out of the necessary five.

    This is not to say my answers were otherwise perfect, I still made some faulty assumptions and some silly mistakes (and I'm due to review those errors further in another meeting) but in general my answers were acceptable.

    Perhaps that modifies the weight of this question, I'm not sure.
  14. Sep 13, 2012 #13
    Those stories are mostly based on a misunderstanding of the grade scale used in Switzerland vs. Germany. Both use numbers 1-6, but whereas in Germany, 1 is the best grade, in Switzerland (where Einstein went to high school) 6 is best. Some german biographer was not aware of this and the rumor spread from there.
    According to his high school diploma, Einstein was a very good student in Math and Physics, and pretty decent at everything else too. His weakest subject was French, followed by Geography and Art.
  15. Sep 13, 2012 #14
    Wow, thank you so much for dispelling that rumor!

    What about Einstein failing his physics class?
  16. Sep 13, 2012 #15
    You said you have only the very last attempt left. I obviously have no idea what the right decision is, but if you can afford it (both financially and psychically [stress]) and you really like the work, I would say give it a try. If it is possible, work harder than before, and then even if you fail, you at least gave it a try and didn't give up.

    I would also advise you to ask your supervisor (or some other physicist who knows you personally quite well) the same question you asked here, if you have not done so already. She should be able to judge whether it's worth the struggle much more accurately than we are.
  17. Sep 13, 2012 #16
    Read Issacson's Einstein and you'll find out all kinds of interesting stories about Einstein.
  18. Sep 13, 2012 #17
    Looks really interesting, will definitely borrow or order it!
Share this great discussion with others via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook