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Should I quit physics?

  1. Sep 28, 2009 #1


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    Hi there.

    I'm really bothered by my situation, so I'm hoping a little bit of whining would result in some advice. Then again, I don't think there are many who have quit physics but are still posting here.

    The problem essentially is that on the other hand I really, really like mathematical physics, and on the other hand I really suck at both physics and maths. No, really. I suck.

    For example, say we have a large course in which 5-8 weekly homework problems are assigned. Even the easiest problem can take 2 hours for me to solve, often double that, and even then I'm unable to solve the problem. Or, at class we go through the problems, each student solving one of the problems in front of the class, and more often than not I find out that I've been the only one failing to solve the problem, everyone else succesfully solving their problems. (A little grammatical question: should I say "everyone else solving his problem" instead?)

    Now I can't think that, with 4 courses running in parallel, only solving the problems is supposed to take 40+ hours a week. Add the time taken by lectures, exams and other stuff...
    Of course it's not mandatory to solve all the problems to pass the course, but the problem is it takes so much time to even try.

    This has lead to two consecutive problems:
    - I'm really frustrated and afraid of failing again in front of the class
    - frustration causes stress and eventually I just put the homework aside, because I either can't solve the problem or I feel it's incorrect anyway

    I've struggled through 3 years, still few to go, and on the other hand I feel I shouldn't quit because then those 3 years would've gone to waste. And I don't know anything else I would like to do... I guess I'm a reductionist so all the other sciences feel... lesser sciences (I was studying history before physics, but I was so upset that history didn't make use of mathematics and theoretical physics...)
    A bigger problem is I really don't know if I can complete this thing. I'm constantly falling further behing everybody else.

    Then again, not all wannabe athletes can become Usain Bolts. Hell, if my ability as a physicist was transformed into athletics, I couldn't make it to the county finals for seniors aged 70+.

    Thanks for listening. This really helped to relieve the stress for the next five minutes.
  2. jcsd
  3. Sep 28, 2009 #2
    If you want to be a doctor/engineer/scientist, don't give up. If you are doing you bachelors, just keep on trying. Only 1 more year to go :). Find something else you are good at. Are you good at other kinds of math? Try to do an MBA or something. Hope that helps. :)

    p.s. Try to get some friends together or get a tutor to help you. Might cost money, but it should help
  4. Sep 28, 2009 #3


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    In my experience I've found that concentrating on a particular skillset has in general always made me improve my abilities in that area.

    I don't do physics but I do maths and I can imagine physics being very very hard as its different to simply revising a toolkit of techniques (what math mostly is).

    If you really like physics although I don't know you, I think you will get better with the more experience you have at practicing that particular skill. I think you're better off actually than the bright people because a lot of very bright people coast through their studies but when it becomes hard they aren't used to it and they fall out.

    If you push yourself to a limit that is beyond you, then you will gone somewhere you never thought of possible and this is a good preparation in life. You may fail but you learnt something. Theres lots of people out there that take the easy option, not challenging themselves and they end up with mediocre lives. Then there are people who push themselves often failing on the way who end up having better lives and learning valuable lessons.

    Physics is hard. Theoretical physics is harder. You're not alone. If people found it easy we would probably have solved everything but yeah its not. People often collaborate with one another to solve current problems because the story of the lone genius is not a realistic scenario.

    I guess what I'm trying to say is that you will be faced with tough decisions and problems in your life and a good preparation to dealing with them could be this course. If you don't like it though don't feel bad about chosing something else but if you really want to learn then yeah keep at it.

    I wish you the best of luck for your future.
  5. Sep 29, 2009 #4
    I hear ya... Having done three years of physics/math myself, there are times when I share your thoughts exactly. Yes, physics is hard. The course load is heavy, and there are days (most) when I can't keep up with the prof and scribble notes blindly, hoping to make some sense of them later. At two in the morning, after unsuccessful hours of working on the same assignment problems, I start to wonder why I didn't choose an "easy" degree. But that's just it, isn't it? The thing that draws us to physics and math. It's the fact that it is so damn hard. That's what makes it worth doing, and that's what makes it a satisfying degree. If you have the determination and curiosity to sit for hours, mulling over a problem, isn't that just what it takes to be a physicist? They make it hard on purpose. A prof once reminded us that to be taking these courses, we must all have above-average ability. So, if you ever feel average or slow (god knows I do in all of my subjects), keep in mind the playing field.

    If you are passionate about physics and math, don't let the toughness get to you. As much as I hate it at times, I can't imagine studying anything else. Before I started with physics I was in another science program, which I selected because I knew it would be kinder to my GPA. The material never really motivated me, so one year in I decided that heck, I have the opportunity now, near the beginning of my degree, to do anything I want. Why am I wasting it? So I switched... Do what feels right for you, but stick in there :smile:
  6. Sep 29, 2009 #5
    yeah, this stuff is hard. Agreed. But I'm pretty sure most people in physics don't do it because they're good at it- the primary reason they do it is because they find it hard, that they think its something hard that is worth spending time on.

