Mathematical Burnout

  • Thread starter pinnacles
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So, right now I'm in the middle of my third year of being a math/financial economics major, and academically I have been strong but now am really taking a hard hit.

The main thing that I feel is that the deeper into math I've gone, the less interesting its become. Reading math on a lower-level (undergraduate analysis, even some topics in other areas of math) was really interesting to me as well as basic problem-solving (This year, I worked up to an honorable mention on the Putnam exam) but the deeper into graduate fields (complex analysis, stochastic mechanics, PDE's) I get the more boring this becomes, the less interested I get, and the more detached I am from studying.

It doesn't help that social life is infinitely more interesting than sitting in a basement writing proofs about stuff I can never see, or picture - and that as I get deeper and deeper my ability to connect math to reality (a strong point of how I worked with math earlier) has been disappearing.

This semester, I'm taking complex analysis and topology (the former at the graduate level, the latter at an honors level) and its been ridiculous with the amount of proofs I've had to write a week - normally, I've taken at most one "tough math class" like this, and had to go all-out a few nights a week to complete my work - now, it's like this every night. I feel that in complex analysis I'm unable to focus in class (it honestly just goes in one ear, out the other) and I'm completely bored with the material - I'm just skimming sections, using it to solve problems, and not actually learning/internalizing anything.

I'm concerned, one because I'm not sure if I'm going the right path - do I really, really want to be a mathematician (my economics major is not as interesting, but I haven't gone as deep there, it's been more of a side major) - or do I want to lighten up, and go into a mathematics-related field (finance, insurance, some business-field) that isn't graduate-level or graduate-research based? Family (Asian, of course) have been pressuring me to go into mathematical research (they refuse to admit it, instead pressuring me step by step, but I haven't been raised dumb to not be able to tell) as well as math professors across the board.

Any ideas on how to manage this burnout? The biggest thing, if anything, I'm wondering is whether its likely temporary (just haul through this semester, albeit with crappy grades, and move on forward) or whether it means I permanently need a different career ambition.


[edit]

The sad part is right now my grades are B's to C's.... and I know for a fact that I am completely capable of getting A's if I'm able to devote 72 hours a week to studying, but if only I could care enough to put that amount of time in without drifting off and actually focus.
 

Answers and Replies

  • #2
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If you like math that's rooted in the physical world there is the body of study known as physics... :devil:
 
  • #3
Stephen Tashi
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Not being able to be interested in mathematical structures of think of them as actual things is a big disability. It will be hard for you to remember their definitions and properties. And it will be no fun thinking about them. One thought is try applied mathematics, computer science, or an engineering field. Another is just to take some time off from school and work at a "menial" job - however, it sound's like that would drive your parents crazy. As to business and finance, would you be heading toward academia or practice?

I have a Pavlovian theory of "burnout" that never gets the enthusiastic reception that I think it deserves, but I'll inflict it on you anyway. When people work hard at one particular field they are unconsciously punishing themselves. For example, a student studies a subject with great interest and concentration. He stays up late hours, lives sleep-deprived days, sits in a cold apartment reading. These are uncomfortable to the body. The mind may begin "unconsciously" to learn that studying the subject is associated with these small punishments. In addition, just by conincidence, the time when a person is spending a lot of time on a project may also be a time when things about his social life make him feel unhappy or he is neglecting to take care of his health. The idea that the project is the cause of the unhappiness or discomfort may not be valid, but I think the survival mechanisms of our mind will naturally start telling us to change what we are doing if we are suffering.

Maybe you can go into psychology and prove my theory correct - what about that?
 
  • #4
Well, we all know that to disprove anything, all you have to do is to find a counter-example. As for your theory, it may hold that for some people, studying=sleep deprivation. But, in my case, I sleep 6-8 hours a night, eat incredibly well, and study for at least 5 hours per day. During all this time, I find myself more than happy. My body does not fight against studying.

Think about someone who plays video games for 12 hours a day. That person is putting their body through a lot of stress, but usually those types of people don't have a "video game burnout".

I like your theory, but in general it is not true.

As for the OP: It seems to me as if you're just getting bored of doing so much. With this new boredom, I would think that you spend less time digesting and savoring the subject, and more time hacking at it. Perhaps you could try moving your schedule around a little, to perhaps give you at least one day off per week (I know how hard this is, but try it). That way, your new "free" day could be spent being calm, enjoying other things, and perhaps reflecting on what you learned during the week.

