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Present Decisions and Future Implications

  1. Jun 5, 2010 #1
    Hello all. I'm an 18 year old high school graduate going into university next year. I consider myself to be a longtime lurker of these forums, and cannot say how grateful I am to have stumbled upon them. The breadth of the quality of people and knowledge on this forum is quite admirable.

    Before I get into the specifics of my current situation, I think a little background information about myself is necessary. I don't think I define myself as specifically a math and science person. I say this in reference to a sort of mold I expect "math and science" people to fit. Granted, I know stereotyping is a rather superficial and ignorant thing to do, but I cannot help but feel that because I have not met the prerequisites, so to speak, of what a math and science person should be like, I can thus never hope to become as accomplished as someone who has a certain natural flair or insatiable curiousity to achieve in math and science.

    The people I am talking about are the seeming prodigies. I think we all remember them , either through our own experiences as grade school students or through books that we've read. The kids who get first place at math competitions. Who make chem olympiads. Who make IMO and USAMO annually. Perhaps my usage of the word prodigy is misplaced with regard to these competitions, as many would argue that the amount of work put into preparing for these competitions is more important than one's natural, unalterable intelligence. That may be the case, but I cannot help but wonder, as I am sure other young students in my position have, about the relationship between intelligence and existential purpose.

    How are these things intertwined? Well, it seems to me that although the capabilities of one's fixed intelligence can be maximized, the point that intelligence is indeed fixed and unalterable is in fact somewhat of a limiting and rather repressive thought. How can I, a mere high school graduate, possibly hope to make any new, meaningful contributions in any field? I am aware of my own intellectual curiousity, but why act on this curiousity when I seemingly don't posess the ability to just "see" the answer rather than work it through using brute force? I've pondered these questions and tangential ones as well for quite a while now, and I'll admit that the effects of these thoughts have led to somewhat of a depressive paralysis where I've been afraid to putting effort into my studies in fear of discovering I cannot just "see" the answer. Really stupid, I know, but now I am paying the price for this mentality as I was rejected/waitlisted from almost all top-tier universities. It hurts, to consider in retrospect, how my laziness and fears were able to so pervasivally eviscerate any motivation to study.

    However, I'll be going to the University of Florida next fall where I've declared my major preliminarily as chemical engineering. My specific questions regarding this decision are as follows:
    -By selecting chemical engineering, am I eliminating any possibilities from studying mathematics or physics in graduate school? My parents had a significant influence in my decision to take ChemE: they said that UF's chemistry departement is quite strong, and the engineering degree will help me in the long run not only for graduate school but also for job opportunities. (Would fields such as alternative energy research be interested in chemical engineers, if I indeed go to graduade school and eventually attempt to earn a phd?) However, the idea of studying theoretical physics and mathematics is somehow much more romantic to me, but then again I may simply have idealized view of what it means to be a physcist or mathematician. I may also double major in philosophy, since I enjoy it very much as well (it's actually more romantic to me than being a physcist or mathematician haha).

    Also, if anyone has any thoughts how how to overcome self-doubt and depression, I would greatly appreciate that as well. Perhaps this is not the appropriate sub-forum for that topic though.
  2. jcsd
  3. Jun 5, 2010 #2
    You can't escape mathematics! Or physics!

    Engineering is applied math! I am an engineering student, and almost all the courses I took included math one way or another.

    I think so! Fuel cells, bio-fuels, combustion all involve chemistry ;D
  4. Jun 5, 2010 #3
    I think you're fine where you are now. People who fall in love with the IDEA of doing math of physics can seldom handle the crazy, life-sacrificing amount of work and unglamorous grinding that it entails. Romance in fine and all but it's difficult for it to sustain you when you're working on boring, decidedly unromantic problem sets at two in the morning. If you're asking if you can get a B.S. in ChemE and then a PhD in physics or math, I'd say it is theoretically possible but hardly the best or easiest route.

