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My Professor says I have no talent - should I persist?

  1. Nov 14, 2009 #1
    Hi everyone,
    Could you give me your thoughts on the following?:
    I am currently doing double major in math an physics, and doing pretty alright in both (although better in physics than in math). My long term goal is to get a PhD in pure math, because although I love physics, math has been my passion for some time (four years or so). I talked about this with my math advisor and he straight out told me that I have no talent in pure mathematics and that it would be wiser not to persist with it. He suggested that I focus on applied math or physics instead.
    Thus far, I have taken 3 proof intensive classes: logic and set theory, geometry, and complex analysis. I'll admit, logic and set theory was difficult for me, and my performance was not stellar (B-). Geometry, was, however, by far the most beautiful math class I have taken - it came naturally, almost intuitively, to me. I am current taking complex analysis (taught by my advisor), and I am not doing that well (B- range, I expect), not because I don't understand the material or because I am incapable of writing proofs, but because I have not had that much time to devote to it (as I am in the midst of a hectic term).
    Now, I love pure math, and I don't think I can see the rest of my life without it. However, the process of learning it has been akin to learning a new language. I feel that with more time and practice, I will get the hang of it.
    My question is: Am I fooling myself in thinking that I can achieve my dream? Is it possible that no amount of love and dedication to the craft will be enough, and that I am simply, as my advisor says, not talented?
  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 14, 2009 #2
    And what is more important to you, doing what you love, or achieving certaing targets?
  4. Nov 14, 2009 #3
    There is a difference between loving something and loving something bad enough. If you don't have a disciple to achieve what you want, then no matter how much you love something, you will not achieve it.

    The adviser's job is to guide you in the direction of your choice. I suppose many advisers see that too many students fail, so that's why he suggested you shouldn't purse that path.

    In the end, the only person that can truly answer this question is you. But one thing is certain, if you don't try you will never know.
  5. Nov 14, 2009 #4


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    I think the problem is that pure math is a very small field and unless you are VERY good at it and have a lot of luck (and yes, luck DOES play a role here) it is very unlikely that you will be able to compete in the field.
    I might be wrong, but I suspect pure math is one of those fields where "natural talent" is actually considered to be quite important; whereas e.g physics is such a diverse field that most of us can find SOMETHING we are good at (string theory is very different from fabricating devices in a clean room).

    I gues the questions you have to ask yourself are if a) your grades, loR etc will be good enough to get into into grad school and b) Once you have a PhD, what do you want to do afterwards?

    Now, a PhD is under most circumstances never a bad idea and with a PhD in for example applied math you can certainly find a job , but I would imagine that it would be more difficult to find a job with a PhD in pure math. Also, the only place where you will be able to actually work with pure math is in academia.

    No one but you can decide what to do, but maybe it would be a good idea to for example make sure that applied math or physics is still an option when it is time to apply for grad school? I.e don't focus so much on pure math that you burn any bridges.
  6. Nov 14, 2009 #5


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    I find it odd that he would say you have no talent in pure math, when it is such a huge subject.

    Who is mathematically talented in pure math? I know my fair share of Statistics but I felt like I had to work way to hard in analysis to just simply 'half understand' it.

    Its like saying the new car you bought is worthless because it won't drive off road very well. Well maybe that car can drag race, or reach a high top end speed etc. (Horrible analogy, but you get the point)

    You definitely aren't fooling yourself. Love and dedication to the craft is what gets you there. Natural talent is nice, but I have seen so many people with very high natural talent throw it away from athletes to academic types. And if you love math, then you probably have a fair amount of talent in it already.

    Keep truckin'.
  7. Nov 14, 2009 #6
    It's always good to have a backup plan.
  8. Nov 14, 2009 #7
    I would ask my self, what I will be doing in the future. If your goal is academia, I guess a PhD is good and mandatory, but if you're just looking for work in your field, you could probably do just as well with a masters, as a PhD.
  9. Nov 14, 2009 #8
    What a disappointment. I expect academicians to know better that it is persistence rather than talent that leads to success. Without fail this applies to every single situation throughout history in the entire world (but of course discipline and proper guidance is also key).

    I too had the same situation where my relatives, so-called "friends", and my professors keep telling me that I won't make it in pure maths because it's too hard, too few jobs, too boring, too intense yadda yadda. I might be too young to fully comprehend the realities of life, but I do know one thing, is that if you keep paying heed to what other people say, you will never get anywhere in life.

    You guys should watch this particular clip from the film Rocky Balboa. It illustrates my point beautifully. "If this is something you wanna do and if this is something you gotta do then you do it. Fighters fight."
    Last edited by a moderator: Sep 25, 2014
  10. Nov 14, 2009 #9

    Last edited by a moderator: Sep 25, 2014
  11. Nov 14, 2009 #10
    I think you should tell your professor to buzz off (not literally) and to find another one (literally). It is unproffessional to tell a student that he hasn't enough talent to pursue the career he/she wants. You need to find another advisor that will guide you instead of telling you to settle for something else.