-D
 
  • #5
Stephen Tashi
Science Advisor
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Well, we all know that to disprove anything, all you have to do is to find a counter-example. As for your theory, it may hold that for some people, studying=sleep deprivation. But, in my case, I sleep 6-8 hours a night[?

Then you aren't a counterexample. The discomforts are in the "if" part of my theory. I seek to explain burnout, not claim that everyone burns out.

Think about someone who plays video games for 12 hours a day. That person is putting their body through a lot of stress, but usually those types of people don't have a "video game burnout".

That might be a counterexample, but I have never know such a person. Besides, Pavolvian conditioning is determined by rewards as well as punishments. It sounds like the OP has had some postive reinforcement in his pursuit of math. I'd guess some parental approval, encouraging remarks from teachers, perhaps a reputation among his peers as a "brain". Maybe that's wearing thin. Doesn't psychology say that we become less responsive to a repeated simulus?

I think your remark about "hacking" at it is important. To me, hacking at something implies that you are very curious about it, somewhat determined to find out, but not under uncomfortable pressure to do a specific task. However, if a sufficient repulsion to abstract math has developed, is it likely that he could take one day off a week and hack at it?
 
  • #6
chiro
Science Advisor
4,797
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So, right now I'm in the middle of my third year of being a math/financial economics major, and academically I have been strong but now am really taking a hard hit.

The main thing that I feel is that the deeper into math I've gone, the less interesting its become. Reading math on a lower-level (undergraduate analysis, even some topics in other areas of math) was really interesting to me as well as basic problem-solving (This year, I worked up to an honorable mention on the Putnam exam) but the deeper into graduate fields (complex analysis, stochastic mechanics, PDE's) I get the more boring this becomes, the less interested I get, and the more detached I am from studying.

It doesn't help that social life is infinitely more interesting than sitting in a basement writing proofs about stuff I can never see, or picture - and that as I get deeper and deeper my ability to connect math to reality (a strong point of how I worked with math earlier) has been disappearing.

This semester, I'm taking complex analysis and topology (the former at the graduate level, the latter at an honors level) and its been ridiculous with the amount of proofs I've had to write a week - normally, I've taken at most one "tough math class" like this, and had to go all-out a few nights a week to complete my work - now, it's like this every night. I feel that in complex analysis I'm unable to focus in class (it honestly just goes in one ear, out the other) and I'm completely bored with the material - I'm just skimming sections, using it to solve problems, and not actually learning/internalizing anything.

I'm concerned, one because I'm not sure if I'm going the right path - do I really, really want to be a mathematician (my economics major is not as interesting, but I haven't gone as deep there, it's been more of a side major) - or do I want to lighten up, and go into a mathematics-related field (finance, insurance, some business-field) that isn't graduate-level or graduate-research based? Family (Asian, of course) have been pressuring me to go into mathematical research (they refuse to admit it, instead pressuring me step by step, but I haven't been raised dumb to not be able to tell) as well as math professors across the board.

Any ideas on how to manage this burnout? The biggest thing, if anything, I'm wondering is whether its likely temporary (just haul through this semester, albeit with crappy grades, and move on forward) or whether it means I permanently need a different career ambition.


[edit]

The sad part is right now my grades are B's to C's.... and I know for a fact that I am completely capable of getting A's if I'm able to devote 72 hours a week to studying, but if only I could care enough to put that amount of time in without drifting off and actually focus.

Hey there pinnacles and welcome to the forums.

If you really don't like what you're doing its probably going to make you even more miserable as time goes on.

The pressure from your family probably has a big impact and i'm not you or a member of your family so it wouldn't be proper to judge you and your situation, but what I will say is that at the end of the day you answer to yourself. If you don't want to become a math professor or get a PhD, then there is nothing wrong with that. If you end up becoming successful in some technical field like applied math and your family look down on that, then I really sincerely feel sorry you and the kind of environment you are surrounded by.

One other thing to remember is that many people with degrees leverage their degree to get things that aren't too related with that kind of background. For example people with math and physics degrees become programmers, philosophy majors become policy advisers and so on.

One thing I'll leave you with is if you're hating it now, imagine what it would be like in a job doing more or less the same sort of thing. Asian or not, if you decide to change it doesn't mean you have failed life. You get more out of life by trying things, taking calculated risks, and learning from your experiences.
 

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