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I just started an Astronomy PhD program, which due to COVID has been all-online so far. Research and my computational methods course have been going OK, but I'm being utterly destroyed by my Galactic Dynamics course. It's clear to me that I didn't have the necessary mathematical physics background going in, so I've spent all semester struggling. It's reached the point that I spend more time on the problem sets on this course than on my research and other class combined, and I can still barely do it. I've been working on nothing but the current problem set since Tuesday, without making any significant progress. I've been reaching out to the professor for questions via Slack, but as often as not this leaves me more confused than when I started. I'm starting to doubt my ability to do this, but I can't quit. What do I do?

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    It is comforting to hear every now and again these truths: "Your feelings impact the way you think, but they are not real; you could be in the same situation but overconfident, in which case you'll feel great and be more prone to failure. Trust in your worry, it may be the best fuel for propelling your success. Don't trust in your worry, as it's a poor predictor of you actual performance." – Edwin Buck Nov 15 at 20:32
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    Have you tried talking with the professor in person? (Or, COVID being a thing, via Zoom or equivalent?) – JeffE Nov 16 at 4:09
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    @EarlGrey "I just started an Astronomy PhD", maybe this is country dependent, but as far as I know Astronomy is a branch of physics, and to be admitted to a PhD program in Astronomy you need to have a physics Master's degree (or a Bachelor's if you're in the US). At the very least a background in a hard science, maybe CS if the work is computational, either way what I said applies. – user2723984 Nov 16 at 9:17
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    @EarlGrey speaking of assumptions: the OP didn't indicate their gender. – Greg Martin Nov 16 at 17:25
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    I'm working in a different industry, but doing a lot of applied math. I have phases of feeling like a moron constantly as I pick up and learn new mathematical tools. It takes a while for hard stuff to sink in well enough to make intuitive sense. No reflection on your abilities whatsoever, or indication on how far you will be able to go with it. In fact, I'd say I relish the feelings of slowness, since they usually correspond to learning something new and exciting – Mad Physicist Nov 17 at 3:01
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Sounds like my Physics II course decades back. The effort on that course was greater than the effort on all other courses combined. Little did I know that I took it from Paul Chu, who at the time was a Physics Superstar, and he wasn't going to "just pass anyone".

Somehow I managed to get a B. To me that B was worth more than all the A's I obtained combined.

Hard material is not a sign of you being a moron. Perhaps you're not ready for the course; but, the entire idea of taking a course is to challenge you with new material. The harder the challenge, the more you will learn.

Take it easy on yourself. Try to do as much as possible without over involving your professor, but do use an hour of their "office hours" to go over problems you have difficulty with. Be very well prepared for this hour, showing them what approaches you've tried and failed at, and can they teach you "how to approach the problem" instead of "how to do the work".

For support, find others in your class that seem to be bright enough to warrant working with, and form a study group. If the group starts to look like an unbalanced "share the answers" group, get out of it, as it will do nothing to prepare you for the exams.

Rearrange your schedule for the reality that you'll be spending six to eight hours a day doing this class's work, until you can gain enough mastery to cut it down to a mere four hours a day. Remember, it won't last forever, you only need to keep up the crazy schedule till you get out of the class; and, should you have to repeat the class (which is common for such classes), you'll not be under as much of a burden due to your gained familiarity with the material.

In short, hang in there; but, hang in there smart.

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    Great answer to a good question. – displayName Nov 16 at 17:45
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    The answer provided is really good, but as a student going through the same struggles as OP, I would point out some of the advice cannot be taken due to Covid-19 restrictions. As virtual reading groups seem to be less beneficial as they are in person, I would highly recommend to OP to discuss with his/her supervisor. Sometimes all this imposed isolation can make our minds go crazy when they shouldn't. – Marius Nov 16 at 18:21
  • Thank you. This helps. – arnbobo Nov 16 at 22:58
  • I learned, studying math, that insight into a field isn't uniform and that one can have much greater insight into some aspects/subfields than others. That is fine as long as you have the necessary insights into your specialty. I was great in analysis and topology, but marginal in abstract algebra (especially Ring Theory). In retrospect this seems odd, since all of these are built on a similar axiomatic foundation. – Buffy Nov 17 at 13:32
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@Edwin suggested you "hang in there". And - maybe you can. But if you're still early in the semester, then maybe that's not the right thing to do. You wrote:

It's clear to me that I didn't have the necessary mathematical physics background going in

I'll assume that's true. That means that either the course doesn't list its prerequisites properly, or doesn't enforce them. This can be a disservice to people who actually need to study the prerequisite material (= most people)...

I'm starting to doubt my ability to do this,

Let's assume that you can't do this right now. Maybe you can, but it's not clear that such a gamble helps you; it certainly doesn't help your emotional well-being, which is important to take care of during your Ph.D., much more so than you might think.

In other words, assume you do need to take a course in Mathematical Physics before taking Galactic Dynamics, or spend time self-studying Mathematical Physics.

but I can't quit.

Why? That is, why can you not un-register for this course, if you realize early enough that you're missing pre-requisite knowledge? It sounds perfectly reasonable. As a teacher I would tell you that it does not reflect poorly on a student when they say "I've noticed I'm missing some prerequisite knowledge/skill"; on the contrary, it is a sign of a more mature self-awareness.

What do I do?

(again, this is advice only for early in the semester.)

  • Talk to the course teacher.
  • Tell them that you believe you lack "the necessary mathematical physics background"
  • Ask them to transfer the registration to the next semester.

Note this approach is more problematic if the course is only given once a year; but even in that case, ask the teacher about another potential arrangement.

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I am not in Physics nor can I give you amazing advice, but I am a first year doctoral student in computer science and was struggling with a machine learning course as well. Eventually, I decided to drop it and take a similar course with another professor next semester. My advisor understood that it was messing up the workload, not leaving time for my research, and that I did not have the prereq.s. Maybe your advisor would understand too? I am not saying this is the best move for you, but I know that we are supposed to be spending time on our research and not as much on our courses.

Either way, I am really struggling with this program bc maybe I didn't put in the work as much as an undergrad, bc of covid and things being remote, bc my peers are outperforming me by miles, etc etc. Most people who start a phd don't finish it. So hang in there, it is not easy. I hope you figure it out. :)

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What about being frank and telling your instructor?

I understand from your comments that all 3 students are struggling. I don't know your university and your department, but chances are that what you describe is a very specialized course, not taught each year, and there are only a few professors who are able to teach it. I don't think there are standard textbooks either (but correct me when wrong). And those professors may have little experience teaching this course. They may just not be aware that you are struggling that much. He or she may just have forgotten how they learned the mathematical methods 10 or 20 years ago, and how much work it was. And they may be happy to adjust if they realize they should do this.

So consider trying to slow down the class and signal your progress by questions. Even better, organize a meeting (office hour should do) where all four of you come together and discuss how to proceed.

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The problem is ubiquitous in academia, no need to feel bad. Some profs at my alma mater simply set up entry exams to their courses to protect against it. Cost everybody a week or two of their free time between semesters to prepare for those, but it was well worth it in retrospective.

I recommend you ask some faculty guy you trust and know he's into the subject to give you an informal half hour oral exam. They will then be able to recommend a course of action, and eventually an alternative course to switch to for the rest of the semester. Next year, Galactic Dynamics will be a pushover then.

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