Will I ever get a Math PhD or should I just give up?

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Here's the thing, I understand the material. Whenever someone is confused about something, I can help them understand it. Sometimes I'll derive the proofs right then and there and show him why something works. Because I know why it works.

Whenever the professor asks "that question": the one that leaves everyone staring at him like deer in headlights, yep, I have the answer (though I'm sure a few other timid kids do too). Whenever the professor announces that "only one student figured out question 4" — hey, that's me!

Yet somehow I manage to get such horrible grades. My marks so far are as follows:

• Calc I: 72%
• Calc II: 68% (I'm re-taking it this semester)
• ODE: 65% (this one I didn't understand very well and I'll retake too)
• Linear Algebra I: 71%
• Linear Algebra II: 68%
• Intro to advanced maths: 78%
• Combinatorics and discrete maths (intro): 74%

(And remember that guy who didn't get it? the one to whom I explained the whole thing... well, he'll go on to get better grades than me and thank me for the help. yay.)

The thing is, I'm not consistently bad. Marks on my assignments look like a freaking random walk: 100% on this quiz, 65% on that one; 95% on this assignment, 60% on that one... and often they're covering the same material.

For combinatorics, for example, most of my assignments and quizzes range 88%-100%. But I got a 30% on one quiz, a 63 on one assignment, and a 71 my final.

I don't know what to do. If I study hard, I get the same marks as if I don't study at all!

I'll get the two hard questions no-one else gets, but what good is that if I make so many mistakes on the rest of the test that it doesn't even matter. And I've tried "paying extra attention". I have no extra attention to pay. I really think this is it, this is what my marks are going to be.

Should I just drop out of school and go live in a forrest and feed squirrels for the rest of my life? Is there any hope of grad school with crappy marks like these?

I don't know what I'm asking, but any guidance is welcome.

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I'm the exact same way (I help people with their work and I answer questions and go beyond the material), do you get nervous on tests or exams? The thing is I figured out I have a nervousness syndrome (not clinically diagnosed), my heart races and I end up over-thinking questions and ultimately waste time. I tried to calm down on the tests after that and I aced them so maybe that's something you can consider. I'm sure you'll do fine though, it's just a matter of approaching things differently or talking to your professor.

• Calc I: 72%
• Calc II: 68% (I'm re-taking it this semester)
• ODE: 65% (this one I didn't understand very well and I'll retake too)
• Linear Algebra I: 71%
• Linear Algebra II: 68%
• Intro to advanced maths: 78%
• Combinatorics and discrete maths (intro): 74%

What letter grades are you getting? In some schools those scores will get you a A or an B and a decent grade. What's class average? If you get 70% and class average is 50%, you are doing *really* well.

Should I just drop out of school and go live in a forrest and feed squirrels for the rest of my life? Is there any hope of grad school with crappy marks like these?

Insufficient information. If class average is 90%, then you've got problems. If class average is 50%, you are doing spectacularly well. What letter grades are you getting?

I'm the exact same way (I help people with their work and I answer questions and go beyond the material), do you get nervous on tests or exams? The thing is I figured out I have a nervousness syndrome (not clinically diagnosed), my heart races and I end up over-thinking questions and ultimately waste time. I tried to calm down on the tests after that and I aced them so maybe that's something you can consider. I'm sure you'll do fine though, it's just a matter of approaching things differently or talking to your professor.

Very long story short: I was diagnosed with bipolar and general anxiety. Now I take lithium and perphenazine, and the Dr. told me to take proparanolol before engaging in social situations or stress situations (like exams). I've noticed it makes me less nervous, certainly... but it doesn't seem to have helped me get better marks.

And I'm not nervous while I'm writing assignments. I still make stupid mistakes... one time I took my assignment to the prof to see just where I went wrong, and it took us 20 minutes to figure out that it was literally that I forgot to write the negative signs on one of my matrices (which snowballed into a whole mess of things).

I don't think it's nerves anymore. I used to think it was, but now I just don't know what to think anymore. I'm close to just giving up. But I don't know what else I would want to do with my life. I'd be terribly unhappy if I can't be a mathematician.

