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Physics undergrad burnout

  1. Nov 11, 2008 #1
    hi all. i'm a junior physics major and i recently have felt like i've hit the total burnout stage of being a physics major.

    for my electromagnetism class i spend between 20 and 30 hours per week outside of class on the homework (usually 5 or more problems from griffiths) plus reading (with surprise reading quizzes every week (sporadically to make sure we do the reading)). in addition our professor just gave us an examine that nobody came close to finishing (75 minutes for an 18 question closed book portion followed by a 3 problem open book portion (including multipole expansion of a weird charge distribution, a separation of variables nightmare, and an (easier) B-field problem)

    in my solid state physics class i do the homework with others and usually know what's going on, but recently the lectures have become so completely disorganized to the point where we go into class and we are not told anything really about what the class is going to be about, and then a bunch of equations appear on the board and then the professor babbles about electron heat capacity, fermi energies, and bandgaps but it follows no real order. using kittel as our textbook is also a bane, as it is completely unreadable and the problems are often unreasonable and obscure (they often require information that is not contained within the textbook).

    any advice? how can i get my work done and learn the material without spending 40-50 hours per week on academics, approximately 30-40 hours are spent doing physics.?
  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 11, 2008 #2


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    Hmm, sounds like a typical physics student experience. Are you truly burnt out, as in can't go on, or are you just griping?

    If you are toast, then back off, drop a class or two, and regroup. If you're at the breaking point, walk away and do something else (poetry, music, whatever). Otherwise, you might continue to audit so you can come back next year and redo those classes. Seeing the material once even if you don't read the book or work problems will help you with the big picture the 2nd time around.

    If you are just complaining but aren't ready to walk away, then you might try some of these time-proven strategies:
    a) Get used to having no life.
    b) Get help! Be a regular at office hours of TA's and profs, let them know you are struggling, and they might be able clear up conceptual blocks, get you back on track and help keep you there. Hang out with the smartest students in your classes and see how they do the problems. Let them help you when you're stuck.
    c) Befriend some grad students. I used to treat them to dorm dinners in exchange for help. Grad students will do anything for food (and, sometimes, company).
    d) Browse your library for books that work for you. I always liked Kittel (I've read that it's gone downhill since the 3rd edition I used), but if you don't try someone else. There are lots of intro books. For more advanced books, Ziman is good, Ashcroft and Mermin is the ultimate classic, and Chaikin has a good reputation. Harrison is dry but also intuitive.
    e) Suck it up and stop complaining. You knew the physics major was dangerous when you signed up!
    Last edited: Nov 12, 2008
  4. Nov 11, 2008 #3
    heh....you don't. You take it all, you learn it, you say how much it sucks but by the end of the semester you know some cool stuff and it makes it all worth wild.
  5. Nov 12, 2008 #4

    Vanadium 50

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    Being a full-time student means that's a full time job. 40-50 hours per week is a full time job. If physics is your major, that means you expect to put a major fraction of your time into it.

    If this is more time than you want to put into it, you should drop out and find something you feel will be a better use of your time. This is what a college degree takes.
  6. Nov 12, 2008 #5


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    This advice piece is really good. Highly Recommended. haha :rofl:
  7. Nov 12, 2008 #6
    Self defense

    I found it useful to change my attitude to one of self defense. While about 5% of the students can possibly follow most of what is happening, and another 40% pretend that they can. Most students stop actually following class and enter a funky mental wonderland round about the third or fourth lecture. (This makes it easily understood why "Alice in Wonderland" could have only been composed by a physicist.) It is still amazing though, how much you still manage to learn.
    So start taking classes that are easy credit [...], hook up with grad students anything you can get away with. If the professors are unfair in demanding the impossible, you may bend the rules to deliver the impossible!
    Last edited: Nov 13, 2008
  8. Nov 12, 2008 #7
    Burnout sucks, man. I've been there. If it's real burnout, there's no point in trying to force yourself to go on. Just like a fire that has burned all its fuel, you can't reignite the flame by simply applying more heat. If you have any desire for grad school, my advice would be to back off significantly. I've known people try to just press through their burnout. They finish their junior and senior years with GPA's significantly less than their freshman and sophomore years. This looks absolutely horrible on a graduate application. You'd be better off switching majors to something else in this case and trying to finish clean. You can still go to grad school in physics later on (you don't *have* to have a physics degree) - just take a break and work for a year or two.

    Now, if you have no intentions of proceeding further in school, then maybe just crank it out and finish. But even in that case, I would suggest lightening your course load as much as possible. Just do the minimum necessary to get through. And believe me, it's much better to take an extra semester or two with less classes than to try to rush it. Quality over quantity & speed - always.
  9. Nov 12, 2008 #8


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    I agree. 40-50 hours per week spent on academics is what is expected of any student, regardless of major. When I was a student, there were no illusions about this...on the very first day of Freshman orientation, our dean stood up in front of our entire class and told us straight up exactly what Vanadium just stated, that being a full-time student means it is our full-time job, and we should expect to spend at LEAST 40 hours a week on that job. Some work at a slightly slower pace, and need to spend more time. If you budget your time carefully, that still leaves a TON of time to go play and have fun and enjoy the socialization aspects of college life.

