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Really struggling with physics, would like advice

  1. May 7, 2015 #1
    Hi everyone, I'm a physics undergraduate and I'm starting to doubt my ability to complete my course. I'm in my second year of three and no matter how hard I try I can't understand a lot of what's going on. I've been falling behind for a little while and don't really see what I'm doing wrong.

    I recently flunked some exams that I busted my guts working for and I found that really demoralising. I wonder if I'm just not smart enough to do this anymore. Maybe I've reached a ceiling of intelligence and I just can't understand anything harder. Perhaps I'm not working in the right way, maybe going to lectures just isn't helpful (I certainly don't get much out of them).

    Did anybody feel like this in their undergraduate degrees? Do you think that you can just not be smart enough for a physics degree? Or is it just down to working in the right way?

    I don't really have any peers in physics or any family that went to university so I don't know who to turn to. I'd like to hear any advice on strategies for understanding the basics and getting motivated and optimistic about my academic future. Having said that, I'd really like you guys to be straight and honest and not sugar coat it. What should I do?

  2. jcsd
  3. May 7, 2015 #2
    For this part it would help if you gave examples of what you are struggling with, and how you approached the courses you flunked.
    My point is, at a certain moment the amount of work you need to do in order to just understand increases.

    At least that's how I experience(d) it
    The thing I bolded is what you could focus on first. Assess your methods, do you feel like you're getting better?
    Sometimes it takes a while before you get stuff.
    My biggest example is real analysis which I had to go through 5 times in utmost detail before getting the point.
    After that it became natural whenever I needed it.

    About the lectures, I've done that once. The teacher wouldn't allow (!!) us to raise questions during the lecture.
    So halfway true I usually was lost, that's when I decided to pick up a good book and study in the library.
    It helped me get up to speed and ahead at which point I did learn things during lectures.
  4. May 7, 2015 #3
    I'm especially demoralised with respect to quantum mechanics at the moment. We've moved on to working out things for helium when I haven't really understood hydrogen yet and I have no idea what's going on. We had a two hour lecture on it today and I learned nothing because I haven't got my head around earlier stuff in the course. I'm trying to read the course book but I just read and read and don't feel like I'm getting any better. Basically, although I've been spending a lot of time doing physics I haven't really achieved anything.

    Over the Easter vacation I had days where I'd sit at my desk and answer questions (with help) and at the end of the day I wasn't any better than the start. This culminated in an exam where I'd written pages of notes with pages of model questions, but I just can't figure out anything for myself. The exams were in the topics we'd covered in the previous semester (statistical mechanics, quantum mechanics and optics) and although I'd committed lots of time, that time hadn't been converted into learning. Obviously this is really getting me down as I try to think that hard work leads to success but at the moment that doesn't seem true.

    I'm starting to get really depressed with all of this and need help. It's especially galling that I'm paying through the nose to be this miserable too.
  5. May 7, 2015 #4
    Well statistical mechanics and quantum mechanics aren't the easiest subjects.
    Do you use textbooks or does the professor provide his own lecture notes? And if you use books can you name them?
    Sometimes (often in fact) it is advantageous to use multiple books alongside each other.

    Another anecdote, I am using about 4 books while fleshing out a 40ish page manuscript we received. (this is extreme though)
    However it is always a good idea to do 2 things, find out if the book you are using is well-accepted as a good resource.
    And find alternatives of the same level. A different choice of words can make a HUGE difference.

    About the Quantum part you are studying now, try to work through the text i.e. understand the calculations but also the motivations.
    Whether this is possible depends on the resources you have available. (bad books make this really hard)
  6. May 7, 2015 #5
    Do you mean that there is no other student in your class you don't feel comfortable asking for assistance? There is a great advantage in hearing an explanation from more than one source. The use of different terminology or sentence structure can help in navigating around difficult subjects. This applies to written explanations too. Find more sources for the subjects that you are have difficulty with. Sometime a person or book neglects to mention a elementary but vital point because he/she feels it obvious or we just do not interpret the dialogue as it was intended.
  7. May 7, 2015 #6
    It's basically this. I'm at Oxford and everybody seems so clever and on top of the work. 80% of people here get first class degrees and I feel extremely stupid. I hear people mock others that aren't doing well behind their backs and I'm afraid of that happening to me. There's also the fact that my peers work really hard and I don't want to take time away from their busy lives to ask them for help. On top of that, the atmosphere's really competitive and people generally are looking to "win" so wouldn't want to help others anyway.

    My tutors are actively involved in research and make it quite clear they don't have time to help beyond the 2hrs they are mandated to teach us for per week.

    And JorisL, my lecturers have written their own books, "The Physics of Quantum Mechanics" by Binney and Skinner and "Thermal Physics" by Blundell and Blundell. Those are my main texts for the respective courses. I just don't really feel I have time to go through whole books and read them and make sense of them given the pace of the course, I'm just expected to understand and move on.
  8. May 7, 2015 #7
    You don't even socialize with your fellow students at least so as to know where you might stand among them? Does the professor only give out a certain number of A's (or what ever grading system is used) that make this a competition? You mention others not doing well, Can you approach them for assistance. A collaboration might benefit you both. Regarding other texts what is the point of rereading the same text over and over with no progress rather that reading different texts once or twice then moving on to another if the topic is still unclear. Some books are much better than others.

