Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

To keep a long story short, I'm confused.

  1. Dec 11, 2011 #1
    And now for the long story.

    I'm a first time poster, long time reader. A little bit about me, I am in my third year of undergrad studying way too many subjects yet not studying at all. I have jumped from philosophy, to physics, to bio, to economics, and now math. During this time, I've racked up a terrible GPA from what I want to say is a lack of passion for the subjects, (evident from all the switching) but is more likely because I am lazy. I have considered either dropping out or taking a break to get my head on straight, but a combination of being stuck in a sunk cost fallacy, parental pressure and a romanticized view of education won't let me.

    I have this idea that mathematicians and scientist wake up every morning excited to unravel the mysteries of the universe. With math, I feel like that's what they do, as it is known as the "Queen of the Sciences". And yet I feel as though studying math is a bit too detached as a career choice. It's impersonal as all the concepts are so abstract and the act of discovery is usually done in seclusion. Whereas I would prefer something that if I could not at least do with others, I would be able to tell people about in casual conversation or apply to daily life. For instance, I also have an interest in evolutionary biology, stock investing, and fiction writing. And these all seem to have more of an element of understanding humanity to them.

    Over the past couple of months I have read a wide range of literature about math without doing any actual math, minus the few courses I'm taking right now. I've learned about Euclid to Gauss to Wiles to Perelman, and I feel as though my envy towards the greats has left me delusional to what studying math actually entails. I can't seem to find the will power to open an actual math book, but when I do I find myself actually enjoying the work. I don't think this is an isolated problem I have with math, but with anything I would consider work.

    So anyway, the academic questions to which I seek your guidance is, taking into account my story, what is required to study math at a higher level? Would a passion for it develop as I delved deeper in the subject? And most importantly, is math for me, or is it too late? Should I pursue something else? I feel like I'm just waiting for that one thing that completely captivates me to reveal itself, and when it does, I can wake up excited to do it and finally get my **** together. I know, too many movies. My apologies for all the rambling, I appreciate any help you can give me.
  2. jcsd
  3. Dec 11, 2011 #2
    You sound like a confused kid. I know I was once a confused kid. And I know taking more classes certainly did not help me figure any stuff out.
    Last edited: Dec 11, 2011
  4. Dec 11, 2011 #3


    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    Where did you get any of these ideas? Science is very much a collaborative effort. Also, remember, someone has to pay scientists to do science, so while scientists really do science at their place of work, they have the usual issues that any working person has. They have people overlooking their work, deadlines, obligations they couldn't care less about, and that kinda stuff can also be on their mind. So yes, it's quite romanticized. Of course, since every job is kind of like that, in the end you deal with the BS to find out the universe is expanding vs. a graphic designer dealing with the BS to... be able to create a video for a Chinese shoe manufacturer's website.

    I don't think there's a guarantee you'll develop a passion. You may or may not, but who cares? A vast majority of people don't have a passion for their job, but they still enjoy it. You can pursue math, but if you're lazy and can't sit down and do the work, you'll fail at it. In fact, you'll fail at everything if that's the case so the most important thing is to fix that problem first.
  5. Dec 11, 2011 #4
    I can relate. In my freshman year of college I even found myself in a literary theory seminar. I was confused in every way. Now I've found out more or less what I want to do. First, make sure that your confusion isn't a symptom of an underlying psychiatric problem. If you're sure it isn't, then I recommend trying to reverse engineer. Think about what you want you would be happy doing for 60+ years. Do you want to work in academia, healthcare, industry? It helped me to get a reality check and realize that college and graduate school would only take a fraction of my life, and that at some point I would enter the world as an x or a y and that what I studied would affect what I could do after school. Sure, I'm interested in philosophy and social theory, but I don't want to teach philosophy for the rest of my life or work in a publishing house. Sorry if this comes off as too pragmatic, but it really helped me get things straight.
  6. Dec 11, 2011 #5
    Hard, concentrated work geared exactly to the syllabus - stop reading all those history books!

