What I wish someone had told me when I was just starting out as a physics major

(And a girl. Not that I was starting out as a girl. I had been a girl my whole life, but I was just starting out being a girl physics major.)

It’s not supposed to be easy

I had this idea that if you were smart things were easy. You either knew something or you didn’t. You either got it or you didn’t. My first few physics classes reinforced this. I had already taken high school physics, so the intro classes weren’t so bad. Then I got to my first real physics class, Mathematical Physics, taught by an old Russian professor. I assumed it would be easy. Then the first midterm came. Three problems. I had no idea what to do for any of them. I had no idea how they even related to anything we’d done in the class so far.

Suddenly I felt like I was out of my depth. I went to go talk to the professor. I had skipped class a couple of times and I think he knew that because he wasn’t that keen on helping me. What he said was “Maybe you’re just not going to get it.” After that I panicked. I felt deep down that I just wasn’t smart enough to study physics, even though it was something I had loved since I was a kid. I thought maybe I had just hit the limit of my natural intelligence.

I hadn’t. I had simply hit the limit of the place where I had learned things before. In my experience, 90% of the things that look like talent are actually practice. When you see someone with a perfect golf swing or a genius math brain, you’re only seeing the result, you’re not seeing the great coach they had, the hours they spent practicing, or all the times when they were a little girl sitting in the passenger seat of their dad’s truck talking about the differences between even and odd numbers.

I didn’t know this. I thought I had just hit the ceiling of what I was capable of. I wish I could go back and tell myself that there is no ceiling. There is no capable, not capable, or highly capable.

I work with a lot of students, and I can see some of them falling into this trap. They encounter a difficult problem and they start thinking they’re dumb. They’re wrong.

It’s hard because it is made of ambiguous problems. A lot like life. You learn some tools, some equations, some concepts, and then they set you loose on problems. At first, you will have no idea what to do. This is not bad. This is a feature of real problems. (See my post on problem solving for ways of tackling these things.)

In order to be successful in physics, you have to make the mind shift from “I’m not smart enough” to “this is hard.”

It’s okay. It’s okay if it’s hard. It’s okay if you look at a problem and have no idea what to do. It’s not supposed to be easy.

Unlike in most of your previous schooling, you’re not just learning one thing at a time and being asked to do something repetitively. You’re being asked to do something crazy hard, which is, stumble around until the pieces fit together. Or maybe they won’t, and you’ll ask for help. But not from someone who will tell you that maybe you won’t ever understand. Because if you keep trying you will.

Some people pretend they know more than they do

Another thing that left me feeling stupid was how much my classmates seemed to know. For some reason, the reputation that physics has for being difficult brings out some pretty intense egos. Be careful not to assume, just because someone is talking about something fancy-sounding that you’ve never heard of, that they know more than you do.

In this same first physics class, I met several people. We studied together. They talked a lot about things in ways that made me feel like they knew what they were talking about. Again, I felt like an idiot who didn’t belong.

Then we got our grades back. I did the worst I had ever done in a class, but it was still a 3.1. Those same people who I thought knew everything got 2.5’s or worse.

Never think someone knows more than you do just because they’re speaking authoritatively. They might just be covering insecurity with arrogance.

Ask for help

The next quarter I started my next physics class. I was completely panicking. Sure I would fail. Sure I wasn’t good enough. I had to take mathematical physics II.

Then, randomly, I did the best two things I’ve ever done for myself in the context of my physics degree.

1. I introduced myself to some other girls in that class.

2. I went to the professor after class, told him I was worried I was unprepared and that I wouldn’t do well.

The first thing immediately diminished my anxiety. Suddenly, I had people to commiserate with, to study with, to hang out with and laugh with. It was amazing and great and so much fun and the opposite of isolating. They told me later that they were so glad I had introduced myself, because they were feeling terrible and scared, too. It’s hard to do that, because sometimes other people look arrogant when they’re scared. Or they look closed and unfriendly when they’re scared. But, if you just introduce yourself it can be amazing. Having allies is probably the most important thing when you’re trying to do something hard.

The second thing was really good for my grade. Luckily, this professor was an extremely, extremely, nice guy. He laughed a little when he heard what my previous grade was. He told me it would be ok. He gave me a book. This book was basically a more detailed version of the textbook we’d used the previous quarter. It was waaaay better. (Incidentally, I do not recommend you use any textbook by Mary Boas. She leaves out waaay too many steps when she solves math equations.)

In that class I got a 3.9, and I made some awesome friends.

At some point in your life you will (hopefully) reach a place that will feel like the limit of your ability. It is not. It is the end of the mapped territory. It is the end of the things you already know how to do. It is a place where you will need to make a large step up in order to continue. Maybe physics will be this for you, maybe it won’t. Maybe it will be easy for you. If so, that’s great, but I hope you eventually find yourself in that place where you think you might just not be good enough.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s