Assuming that everything you've said is completely accurate, it's pretty obvious that you're a talented student. Some people, for whatever reason, simply don't hold up in exams and the like. Now, as an undergrad, I'm not altogether familiar with the grad school process, but it might be very beneficial to try to involve yourself in undergraduate research as soon as possible. The research environment might be better for you than the classroom environment and if you have some significant results to your name by the time you send out applications, it might go a long way toward convincing grad schools that you really are capable, even if your grades don't necessarily reflect as much.

What letter grades are you getting? In some schools those scores will get you a A or an B and a decent grade. What's class average? If you get 70% and class average is 50%, you are doing *really* well.

I'm in canada. Here in ontario, 60-69 is C, 70-80 is B, and A is 80+. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grade_(education)#Ontario"

I'm always above average, but not by much. They usually make it so that class average hovers around 63-65. (And the honours program requires an average of at least 70. So I'm like... one bad semester away from being kicked out of the honours program.)

But I don't want to just get my undergraduate degree, I want to go on to grad school, I want to do research some day. Good enough to pass doesn't cut it.

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I'm always above average, but not by much. They usually make it so that class average hovers around 63-65. (And the honours program requires an average of at least 70. So I'm like... one bad semester away from being kicked out of the honours program.)

I think this then becomes an issue of how to translate the Canadian grading system into the US system when applying for graduate school, and people from Canada can talk more about that.

In the US, things are very much graded on the curve, so what would likely happen is that you'd get an A or a B at the end of the semester, and that would be what you'd see on the GPA.

And I've tried "paying extra attention". I have no extra attention to pay. I really think this is it, this is what my marks are going to be.

I used to be extremely forgetful just like you. Then I started making 'checklists' of things to look for. When I say 'checklists', I mean thinking through a sequential list of everything that could possibly go wrong. Like, when I leave the house, I make sure I have my keys, my wallet, my phone, and my glasses (the last one I've had happen to me several times!), and when I get out of the car, I make sure I have my keys in my pocket and my headlights off and everything, because I will forget otherwise. Make a mental note to check for negative signs and the like. Go through it on every problem.

One question. Do you practice a lot? You may grasp the concepts, but it's only through doing dozens of problems that you won't take undue time on the new concepts and forget to consider the old pitfalls. I saw it trip up students all the time in my calculus II class. They'd keep forgetting to use the chain rule when differentiating, simply because calc II was more about integration, and consequently kept missing things like arc length problems.

Something that is coming out of this discussion is that a Canadian A is very different from an American A (perhaps because inflation is worse in the US). You need to keep that in mind when people talk about American GPA's.

One thing that you really should do is to talk with your adviser to see what the situation is. One risk that you may have is if you focus too much on grades is that you'll not focus as much on the other parts of the graduate package (i.e. research and recommendations). The other thing that you really have to avoid is burnout.

Do more homework. Do all of the problems in the book. Make up your own problems--not just arbitrary problems, but try showing other results of problems you've already done. Ask your professor for suggestions on how to practice using different concepts. If you're not a person who does well on tests, your best weapon is preparation. And really, in the harder classes, test-taking ability alone won't cut it, so you'll be setting yourself up to do well in grad school.

@twofish-quant Here the letter you get is always the same for any given percentage. I don't know how much they curve marks. I've overheard one teacher say that if one of her student's marks improve over time, she'll make their latter marks weigh more. My Calc II teacher this semester chooses the best 4 out of 5 quizzes and assignments.

@lawsofform As far as book exercises, I used to never do any work. This last semester has been the first time I really tried, for hours a day, to do drill exercises hoping my marks would rise.

I spend a lot of time doing stuff like trying to derive things they don't show the proof of, trying variants of problems, or just messing around with the concepts I'm learning hoping something neat pops out. I also like to read about open problems and tackle them, not expecting to solve them of course, but it's always fun... knowing there's no answer out there anywhere makes it more fun :)

May I ask what university you go to? I live in Canada too, Mississauga, Ontario (I'm not in university so my advice may not be applicable).

Something that a Dean mentioned to me when talking about grading is that there was massive grade inflation in the US during the 1960's because of the Vietnam War. What would happen is that if you got a low grade and then got kicked out of college, you'd lose your college deferment and could be drafted and sent off to Vietnam. So this put a lot of pressure on professors and administrators to set up the system so that people wouldn't get sent off, which means that a C in 1955 was very different from a C in 1975. That might explain why Canadian grades seem to be different.

