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Studying Knowing your limits :(

  1. Dec 31, 2014 #1
    I know I'm not smart enough to make it as a physicist. And this isn't going to be another, "Convince me to be a physicist" thread. I just want to know how others approach the problem of simply not being good enough to do something you want to do. I had dreams the last couple years of getting a PhD in Physics and working with researchers and students to solve difficult problems in Quantum Mechanics and such. But I wasn't told the situation for a physicist is bleak. I'm starting my undergrad next fall, and I'm a bit depressed that I'm settling for engineering or education programs instead of going full try-hard as a physics major, but I have to make money when I get out of college. And I'm not going to play a game that I'll be going into with a significant disadvantage. I'm also too inexperienced to really know what I want yet, and that's really disconcerting too. So anyways, how have all of you guys dealt with just not being good enough or settling for something more reasonable? Because I feel really dumb about it.
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  3. Dec 31, 2014 #2
    It is difficult to tell if you are "good enough" or not until you actually start taking some courses. I felt similar to you when I first started as a freshman. I came from a small high school without any AP courses or calculus and figured I would be lightyears behind most of the other students who were majoring in physics. After all, I wasn't even a straight A student in high school. I knew I wouldn't be able to keep up so I decided to go for engineering instead because at least I could slog through with B's and C's and probably still get a job afterwords... right?

    Well, the first semester went by and I studied my tail off and ended up with all A's. Second semester - same thing.... After my third semester of A's I realized, "hmmmm... maybe I am not the smartest kid in the room but I'm sure as hell the hardest working. Let's give physics a try." So I switched my major.

    At this point, I am extremely happy with my decision to switch to physics. Thankfully, the trend continued through my upper division physics courses. Now, I just finished submitting my applications to grad school at several top 10 schools for geophysics, hoping for the best.

    I guess what I am trying to say is: Work really hard, and things will work out! Don't tell yourself you are not good enough until you have tried (really really really hard).

    Good luck!
  4. Dec 31, 2014 #3


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    During my time at school, I never looked too far ahead. I wanted to learn physics but liked computers too. I studied all the physics and math I could related to GR with the notion of exploring the unified field theory. In my junior year I realized just how difficult it would be, started thinking about finding a job. It wasn't too hard as GE was the major player in our town and I had connections there so I became a programmer, trained by GE doing scientific and business programming in FORTRAN and COBOL.

    I went back to school a few years later for graduate physics but it wasn't the same. My math was rusty and the work was a lot harder so I switched to Computer Science and that's where I am today with an MS in CompSci still thinking about getting back into physics.

    It's good you're thinking ahead but don't let it overshadow your dreams. I don't think you'll be at a serious disadvantage when you get out but I don't know what the job market will be like by then. My advice is to have a minor in something related to physics like CompSci beyond the introductory courses that can be used with physics and can be used for a job in industry.
    Last edited: Dec 31, 2014
  5. Dec 31, 2014 #4


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    I think you need to ditch the "smart enough" mindset. It's common among students and faculty to believe that each person has a fixed intelligence, that only certain people are smart enough for a subject. I assume you've come to this conclusion because you've struggled with physics in high school. The thing is, that's probably because of a lack of learning skills, not because you lack the ability to succeed at physics. Physics, it seems, is one of those subjects which expose this weakness in a lot of students. The strategies that work for other classes, e.g. memorization, don't work in physics because you really need to understand the material to succeed. Your college probably has resources that can teach you how to use your time effectively learning the material. Take advantage of them.

    I'll echo what the others said: don't look too far ahead. Take it one step at a time. As you learn more about the various subjects, you can make a better decision about what major to ultimately pursue.
  6. Dec 31, 2014 #5
    I don't struggle with high school physics. Nor do I not learn well. But my undergrad is going to be at a <50 school because of a bad freshman year and I don't feel like gambling to try to get to an ivy for grad school only to blunder my PhD away and become a programmer somewhere. That's not me. I'd sooner teach high school than be stuck at a computer amounting to nothing but a blip. No offense to those in-thread. I want to contribute something grand to people. And it just sucks that being a physicist who contributes demands Hawking level precision and genius. It may be far ahead, but it's not out of sight. Nor inconceivable at this point in my life.
    Last edited: Dec 31, 2014
  7. Dec 31, 2014 #6


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    I am disappointed by your attitude and will refrain from responding further. One shouldn't bite the hand that feeds you saying "No offense" knowing the true effect of your comment. There are better ways to respond that show some sense of appreciation for the advice you've been given.

    We all dream of making a difference and then come to realize that its not the difference we make but how we make the journey.

    Having said that, I wish you well on your journey and hope you will come to realize this before its too late.

    Be original, not insufferable.
  8. Dec 31, 2014 #7
    Hmmm. I never thought I smart enough for school. From elementary to 9th grade I never received an A. I got mostly F's and D's. I spent all my time reading novels and histories of different culture. I did not know how to a system of equations or how the distribute law of multiplcation works. I just wanted to read books. Cervantes, Hugo, London, Tolstoy, and Fuentes wwere all I wanted to learn about. Eventually I told myself what is the point staying in school if I do not even go to class. Eventually I dropped out a few months into my 9th grade year.

    I received my GED at 20 and enrolled into a community college at 21. I placed into arithmetic and mathematics captured my imagination. I learned early on that i wanted to obtain a math degree. I eventually made into Calculus and took the hardest professor at my college. An extremely good lecture who also teaches graduate school at UCLA. I was having trouble understanding the calculus, even felt like dropping out of school. I was quite embarrassed because I was not understanding the material like I wanted to. I was even studying!

    The professor saw how hard I was trying and would always joke around with me after class. He gave me the best advice in life. He told me that there are 2 types of people in Stem:those that have natural ability and those that work hard. The people who have a natural ability are able to learn things faster than you or I, they can have many freinds, go out to bars, and screw many people. Those who are average or a little average have to work harder and as a result have less interactions with other people. In other words the latter have to maximize their time and have the personality trait of being able to spend long periods of time in isolation. Hardly going to parties or having a steady gf.

    I was ready to give up because I was not doing so great. For every time I understood something three or different beast appeared. I eventually reminded myself that I have been stuck before and eventually figured it out. I calmed down and studied harder and got a b in the course.

    My math ability improved alot because I pushed myself to my limits and I feel I can do anything if I gave an honest try. Sometimes we won't understand something no matter how long we go at it. Just remember there is always next time.

    Maybe you are bored with physics and don't realise? Maybe you had an experience like myne and it showed you your self imposed limitations? Maybe you are hanging out too much? Maybe you are scared of failure? Think carefully about the next course of action. Maybe take the next sequence of classes in your major to see if physics is really for you?

    You can take a semester more and realize that physics is for you. Or you can waste z semester and honestly find out that no was the answer. One semester wasted is better than a lifetime of uncertainty always wondering if you could have been like Richard Feynman if you would have stuck with it. Forgive me for my post. I did not know exactly what to type but you reminded me of myself a few semesters ago, where I wanted to stop pursuing a math degree and go for an engineering instead.
  9. Jan 1, 2015 #8
    The work of programmers has been more relevant to everyone's lives in the past few decades than all of the Hawkings in the world. They hardly comprise a "blip". If you plan on doing theoretical physics, be prepared to do a whole lot of programming.
  10. Jan 2, 2015 #9


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    You do realize that there are tens of thousands of successful, working physicists that aren't of the "Hawking caliber" or anything like that, right?

    You don't need to go to an Ivy for grad school to be successful. There are numerous schools that are equal to or even better than any of the Ivy's.
  11. Jan 2, 2015 #10
    I've since apologized for the blip comment. And you're preaching to the coir with respect to programming. Regardless of my plans I'll have to learn it. It's just not the most rewarding thing for me personally, but I do enjoy messing with it. Just not something I want to make the sole experience of my career.

    I feel you. Please excuse the hyperbole, it was out of line. But the way others talk on this site is that academia is out of the picture for most people. And that's the only place I saw myself being happy. So it may not be physics so much as just that which hurts. I want to teach AND do research, and idk, this forum is remarkably negative sometimes about the whole deal, and while I see positive thinkers like you on here the majority seem to be the opposite. The whole ivy league thread that's popular right now didn't help.
    Last edited: Jan 2, 2015
  12. Jan 2, 2015 #11


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    Natural ability only takes you so far. Eventually everyone has to work hard to succeed. Also, some people who you may originally peg as try hards may turn out to be smarter than the people you thought were naturally talented. When you are talking about understanding a field enough to do research, it's not always about how fast you learn but how well you learn things. I seem to be in the middle of the pack when it comes to learning pace with respect to my peers (Ivy league grad school and undergrad), but my strength is that once I learn something, it sticks and I can use my knowledge to understand new things.

    I think that to be successful in physics, you need to discover your strengths and particular of thinking. This helps you realize the areas you are particularly skilled at. I notice a lot that professors who are very well respected in a subfield have particular ways of thinking that lends itself to their deep understanding of their field.
  13. Jan 2, 2015 #12
    I strongly suggest you go into college with an open mind regarding the kind of work you like to do. I say this for a couple of reasons:

    1. Jobs are scarce doing research in those "sexy" areas of theoretical physics.
    2. Physics isn't all philosophizing about the nature, birth, and death of the universe. There's a lot of grinding through numbers. There's many a frustrating night banging your head against a wall (same as in any subject).
    3. You'd be very hard-pressed to find people who wanted to do the exact same thing after undergrad as they did before undergrad. The thing is, before you've actually done a good bit of physics, you don't know what interests you. You only think you know what interests you. Perhaps you're right, but perhaps you'll find you prefer engineering instead. Perhaps you'll like experiment. Perhaps you'll hate physics. Just approach things with an open mind.

    The rewarding work that happens in physics appears in a wide variety of careers. Perhaps you'll only be happy solving the mysteries of the universe, but if that's the only thing that'll make you happy, you may never be able to guarantee your happiness.

    I'm saying go to college focused on the now, figure out what you enjoy, and do it. But don't go in with preconceived notions, and don't put all your eggs in one basket. And be marketable, of course.
  14. Jan 2, 2015 #13


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    That's very true. The very vast majority of work in physics has nothing to do with the "theory of everything" or uniting QM with relativity, probing beyond the standard model, analyzing black holes etc.

    The people who tend to work on those things are the Einstein's, Hawking's, Feynman's etc. of the world. The majority of the physicists in the world are really just relatively average people who have applied themselves completely to physics.

    If you want to major in physics, then do it. I can assure you that not all physics majors are geniuses that were solving second order differential equations at age 10.
  15. Jan 3, 2015 #14
    I prefer math and physics as a hobby than as a career, anyway. That way, you can do whatever you want, with no pressure. I'm not sure that you really have that much academic freedom as a professor to do what you want. Because of pressure to publish, I probably would have had to work on stuff close to my dissertation for a while, in order to get my career going (I'm a math PhD with an interest in physics). It's good to know that I can take 20 years to learn quantum mechanics really deeply, with no consequences for my career. Of course, the tremendous drawback is having to maintain another career at the same time.

    Also, not all programming is created equal, and programming isn't the only back-up plan there is. Personally, I have no qualms being the most mundane programmer, although I'm not sure it would be the best use of my skills, but programming is involved in a lot of things. It helps to be more open-minded about getting interested in other things that you don't suspect would be interesting at first glance, like finance or actuarial work or whatever. Or engineering, for that matter.
  16. Jan 7, 2015 #15
    Wow the OP is pretty much my thoughts as I exited high school. Congrats for having the courage to ask such a prickly question. As someone not much older than you, my advice may not be as time-tested as others' on this forum but, I am currently "approaching this problem", so here goes. Before reading the rest of this, I would first suggest looking up "impostor syndrome."

    Throughout high school, one of my very close friends was a BEAST at math and physics. Although I considered myself above average, I felt like I just couldn't compare with her. When we would discuss solutions tests and competitions, I would always preface it with "well this reminded me of a problem..." and give a pretty standard approach whereas she would start with "oh, I noticed/felt/guessed/was told by the Virgin Mary..." (ok maybe not the last one) and come up with some of the most elegant methods I knew I would never have derived. In short, my approach relied almost entirely on my work and exposure to different things while hers seemingly came from her amazing intuition and spatial reasoning skills. And so, I threw myself blindly into chemistry, first because I absolutely enjoyed it but second because I thought I wasn't "good enough" for physics, and any of the small accomplishments I had were due to luck and my "beating the odds" temporarily. As if to confirm this, during senior year, this friend earned more than double my score on a national physics competition while breezing through a mechanics course that I struggled through. Believing that the law of large numbers would reveal my incompetence if I pushed enough, generally avoided physics outside of class. I entered college as a chemistry major. Things only got worse from there. I quickly found out first semester that what I enjoyed about chemistry was...physics and being surrounded by physics majors, rather than just my one friend in a public high school made everything seem so much sharper. Now as a physics major I was "behind" because these people had spent high school racking up experience and math background. Again, their approaches seemed to be divinely inspired, but this time I "knew" that I couldn't solve the problems on my own. My aspirations were shattered, and I just wanted undergrad to end so I could stop the deception and finally be "weeded out". The rest of freshman year passed in a blur of career fairs and alumni interviews about how easy it was to jump ship from physics into other quantitative pursuits.

    So what changed? After a summer of off-campus research isolated from other undergrads, I realized that a physics major isn't something you win by being smarter than other people; it's something you earn based on your own effort. If I want to devote my time to studying physics during undergrad, then there's nothing else to it. Of the alumni who had left physics, not a single one regretted studying physics in undergrad rather than something preprofessional; they had the rest of their lives to think about their jobs. To this day, I'm unsure about whether it's industry or academia for me, but options are open and that's good enough for now. Finally, I finally learned how to deal with impostor syndrome: "fake it 'till you make it." Lie to yourself that you're smart enough. Tell yourself that you're as good as your peers. Once I stopped wasting precious brainspace on comparisons, I learned better and regained my enthusiasm for physics. In the end, those two "lies" became truths more or less.

    You're smart enough to know what you want to study. And that's all the intelligence you need to study physics.
    Last edited: Jan 7, 2015
  17. Jan 7, 2015 #16


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    The reason for the "negative" attitude is that it is a fact that relatively few people end up working in academia. Hence, even if your goal is an academic career you should always remember that there are other options. Great "natural ability" (whatever that means) does in no way guarantee that you will have a successful academic career: a lot of hard work and just pure luck are just as important (you have no control over which topics the funding agencies decides are worth money, and even being the best candidate in the world does not help if there simply aren't any open positions .in your field; so chance does play a major role).
    Moreover, the skills you need to do actual science are often quite different from the skills/abilities you need to do well in school. I was never the best in my class in any STEM subject in high school, and I was only an average student at university (until my final year when my grades started going up). However, the fact that I am good at working in the lab (and reasonably good at numerical modelling) in combination with quite a bit of the aforementioned luck means that I now do belong to the minority that does actually work as a research scientist. That said, at every stage I've considered other options, and I only "settled" down about three years ago, up until then I was always considering moving to industry (and I still haven't completely ruled that out).
  18. Jan 7, 2015 #17


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    Being an Engineer is actually pretty cool if you ask me.

    Incidentally, an engineering degree is going to be as hard if not harder than a physics degree.

    Good luck.
  19. Jan 7, 2015 #18
    My son is looking to college - my advise is take the hardest program you can, that you have interest in, an can afford. You do not know what you will enjoy doing day to day 5 years from now so do not sweat it too much. You also mentioned teaching like it is less then programming - the world needs physics teachers and professors - and as far as being "something grand" every person that has achieved something grand has a teacher they look back at an say they were the one. While you are asking a challenging question - it is almost arrogant to say if I can't be S. Hawking then what is the use. You can be one in a million - and still there are 7000 people just like you.
  20. Jan 7, 2015 #19


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    Most physicists I know spend at least half their time programming. Grad students and postdocs in HEP and nuclear physics (who I have contact with) spend at least 75% of their time programming.
  21. Jan 7, 2015 #20


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    Okay folks, enough with the programming angle. The OP and I spoke and he's good with it.

    I understand his original sentiment. When I was in school, I anted to work on the einstein Unified Field theory. I knew very little about the work done and im sure I would barely understand the math but I felt like I could be the one to solve. It's Walter Mitty dreams like these that propel us to do what we do even though we may never actually attain that height. The best strategy is to dream about the things that could be and work toward a future you can enjoy.

    For me, it was computing with the possibility (still a possibility) to do great computer modeling and gaming and cool apps. As the Tin man said in the Wizard of Oz someday their going to erect a statue of me and Dorothy's aunt says well don't start posing for it now.
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