    And I wasn't a 'math or science' person either in high school. Hell, I had never taken calculus or a real physics class until I entered university, but I am currently completing specialized physics and applied math degrees with a very high GPA and competence. I don't know if innate intelligence gives anyone the edge over you, but I will say that they are the ones more likely to be reading, researching, and solving problems in their free time which gives them greater knowledge of the field and preparation for contests and the like. In my personal experience, the difference between math and science people and everyone else is just that the former is more likely to put in the work and explore the field on their own, nothing more. Obviously, some people just plain suck at technical subjects and don't care to improve themselves in that regard, but not everyone who isn't doing calculus by the age of 8 is a lost cause.
  5. Jun 5, 2010 #4
    Hello, Lacasner. I am or was in a very similar situation such as yours. I don't consider myself a math or science person; I don't consider myself a humanities or artistic person either, matter of fact, the only thing I seem to be great at is playing video games. I still chose to begin my journey through math, science, and engineering.

    So far, I'm doing greatly (A+) but I began by taking remedial algebra classes and next fall I'll be taking a precalculus class. I'm still somewhat nervous and I may not pass the class but I'm still taking it because I prefer to live with certain failure than doubtful success. I recommend you do the same. Take the class; if you pass it, great, no more need to worry; if you fail it after several tries, you move on knowing you tried.

    What you should not do is worry about it too much. That doubt will eat you alive. Also, don't focus too much on graduate school now since a few years down the road you might change your mind about whether or not you will be attending it. You are better off planning for the near and middle term with the information you have now instead of dreaming long-term with theoretical information that you may not receive, at all. Good luck, friend!
  6. Jun 6, 2010 #5
    I personally chose to double major in Chemical and Bioengineering and pure Mathematics. The fact you have doubts on your intellect is a good sign. I have met so many kids at my university (I suppose is considered top tier) who thought they were math and science kids until they got to the university level. College is VERY different then high school. Personally, the transition wasn't terrible for me because I went to college for my high school courses, but I did experience some troubles in my first course in upper level course in theoretical mathematics. I certainly was not the smartest student in the course, and for some students the proof was obvious and intuitive, while I had to toil to come up with the same proof. I realized that upper-level math was not the easiest subject for me, but I love it. So even though I have to labor much harder over a math class than say an english course, my love for math is reason enough to continue in it. Nonetheless, one of the biggest lessons to learn is to become confident and comfortable with yourself, no matter you IQ. Even though you may not be prodigious or at a top tier university, that does not make you a failure. After all, not many people are.
  7. Jun 8, 2010 #6
    Hey guys, thanks for the responses. It seems that there are no concrete answers to my concerns and that I just need to accept that. I know I won't able to just a flip a switch and change my mentality overnight though, but I'll try my best and see what happens.
  8. Jun 8, 2010 #7
    Your interests seem all over the board. A lot of people get this idea in their head to do a Ph.D. because it supposedly represents some abstract high level of achievement in life--it doesn't. A Ph.D. is a tool you acquire if you want to work in a very specific field that requires one. Don't do it out of romantic notions.

    For someone like yourself, with the wide variety of left and right brained interests that you stated, I'd recommend a double major in Physics and Philosophy. Physics can be a good balance between pure math and the sciences, while philosophy is a nice balance among writing, literature, and history. Together, they should give you a good foundation for the future.
  9. Jun 10, 2010 #8
    Thanks for your response tenparsecs. I'm considering doubling like you've suggested, but I'm worried that UF's physics departement isn't ranked as strongly as the chem one, in rankings such as ARWU. I know those rankings don't pertain to undergrad, but I still think they have some sort of validity in terms of other people's perception of the UF degree, not necessarily in the quality of the program. Do you think these rankings matter at all?
  10. Jun 10, 2010 #9
    I wouldn't pay any attention to rankings. There are so many variables in life that it's pointless to base such a big decision on something as arbitrary as rankings.

    I was hired at one job just because I went to the same school as the hiring manager. Wouldn't it have been ironic to get turned down because I decided to choose another institution based on what some vaguely scientific study said about reputation?
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