    Now on the other hand, I would say that a B average in your math classes is indeed a little low. I think, like others have mentioned, you do need to evaluate what you want to do and then change your goals to reflect that. If you aren't doing well in your math classes because you have a hectic semester and pure math is what you want to do, then you need to cut down on your hours or do something so that you can concentrate on your math courses more. Don't think that you can just wait around and then it will click once you've done enough math. Focus yourself on the task at hand and learn the material as thoroughly as possible, and this will pay off greatly.

    Mathematics relies on hard work, dedication, and imagination. Now talent can aid your studies, but it isn't a requirement, in great contrast to what f95toli said. Please read the following http://press.princeton.edu/chapters/gowers/gowers_VIII_6.pdf" [Broken] of some very good professional mathematicians. I myself do not have a natural talent for mathematics. During my undergraduate years, I found engineering and physics to come much easier to me than my abstract mathematics courses. You have to train your mind to work in more abstract terms, and each person must come up with their own methods to overcome this.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 4, 2017
  12. Nov 14, 2009 #11
    Is a "B" average really low, especially in math and physics?
  13. Nov 14, 2009 #12
    well B is a 3.0 GPA, while it isn't "really low" it isn't exciting either.
  14. Nov 14, 2009 #13
    Thanks. My question was induced by n!kofeyn's post.
  15. Nov 14, 2009 #14
    Yes. A B here and there in a course is okay, but I don't think one should be satisfied with a B average. By what the original poster said, their average is more like a B- in the higher courses, which are what matter. They do need to improve upon this or else it will be difficult to get into a decent graduate school.

    The fact that it's math and physics doesn't really even matter. Having an a B- average in your course of study isn't good, no matter what it is.
  16. Nov 14, 2009 #15
    Hi guys, thank you for your responses - you have been incredibly helpful and encouraging. Just to clarify something, though, my average in math is not a B- - it is more along the lines of a 3.8 - it will probably go down to a 3.7 after complex analysis, though :(
  17. Nov 14, 2009 #16
    To the OP: don't give up, but realize that very few people become professors and make sure that you have a backup plan. Make sure that you think about how you study. Maybe you're taking too many courses which means that you don't really learn any of the subjects well. Maybe your study techniques are ineffective and you should revise them. Maybe you don't really have the prerequisite knowledge (A passed mark is not always enough, you need the knowledge too). This is stuff you should be able to talk to your advisor about, but if he actually said you're not cut out for pure math I doubt he will be of much help. I would recommend you to find another advisor if possible, and make sure to do some introspection about why you're performing below your expectations.

    One important thing is: you need to make time. If you can't I would be forced to agree that a career in pure math would be hard to achieve. I don't think your grade in complex analysis is the most important thing, but if you pass the course and move on to harmonic analysis, operator algebras or something else requiring complex analysis and you aren't completely comfortable with the stuff from complex analysis it could jeopardize any attempt to learn. Making sure you have the prerequisite knowledge for a course is extremely important, and students often overlook it because they got a C in that class by cramming the night before the exam or they once knew a bit about the subject, but has now forgotten it, and they then never think to take out their old textbooks and do some refreshing. If you really want to do pure math, then good for you and go for it, but remember that you need to be serious about and set aside plenty of time.

    Depends on uni, course and your goals. There are a lot of undergraduates taking math courses, but not as many applying to graduate schools in pure math. It's usually the top students who apply to graduate school, so even though an average of B+ in math is above average at your university, it may very well be below average at the graduate schools you apply to and may even be considered bad. Also remember that some non-majors may take these courses and force the grade up for majors. I was for instance recently enrolled in a "Discrete Mathematics" course for math and CS students. About 75% of CS students got below average grades (a new record fail-rate of 32% for CS, but 7% for math). Thus for a math major B wouldn't really be good compared to other math majors.
  18. Nov 14, 2009 #17
    Let's see, listen your bastard advisor or follow your dreams? hmmmm
  19. Nov 14, 2009 #18
    I lol'd
    Last edited by a moderator: Sep 25, 2014
  20. Nov 14, 2009 #19
    I'd be interested in seeing the full context of that conversation. If he said it with the implication that you seem to be more talented in Physics and would make a better contribution there than mathematics, I would appreciate his insight and keep it in mind when I made my decision.
    If he really just blurted out that I had no talent and should do something else....I don't know that I could leave his office without a little extra tension between us.

    You have to make your own decision of course, but I'd definitely take a good look at what he said and why he said it.

    (for the record, I'm fully on the "do what you love" side of things. There are many times to be practical in life, but I couldn't devote my life to a field I wasn't interested in when there was something else out there that I loved.)
  21. Nov 14, 2009 #20
    Wait, is this a money issue?
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