    As you don't have much motivation, pretend it's a nine to five job, and work really hard at it for seven hours a day, even if you don't feel like it and don't enjoy the process. You may remain bored throughout the year, in which case Maths isn't for you. But at least you'll have learned something about having to work hard at a job you don't like - good preparation for the real world. And by working that hard you'll probably get a decent degree (if you don't then you *really* know Mathematics isn't for you!)

    I doubt something will just reveal itself. For now, why don't you just knuckle down and get that degree, at least you'll get a better job that way. You say you like finance and working with people. So why not be a bank teller or investment adviser? With a degree you'll start at a higher level, make more money, have more variety & opportunity. That would be better than just dropping the study and getting a really lowly job. If you work in a simple high-street 9 to 5 bank you'll have money & enough energy to try out different stuff in your spare time. Given your lack of interest in the academic science stuff why not try photography, poetry, cycling.... who knows where you'll find something that really floats your boat (hmmm... sailing that's a good idea...)
  7. Dec 11, 2011 #6
    Here's a question:

    Put yourself in a hypothetical scenario in which you are no longer in school, have 100% of your time to yourself, and also have an unlimited amount of money given you to for the purpose of purchasing books, textbooks, and also perhaps hiring private tutors; maybe you even have enough money to buy yourself a whole chem lab. Additionally, assume that you do not have to work to support yourself, and furthermore assume that you have enough money to keep this scenario going indefinitely.

    What would you spend your time studying?
  8. Dec 11, 2011 #7
    Thanks for the great advice everyone. I've always envied those med school kids who knew exactly what they wanted since they were 5 for what ever reason, and now they just have to work hard to get it. I guess for me the hard work will have to come before the passion, if I ever find it. I suppose all I can do for now is knuckle down and get the degree.

    And yet I can't help shake the feeling that I might be making the wrong choice. For instance, at one point during my schooling, I had decided I wanted to study physics. But then I read some Dawkins's books on evolutionary biology and decided that was what I really wanted to study. Even thinking about it now, I kind of want to switch back and do that. I guess what I'm trying to say is that I find a lot of things interesting and I'm afraid that by picking one of them, I could have done better at another.

    As for what I want to do for the next 60+ years or what I would do with unlimited resources, I would be lying if I didn't say sipping Martinis on my yacht while studying human mating rituals. But seriously, I have no idea, I would probably do what I'm doing now, being very confused and reading a bit of everything without being able to commit to one thing. Maybe I should just get into the Chinese shoe manufacture video designing business.
  9. Dec 11, 2011 #8
    This is great advice. When I found myself on leave from college I drifted back to the things that I'd read and studied as a kid, before intense schooling really began. The way I thought about it was to pretend that society imploded, that I was sent off to some camp somewhere to live out the rest of my life, or that I was put in prison for the rest of my life. What would I spend my time doing or studying?
  10. Dec 11, 2011 #9
    Then you may want to consider a career in academia. You have more vacation and free time that most jobs, and in theory you have some say in what you dedicate your time to. If you work for a company you'll need to commit to whatever your boss feels you should commit to that day.

    But maybe you need to stop thinking about this stuff and gain a broader perspective. Get a job if you don't have one already to at least get a sense of what you don't want to do.
  11. Dec 11, 2011 #10
    As someone who was in your shoes, I can guarantee you you're not gonna figure it out by just chugging along. I was fortunate because I lucked into a really well paying job right after school that also gave me a lot of freedom to travel and get drunk and try to sleep around. It was only after doing that for a while that I realized it's not that great and I wanted to do something else. But I could have never learned that lesson without having actually been through it myself.

    For you, I think I'd just recommend getting a degree in whatever and then going to do some mindless job like teach english in a foreign country. You'll probably get laid more and it'll give you a good chance to think about what you actually want to do. It seems like what you need right now more than anything is distance to gain perspective. If after that you still can't think of anything, then maybe you were just never meant to do anything that great, and just go ahead and settle to being whatever pays your bills. Your parents may not think this is the best plan ever, but in the end it's your life to live.
  12. Dec 11, 2011 #11
    I know this was made somewhat in jest, however, you should keep reading the history books. However, you also have to work very hard in subjects like mathematics. Without context and history, any subject becomes an empty shell.
    Yes, this is an excellent post. We can't all spend our lives doing exactly what we want, but this kind of mental exercise can help guide you toward the right choices.