    You must have something going for you to be admitted to Oxford.
  9. May 7, 2015 #8


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    Why are you afraid that your classmates might talk behind your back, but aren't afraid of them seeing you fail out of the physics program? Sure everyone's busy (and, at Oxford, maybe arrogant) but you also might find someone kind and helpful. You won't know if you don't try.

    I imagine this year's a lost cause, so try to catch up over the summer (can you get a tutor?) and then integrate yourself into your class next year.
  10. May 8, 2015 #9
    This line especially is depressing since I've heard similar horror stories at big name schools. You are not going to do your self any favors by isolating yourself. You have to try to find some friends who are willing to help you out.(or at least work together with) You are obviously a talented student to make it into oxford in the first place but I'd try to not struggle alone.
  11. May 8, 2015 #10


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    It's impossible for us to know what you should do, but I would suggest you review your options at the end of this year. It's possible that Oxford is wrong for you. From what you've said, that may be a big part of it. There may be good universities with solid physics programmes where you are at least an average student and maybe one of the cleverest. If 80% in your class expect a 1st, where does that leave a solid 2:1 student, let alone an "average" 2:2 student? And where does a BSc in Physics rank in the general population? There are lots of places where you'd be mocked as "Mr Brain Box"!

    If you want a degree in Physics you should try hard to rescue the situation. The only thing I'd add is that perhaps you should start getting a bit pushy: you're paying the college well and you can expect them to take an interest in you. If you drop out or transfer to another university, then they lose a student. And, if they don't care about that, they maybe you are in the wrong place and you should find somewhere that you're more welcome. You might be surprised what happens if you tell your tutor you're thinking of transferring next year.

    Finally, even if supposing a BSc in Physics is not for you, there's lots out there in the world beyond the helium atom!
  12. May 8, 2015 #11
    I too am an undergraduate physics major, but I haven't taken my first physics course since I needed to take a few math courses. However, I do understand what your going through. I go to all my math lectures, sit in the first row, and pay close attention to my professor, but I always end up more confused than ever. (it's mainly because my professor finds it fun to prove everything instead of teaching it). As much as I can't grasp math, I work hard at it. I love the challenge and the torture it puts me through. Of course I get stressed and sometimes feel like I'm the biggest idiot in the world because everyone around understands the material except me, but I use that to motivate me to study even harder and keep up with others.
    So of course physics is going to be hard... it's physics... it's supposed to be hard(:
    However, I know you can excel in it.
    As cheesy as this may sound,...don't give up.
    Ever heard of Milton Lasell Humason ?
    He dropped out of high school and became a janitor at an observatory. He soon found interest in astronomy and later became an astronomer. I gave a quick description of his life, but I find it inspirational. I am horrible with physics and math, but I do love it. I am passionate in learning about astronomy and I find Milton's background motivational.
    So, if you truly love physics then I wish you the best of luck! and I hope Milton's story inspires you too.
  13. May 16, 2015 #12
    Quantum mechanics kicked my butt so hard I ditched my PhD pursuit for an optical engineering masters. I would conceptually understand the topics, but the math was a completely different language. Everyone can agree that physicists wants to look smart and are generally stubborn to get help. What helped me survive was taking a step back from QM and solidifying deficiencies in linear algebra and diff eq. Don't beat yourself up about it. I don't believe in an intelligence ceiling and neither should you.
  14. May 16, 2015 #13
    Hmm, I can see where you are coming from, especially at Oxford, no doubt some really smart people there. BUT something I have learnt many of the smartest people enjoy being asked questions, it helps them learn the material further and probably makes them feel good that they can answer. I would really put effort into just asking people on the things you are stuggling with, perhaps even suggest a study group. You will be suprised how many people are willing to help.

    And as far as lecturers, they are paid to teach students and if you haven't understood something from class they should (and will be) available to help you. During my course I've sent email after email to lecturers, don't worry about offending them / appearing stupid, they are there to help, just be polite and explain that you have tried but are still struggling. Arrange an appointment with them, have all your questions pre-prepared, I have learnt more from an hour with a lecturer one-to-one than in 5+ lectures.

    Don't get too down, you just need to get some help and realise that that help IS there.

    Good luck!
  15. May 18, 2015 #14


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    I think what you need is a bit of an attitude change.

    You seem to be very worried about what others will think noting that people talk behind each others backs, and you don't want to bother people for help. In my experience, it's best to be yourself and have confidence that you are a human being studying some amazing (and difficult) material.

    Continue to try new things, continue to work hard, and repeatedly ask questions and try to go out of your comfort zone. Does it matter what others think of you? No. Ask other students how they are doing, if they need help with something you understand, or if they can offer help to you (study group).

    Noticeable trend in this thread: Study Groups, Study Groups, Study Groups!

    "If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don't understand quantum mechanics."
    I use this quote as my motivation in the sense, I someday hope to understand just a tiny amount of what physics has to offer. Be humble and confident.
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