    If you're getting burnt out and struggling to keep up and understand the courses, you can either take the initiative to get yourself some help by talking to your professors or seeking tutoring, or you can decide you don't want to put any more effort into your classes and consider that maybe the problem is that physics isn't the right major for you.

    If you really feel like you can't handle the work, and it's a complete drag to do it, it could be that you're simply not enjoying the major anymore. This happens. Are there other courses that seem to be more appealing to you? Maybe it's time to consider a change of major. Really, better to figure it out now than to graduate with a degree and hate the work you'd end up doing with that degree. Remember, when you're out in the working world, you'll be spending 40 to 80 hours a week working on things related to physics, and they'll be far tougher problems than you're getting in your homework assignments. If you can't imagine doing that, why kill yourself to do what you don't enjoy?

    There's no dishonor in realizing you just don't like what you're doing and should change to something different. Heck, I had a friend who got to senior year in physics and while he was really great at it, realized he absolutely HATED doing it every day. He had to tack a year onto undergrad since he decided so late, but changed his major to linguistics, and went on to be successful in grad school in linguistics. That was a HUGE shift in direction, but he was SO much happier after that.

    Maybe you just need to get over a rut, and talking to your professors will help with that. But if that's not the problem, then changing majors is another viable solution, and one you should consider before completely dropping out of school, which is of course a third option, but not usually a desirable one.
  10. Nov 12, 2008 #9


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    I basically agree with what has been said by the others in this thread.

    However, although being a physics major is a full time job, you and your fellow students DO have the right to a fair chance. There is no reason for you to accept "completely disorganized lectures" etc. Really bad courses/lecturers are -in my experience- rare but they do exist. Hence, if all (or at least most) of the students that take a course agree that there is something wrong you should do something about it together (i.e. complain).
    Just make sure there really is something wrong, you shouldn't use "bad lecturer" as a convenient excuse.

    I once had a lecturer in multi-variable calculus who was REALLY bad, I didn't understand a thing about what was going on no matter how hard I tried (which was really depressing). Fortunately, I soon discovered that I was not alone but it took us a few weeks to realize that there really was something wrong with the course, once we had figured that out and got some outside help things improved considerably (in the end the lecturer was actually replaced and was not allowed to teach undergraduate courses any more).
    But those first weeks were really hard, it was probably the hardest time I had during my time as an undergraduate.
    Last edited: Nov 12, 2008
  11. Nov 12, 2008 #10
    Cameo_demon, i am in the same page as you are in. I know it sucks bad. I am taking E&M this semester and i understand the class lecture. But when i sit down to solve problems, it takes forever to figure out the right answer. Its depressing. And believe it or not, its affecting my other math classes. I really wanna to go grad school and now i am afraid of my grades in math, which does not look impressive at all.

    My Question to everyone :

    (Does an average score in math classes affect the grad school application (Physics) ?)
  12. Nov 12, 2008 #11
    Re: Self defense

    That's just the nature of the game, my friend. After my last real analysis I've noticed a sharp decrease in attendance. I had one friend drop out of the math program and switch to economics, and I have a friend majoring in physics who withdrew from all his physics classes a week ago. Both from burnout. I myself am feeling a bit worn out from 3 upper level math classes and 1 physics course. Take some of the advice being offered and possibly cutback next semester or take a break from all the high level physics. No need to rush.

    Actually, Lewis Carroll was a mathematician. Sorry to be nit picky. :tongue2: Guess it's clear who I'm repping for.
  13. Nov 13, 2008 #12
    Cameo_demon, i do not know if you have that option secured for yourself. But for me, I can not afford to do that. I can not afford the cost of one more semester. I need to refuel, somehow. And I will do it. Cameo_demon, as i mentioned earlier: we are on the same page. Let's do it man! Let's try to relax and stay afloat for a while, we will rise above the surface and stand proud very soon. Let's do it bud !!!
  14. Nov 13, 2008 #13
    1) no grad students/ta's at my school. small liberal arts college in the northeast, vassar college.

    2) my grades have actually gone up since freshmen year, but stayed at a constant B+ even with significantly increased effort.

    3) it's not about failing the classes, it's that i probably haven't learned enough math 'tricks' to doing math more efficiently.

    reading that article 'so you want to be a physicist' made me realize its the bloody math
  15. Nov 13, 2008 #14


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    This sounds like it's taking far too much time. If you're spending 20-30 hours per week on 5 questions from a textbook, then that means it takes you at least 4 hours to complete one question. I don't know the level of the book you're using, but I can't imagine any EM question set at your level that should take 4 hours to answer. After all, if you take this long now, how do you expect to complete examinations? Perhaps you should look into utilising office hours, or even go and talk to your advisor and ask him whether such practice was normal.

    As for the "40 hours a week," I remember that I was told this, but it was more of a threat. I don't think anyone *really* spent that much time doing homework (well, I guess I did towards the end of my masters year when I was writing my dissertation).

    Of course, lots of people here are professors, so their comments are biased :wink:
  16. Nov 14, 2008 #15
    griffith's problem are of two types: either they're the annoying type that if you don't remember some key detail you're never going to get it or they're of the tedious type where you're doing annoying integrals.

    one could argue that that is e&m and that research problems just as tedious/annoying but there's a difference between solving a problem you actually care about and solving a problem that someone else thinks you should care about.

    now one could argue that this is what physics is and there i would agree and but i'm on my way out.
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