Can I suggest something, the classes you have mentioned sound like they are mostly first year and perhaps second year classes. Alot of the time in these classes actually understanding the material is not what's required, as classes will more focus on wrote learning for their assessment. However wait until more advanced classes and those students who have merely just regurgitated material they have remembered will fall flat on their faces.

Now, as an undergrad, I'm not altogether familiar with the grad school process, but it might be very beneficial to try to involve yourself in undergraduate research as soon as possible.

May I ask what university you go to? I live in Canada too, Mississauga, Ontario (I'm not in university so my advice may not be applicable).

I'm in Hamilton, but I go to Brock. The program I'm in is new I think... well, everything is. Brock's going through a major overhaul. Every semester the campus looks different from how much construction is going on. A friend of my mom's works there and he said they are putting in major resources on making the school grow.

The honors program I'm in is called MICA (Math Integrated With Computers and Applications), which means we learn some programming and Maple and some HW questions are from real life stuff (we saw how to use the Haar wavelet for image compression in Linear Algebra, etc.). — Inside the MICA program, I'm doing the concentration on pure maths (which just means different classes I can take later on).

micromass
Staff Emeritus
Homework Helper
I think I understand your problem. Lower level courses are more focused on computation, then on understanding. So it's entirely possible that somebody who doesn't understand the material at all, suddenly gets better grades than you. Simply because he doesn't make as many careless mistakes. I've always found such a situations very sad.

I don't know if there's very much you can do about it. The only thing I can say is: try to be more careful, double-check every computation you make, know your weak points, make checklists, make more exercises,...

But the situation isn't hopeless. The upper level courses will focus more on understanding, not so much on computations. So the kid that doesn't really understand the course, will not be so lucky anymore. And you will probably do much better.

And this is a good thing. If the graduate commissions see an upwards trend, and if they see that you did good on upper level courses, then they will see that you are a good student. If you could even present some undergrad research and recommendations from your professors, then I think you will have a great chance at grad school!

I'm in canada. Here in ontario, 60-69 is C, 70-80 is B, and A is 80+. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grade_(education)#Ontario"

I'm always above average, but not by much. They usually make it so that class average hovers around 63-65. (And the honours program requires an average of at least 70. So I'm like... one bad semester away from being kicked out of the honours program.)

But I don't want to just get my undergraduate degree, I want to go on to grad school, I want to do research some day. Good enough to pass doesn't cut it.

This is the attitude you need to have. Everyone knows its extremely frustrating to do worse on a test than others who you know know the material less than you do. You can usually attribute their better scores to them possibly not being as nervous as you on a test, or most likely them just being lucky. But as others have said, once you get higher up, understanding will trump computation, and you will of course do better.

I had this same outlook in my last physics course. I would usually score 5-10 points above the class average, but in my opinion it was never a good enough score. Because of this dissatisfaction with my grades I tried harder and harder and then pulled off an A- in the course...barely. Even with this grade, I still think its hard to believe an A- in a calc based physics course is good enough for theoretical physics in graduate school...but anyway, the attitude of continuously wanting to improve I think is the only reason why I made an A-.

Don't give up, if you are explaining math to the other students then you are far ahead.

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Hm, I guess I'll have to wait and see. This gives me some hope, as I always do well with proofs in assignments. Thanks.

Hm, I guess I'll have to wait and see. This gives me some hope, as I always do well with proofs in assignments. Thanks.

Once you hit the upper-division classes, it's very likely that you're classes will be all proofs, so that might help a good deal.

My thoughts:

1. You're already good at the hard problems. I personally think you need to practice easier problems and work on those little details like signs.
2. Are you registered with Brock's disabilities services? I believe the web page is http://www.brocku.ca/services-students-disabilities [Broken] You are probably deserving of alternate arrangements for exams.

Oh and to those who asked, grade curving does happen, here, but it's dependent on the school and sometimes even the professor. I think most of them *don't* do it, actually, so what you get is what you get. If you got 70 while everyone else failed, you're stuck with that 70. If you're lucky, the school will report the class average, but not all of them even do that.

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