    In the end, though, you have to develop a connection between your interests and your self-discipline. Without focus, you will get absolutely nowhere in life.
  13. Dec 12, 2011 #12
    I will tell you what seems to be a secret -- you can spend the rest of your life studying whatever you want. You can look at school as 'training' for some job, or you can look at it as 'training your mind.' Learn how to learn. The subject is immaterial. Spend the rest of your life learning more. You don't have to be one-dimensional.
  14. Dec 13, 2011 #13
    Thanks guys. I think all your advice has given me some real insight, the confusion seems less hazy.
    A quick follow up question though, let's say I do get my act together and shoot for academia, will my prior lack of motivation and low gpa (I'm ashamed to say it's hovering around a 2.0) prohibit me from a realistic run at this? Any personal stories of similar situations or steps on how to proceed would be greatly appreciated. Thanks again.
  15. Dec 14, 2011 #14
    Don't consider a career in academia. The jobs aren't there.

    This isn't true. There is an interesting Catch-22 in academia. In academia there is a lot of theoretical freedom to do whatever you want, but you'll only get a job if given theoretical freedom you work yourself to the bone.

    Again. Not necessary true. My boss is usually too busy to give me detailed instructions, so most of the time it's a general goal in which I get to figure out how to get to the goal.
  16. Dec 14, 2011 #15
    Unless you get it up to a 3.0, you aren't going to get admitted into graduate school, and even if you get admitted you will not survive. Also the jobs aren't there so even if you do everything right, you are likely to end up doing something else.

    One thing that might help is to get a job. If you are forced to do something (even it's menial) that will help you focus.
  17. Dec 14, 2011 #16
    No. It's more frustration that the latest effort to unravel the mysteries of the universe just aren't working. You have brief moments of excitement, but it's mostly drugery and frustration.

    It's not. You are always chatting with other people to see what is going on.

    No clue. Take a few courses. See if you like if. If yes, go with it. If no, try something else. Also passion is overrated. One thing that made me a lot happier was when I stopped looking for a perfect life and just settled for one that was good enough.
  18. Dec 14, 2011 #17
    We don't know what field the OP would be applying to, we don't know how strong his application will be, and we don't know what the market will be in 7+ years, so I think it's premature to say that "the jobs aren't there." If as you say he ends up working the private sector anyway, then he may as well try if that's what he wants to do. There are too many variables to just dismiss an entire career in one sentence.
  19. Dec 14, 2011 #18
    There's only one way to find out. And make sure you don't base any important life decisions on the advice you get from strangers on the internet.
  20. Dec 14, 2011 #19
    The science academic job market hasn't changed much since 1970, and there is a long term structural imbalance that makes rapid change impossible without a massive change in spending priorities which shows no signs of happening.

    I can predict the position of Jupiter in 12 years with very good precision, and predictions of the academic job market over the next decade aren't that much more difficult.

    No there aren't that many variables, and most of the variables are pretty well bounded. Ph.D. production rate is pretty constant, and the number of job openings over the next ten years is also pretty predictable. You can imagine a "game changer" but you can list the possible game changers. The big one is Federal funding for science, and if that goes in an unexpected direction, then it's likely to go in direction that makes things worse.

    And also, this is what I do for a living. I mean when I wrote my dissertation proposal, I'd hardly get very far saying "nope, too many variables, can't figure out anything." The other cool thing about physics is that sometimes you can come up with a five to ten line argument as to why something won't work. If you assume X, then you have things whizzing faster than light so that won't work.
  21. Dec 14, 2011 #20
    So the rate is constant and the number of openings are predictable. How does this equate to there being no jobs whatsoever?
Share this great discussion with others via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook