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Math major experiencing typical crisis

  1. Oct 20, 2008 #1
    I'm in a Spivak-based first year calculus course, and I'm fresh off getting a C or below on a midterm for making an elementary mistake on one problem (out of just four). So I'm in an introspective mood. Until then I had been doing fairly well, but that's not why I'm seeking advice.

    It seems that I'm just not quite good enough at mathematics to justify my studies. I can pound through some of Spivak's tougher problems, and I pick up new mathematical techniques pretty quickly, but I'm terrible at competition-style problems, partly because I have no prior experience and partly because I'm just not smart enough. I'm also, well, slow, which kills me on tests, even if I know everything. Realistically, success in competitions is often a good predictor of future mathematical success, due to the measurement of problem-solving ability and all that good stuff. But there's no use whining about what, for the most part, can't be changed.

    My issue is that, without the option of jobs that are virtually gated by natural intelligence (professor, research positions, high level-government positions, etc.), I'm lost as to what to do with a math degree. I have poor social skills and an absolutely hilarious inability to take the initiative (I can't even ask people for directions), which dramatically hurts my ability to be successful in the job market, especially with a fuzzy "math" degree. I would feel safer with a "guaranteed" career path like medicine or engineering, but I like math more than any of those fields.

    Any advice for someone who's not talented enough for Ph.D level work, but certainly capable of smaller things?

    (By the way, I'm absolutely terrible at physics, even though I get high marks in those classes, so that's not an option either.)
  2. jcsd
  3. Oct 20, 2008 #2
    I feel you, man. I am a senior taking some graduate math courses hoping to go to grad school in math. But today I took my first exam, and I couldn't finish because I just couldn't figure out how to do them all in the 50 minutes allotted to us. I understand all the concepts and can solve problems if I work at them hard and long enough, but when it comes to timed exams, I just can't deliver. I'm afraid it's what will keep me out of graduate school.

    I'm in the exact same position as you. Engineering doesn't sound appealing to me at all. But math is jus too hard :(

    Good luck to you. You're not alone.
  4. Oct 20, 2008 #3
    It's good to see a thread like this. I'm a sophomore and taking real analysis (with Baby Rudin), and I think I bombed the last problem set (the stuff about basic topology). This is my first advanced college math course, but I already feel like I shouldn't become a mathematician. My midterm is coming in two weeks, but I'm not very looking forward to it.
  5. Oct 21, 2008 #4


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    First, never let ONE exam determine your career path. Everyone has a bad experience in college level courses. Sometimes there's more learning from the mistakes on exams than from all the studying before them.

    However, if you have poor social skills and are not very self-motivated, I'm not sure there is a discipline to recommend (the self-motivation part rules out pretty much everything...that's important at the college level). Poor social skills definitely rule out medicine or engineering; both of those require patient or client interactions on a daily basis...they both REQUIRE social skills.

    My suggestion is to first explore your social and motivational problems. It may be that something else is underlying that and holding you back from your full potential, and it's not just the subject. Your school should have counselors available who can discuss those issues with you. If you aren't sure who or where they are, contact student health services for information; they'll be able to make a referral.
  6. Oct 21, 2008 #5
    i also feel similar to you guys. i thought i would be better off switching from physics and engineering to pure math, but now i dont know. my honors abstract algebra course is killing all my free time, i dont follow most of whats going on in the class. i've never worked anywhere near this hard for a course before. upperdiv physics feels like elementary school compared to this. though i enjoy the course somewhat, i'm seriously considering not going to pure math for grad school. of course, its almost impossible to have a social life

    you need to work on your social skills. no matter where you end up in life, youll need them
  7. Oct 21, 2008 #6
    your smarts don't determine whether you'll make it, whether you can get back up from a fall and brush yourself off does. this is the perfect opportunity to learn how to do that.
  8. Oct 21, 2008 #7
    I think we all have moments where we ask ourselves if we are doing the right thing. First year chemistry just about killed me. I spent more time on it than all my other courses combined and was miserable. I still failed and had to take it the next semester. When I realized I failed with a 49 I cried for days and threatened to not come back. I was so disappointed but my mother made me finish out the year and thank goodness she did. I finished chem and Im now in biochem (not as bad as chem but still not my strong suit) and my grades have steadily risen. I dont know what I want to do with my life either. I also do not do well in timed tests, I only took intro level calculus for that reason, and was super limited in the physics courses I could take as a result.
  9. Oct 22, 2008 #8
    I get nervous on tests, which is unfortunate. The great thing is, once time has run out and I'm walking back to my dorm, I usually have all of the problems solved (and know all of my mistakes) before I get to my room. I think a lot better while walking (it's a holdover from my childhood, when I paced a ton.)

    I do think this one exam is going to completely murder me this quarter (I believe I did worse than I originally thought, due to another error I realized recently). I've messed around with the total amount of points in the class, and I'd have to completely obliterate the second midterm and final in order to manage a B, in the best-case scenario. Of course, now I have worries about losing scholarship money, which is just another stressor. It seems a little unfair that a couple mistakes can virtually break a college career (cue overdramatics) but I'm sure worse people have gotten over it. Besides, it's the real world, as many are fond of saying, and that's how it works.

    Counselors kind of scare me. I'm not sure I'd be willing to bear that sort of stigma. I used to have one when I was in high school but I was forced into that due to some school events.
  10. Oct 25, 2008 #9
    Ok, so I received a 93/100 on the midterm. It seems that I can't actually fail, even when I think I will...
  11. Oct 25, 2008 #10
    god forbid you get a 3.98 instead of a 4.0 this semester

    sorry if my post comes off harsh but I assue you lots of people would love to be 'terrible' at a subject and still get high marks

    if you really want to be a professor (or any of the other positions you wanted) why don't you just go for it and let the chips fall where thay may.
  12. Oct 26, 2008 #11
    odd thread. the first thing i thought of is that Russian that turned down the Fields Medal. one of the things i remember said about him was that he wasn't fast, but he could think deep. and deep is what is most important in mathematics.

    also, you're dealing with anxiety, which is more of a psychological thing. reversing it can be hard, but in general, winning is good, and losing just makes thingst worse. if you don't know right away how to solve a problem, go to the next one. keep winning. sometimes the answer will come to you spontaneously while you're doing another problem. and sometimes another problem will give you the hint you needed. but keep winning. losing drives up your cortisol, and cortisol makes you temporarily stupid.

    and you also may find you suck at calculus but blow discrete math out of the water. it's all relative. i think in pictures and such and can never remember what the terms associative/distributive/commutative mean. :/
  13. Oct 30, 2008 #12
    It is all relative. I'm usually great with abstract ideas, but when someone sets down something that's remotely visual, I'm awful. We all have something we're good at and something we're less good at; that's where finding your niche comes into the picture.

    We ALL feel dumb at some point and ask ourselves if we're smart enough to do what we want to (well, I think we all do, I sure know I do). As ice109 said, you just have to be able to pick yourself up and brush yourself off and keep going.
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