    I'm actually significantly better at humanities courses (********) and I write pretty well, comparatively. Physics and Maths are the subjects I find hardest...and the ones I find the most interesting. So I do them and not other things.
  7. Sep 29, 2009 #6
    I have had a bit of the same experience as DukeofDuke. My feeling was that I could and did teach myself history and lit types of things, but there was no way I was going to teach myself physics, which I also found difficult. Therefore I majored in physics in order to really learn it at the same level as I did humanities fields.

    I also second the suggestion to find a tutor or study group - if you're 3rd year you must be in a bunch of classes with many of the same people, even in a huge university - no physics department has that many majors. If you're beating your head against the wall at 2am, you're probably missing something fundamental and further beating probably won't get it. That's when you need to be able to get with a group, show them where you've gotten to and someone may be able to point you in the right direction. You should be a regular at office hours also - many professors claim students don't come in. All this won't do you any good if you are doing this the night before its due - a better strategy would be to make a start on your homework as soon as its assigned, and stop work on each problem when you run into a roadblock, then as you think about it during the week and meet with your group and professors you'll find out what your conceptual stumbling blocks are.

    I eventually found an area of applied physics that I found fascinating and did well in and have made my living in that area for the past 25 years - you can too.
    Last edited: Sep 29, 2009
  8. Sep 29, 2009 #7
    sx70 is right by the way, the other kids are probably just doing it in groups. There's a definite distinction between peer-cooperation and cheating, the former is strongly encouraged at my university and even facilitated by recitation sections.
    So try that...
  9. Sep 29, 2009 #8
    Actually I'm planning on quitting physics after I finish my PhD in three years, and I'll probably still be posting here...for whatever that's worth.

    Here's a reason you might want to stay in physics: success in your classwork doesn't necessarily define you as a good physicist. Take me, for example. I can identify with your comment about "completely sucking" in physics. Academically I'm just fine. I've managed to maintain a 3.4 in grad school, passed the PhD qualifier on the first attempt, and I'm generally good about doing my homework at a reasonable pace. But put me in the lab, and I stink. I don't really know what I'm doing when I analyze data, and I have no idea how to interpret results (I do particle astrophysics). Now contrast this with a friend of mine. He does condensed matter physics. He got a terrible GPA in undergrad, he only got into grad school because of an astounding letter of recommendation, he got put on academic probation in grad school, and he only passed the qualifier on the very last attempt. Despite all that, this dude is an immensely better physicist than I am. He did post-doc level research as an undergrad and basically built a diffraction apparatus on his own. He's already got two papers out, and will probably get a faculty position without any problems.

    The key is this: the stuff you do on your homework assignments isn't as strongly tied to physics research as you might think. In fact, I don't think I've ever had to do a single physics problem in the course of my research. You may be good at experimental physics and bad at solving problems on paper. The problem is that grades are a prerequisite for getting into grad school. If you can manage to pull off decent enough grades to get into a graduate program, don't worry about feeling like you don't understand the coursework. You should probably get involved in some research, and see how you like it. You may have a good deal of skill there.

    Having said all that, if you really think you're bad at physics, then now's the time to cut your losses and run. Once you're well into grad school (like me), you'll be committed, and changing careers will be considerably harder. It may still not be too late to do a few more classes and get an engineering degree or something, if that's your wish.
  10. Sep 30, 2009 #9
    Brilliant post.
  11. Oct 3, 2009 #10
    osc, I can identify with you. My own weakness is in lab work. Four semesters of advanced lab work are required for my B.S. I am working on the first of these, but I am so bad at labs that it's doubtful whether I will be able to complete the requirement. Luckily, I have a way out: the B.A., which only requires 2 semesters of upper-division labs. That type of backup plan goes a long way to relieving stress.

    Is that a university-wide policy at your school, or just a quirk of this particular prof? (In my 3 years and multiple colleges I've been to (in the U.S.), I've never had to involuntarily solve problems in front of the class.) If it is a policy of individual professors, perhaps you can talk to the profs whose courses you plan to sign up for in the future to make sure that such "performances" will not be required.

    As for the course you're currently dealing with, could you have an honest chat with the prof, tell him/her how difficult it is for you to solve the problems and the stress it causes you, and ask to be exempted from performing? If performing is absolutely required, could the prof make an accommodation for you by letting you know beforehand which problem you will be required to solve? That way you can focus on just that one problem and make sure you have it down when it comes time to solve it in front of the class.

    Be careful. I've had fear to the point that I avoid touching my homework. Far from making the sinking feeling in my stomach go away, this only exacerbated my situation and led to much misery. And as people have mentioned, peers/tutors/office hours can help when you've hit a wall.
  12. Oct 3, 2009 #11
    while icant be much help to you i know exactly how you feel. i am a premed major, and i have to go up to calculus, org chem 2, and some physics and biologies. i am currently in a college alg/trig class, a gen chem class, and a bio 102 class, and im not doing so hot there.

    ive often thought of quitting this and becoming an education major and teaching kindergardeners. to my dismay they are raising the amth requirements since ironically a lot of aspiring elementary teachers couldnt pass the math portion of the teaching exam.

    id say fight it out man. youve got 3 years done with. look over your basics, and maybe that will help you to solve the harder problems. theres always a solution for every problem, and if it can be solved by someone else it can probably also be solved by you.
  13. Oct 10, 2009 #12
    Why do you think other sciences are lesser sciences than physics? Maybe you need to take some history and philosophy of science classes to help cure you of that error - that would also get you out of doing so many hard sums!

    How is Einstein any greater than Darwin or Shakespeare? Who's to say?

    It seems ridiculous to continue to try to be a professional in a field for which you have no talent. Like someone tone deaf trying to be a concert pianist. Being bad at maths doesn't make you a lesser human being, but it will sure make you a lesser physicist. So lesser that you probably won't get a job in physics. Do you like writing? Why not take up science journalism? Do you like people? Why not become a science/physics/history teacher? Or a kindergarten teacher if your maths is *really* bad and you like playing games all day (hmmm, sounds appealing...:-)
  14. Oct 11, 2009 #13


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    Thanks for your answers. They give me a lot to think about.

    Additionally, seems I initially posted this on the wrong section (career guidance). Sorry about that.

    Well... I'm to say? Of course it is a matter of a subjective set of one's values, but it is the way I feel about things.

    That does not mean I don't value the achievements of other sciences, and I don't think physicist are greater scientists than others. Perhaps I should formulate it differently: physics studies things that are greater than things studied by other sciences, because essentially (in my reductionist view) everything is physics, including Shakespeare's work.

    (Of course I'm open to new views if discussed politely and not shoven down my throat.)

    This is exactly what I meant.

    What I was asking between the lines was that if work hard enough could I possibly not suck. I'm not strong enough to just realize that I don't have what it takes and quit, especially after wasting several years trying to learn physics. (It would be waste career-wise, as I should have been studying something that can get me a job.)

    So I thought I needed a push. Thanks for one such.
  15. Oct 11, 2009 #14
    In general, I agree. Nature does not arbitrarily divide between physical, chemical, and biological phenomenon. Those are our subdivisions that stem from our limitations.

    But specifically, it is possible someone finds one of the three to be far more interesting than the other two. Perhaps I'm still a bit naive, but I know I am not good enough to be a great physicist. I am almost certainly not going to win a Nobel. However, I am good enough to watch and understand what's going on, and that is enough fun to make me consider the physicist's career path strongly. I am sure I will be a "lesser physicist" yet I consider being involved constantly in the physicist's world is enough to merit that particular career choice, even if its a bit of a dead end for me in the traditional sense (in the sense that I will have neither money, nor fame, nor power).
  16. Oct 11, 2009 #15
    In all honesty I do not think you need to quit or you should quit for that matter. I think your problem lies within your studying methods and or your fundamental approach to problems. So to start from the foundation you have to be decent in math in able to do physics. If your are proficient in basic algebra and some calc things will fall into place. This is incorporated in word problems and other analytical problems, it should help

    As for the theory, if you are not understanding them then maybe you need more hands on examples. Maybe you will understand PV=nRT by putting a ballon in freezer? you can try to find things like that

    Finally, maybe you have a learning disorder like dyscalculia. Its nothing to be ashamed of, it just like needing glasses. This would make solving physics and math problems extremely difficult to visualize and put on paper. With the write tools you can overcome this and still be Physicist/Mathmatician or whatever you like. Have you gotten a tutor?

    I hope that gives you some hope and insight. I don't think you have to quit but you should really think about what you can do to help yourself, then try it and see where that leads you. Good luck
  17. Oct 12, 2009 #16
    Of course you can. You might be interested in checking out a book called https://www.amazon.com/Talent-Overrated-Separates-World-Class-Performers/dp/1591842247", by Geoff Colvin. It's an interesting read. The gist is that what you perceive as talent is quite often the result of what he calls deliberate practice. Lots of it. 10,000 hours, in fact, is the number bandied about by a lot of people, to attain world-class levels of performance.

    I would say that since you obviously have the ability to go as far as you have, not only if you work hard enough could you possibly not suck, but if you work hard enough, you certainly won't.

    The problem, of course, is that 'work hard enough' quite possibly is far more work than you're anticipating. Motivation to do the work is the real problem. Why do you want to do this, over everything else you could be doing?

    Well, it certainly wouldn't be a waste, and you can certainly find a job. But the question is, what do you want out of studying physics? Are you looking to get a job when you get out of school? In Engineering (thats where a lot of the jobs are)? If so, switch now, I would say, you'll be better served.

    Why are you studying physics? If its just for the challenge, well, that's not a particularly long term goal, and you may find yourself wondering what to do next once you graduate. If you love the problem solving aspect, perhaps you need to look at what aspect of that you like.

    I don't know, these are tough questions to answer, and everyone has to answer them for themselves. But I do know that if you had at least a more clear goal in mind, it would be easier to find the motivation to do the hard work.

    Because hard work is all that's required.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 4, 2017
  18. Oct 12, 2009 #17


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    It is simple, if you put your mind to it or anything you will achieve it. Nothing is hard unless you make it hard. It would be difficult but not impossible to accomplish.
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