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I'm currently a 20 year old undergrad studying CS at a reputed institute in my city. I'm one of the very few from my batch who's interested in studying theoretical CS and mathematics (about 10 students from a batch of 200) and want to pursue research as a career.

Thing is, out of these 10 students, I'm the dumbest. I score the least in a graph theory exam, I cannot come up with creative solutions to problems in complexity theory as quick as they can (sometimes I keep on thinking for days, if not weeks, and still cannot come up with anything useful), I'm the student who the professor looks at and wonders: why are they here? To be very honest, I don't really like programming or web development. I like to spend time thinking about stuff, solving problems by hand, and learning fascinating things in logic and modern algebra. I'm weak at exams, true, but then I'm mostly clueless and disinterested in web development classes, where I can score easily but not learn something that I couldn't have learnt by watching tutorials on the Internet. I'm obviously looked down by my peers, too; and my grades are, well... not too great. In my current semester, I'm studying four theory courses (Complexity Theory, Graph Theory, Abstract Algebra and Cryptography) and one introductory CS security course. I'm going through the most difficult time of my academic curriculum so far; getting around 3-4 hours of sleep every day, with most of my day spent in attending classes and solving assignments. I'd like to drop a course from my current roster, but I'm afraid that since that'd show up in my transcript after I graduate, it might ruin my chances of getting into a respected grad school or landing a job.

I was recently diagnosed with manic depression, and while there are a few personal problems I have (premature balding, asocial lifestyle etc.) that might have caused that, some amount of the aforementioned issue might have also contributed to the cause. Anyway, I'm not asking for any consolation.

What I'm asking is: if anyone who's been through similar experiences while pursuing academia, how did you cope up? Even if you weren't like me (chances are pretty high that you weren't like me, CS theory/Math students are usually very intelligent), what do you advice? Should I stop studying theoretical CS due to my frequent failures? I mean, I don't believe in that kind of stuff, but usually if you fail too much at a certain thing, maybe that's some sort of sign or something? I don't really have a lot of friends, and no one from my family has received as much education as I have (so far), so I don't really have anyone I can ask for advice.

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    "getting around 3-4 hours of sleep every day". This is not helping. If you don't sleep well you will be dumber, cognitive abilities get impaired, and it is a vicious circle from there on. – Davidmh Feb 18 '15 at 22:18
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    I can't agree with @Davidmh enough. If you don't work as quickly as your peers, you shouldn't feel bad about taking a reduced workload. Sacrificing sleep to try to keep up will not end well. – genisage Feb 18 '15 at 23:59
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    Also, I was one of the bright, natural CS/Math students during my undergrad, and I can tell you it's not the best indicator of a good future researcher. In grad school and beyond, quick clever solutions get less common, and the norm shifts to solutions coming from patience and accumulated knowledge. – genisage Feb 19 '15 at 0:04
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    sometimes I keep on thinking for days, if not weeks, and still cannot come up with anything useful — So now you know what research is like. (Only sometimes it's months.) – JeffE Feb 19 '15 at 3:54
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    You're destroying your intellectual faculties with just 3-4 hours sleep. – TheMathemagician Feb 20 '15 at 16:32
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First, slow != dumb (your words). In fact, these are two completely different cognitive processes. WISC, a widely used IQ test, measures IQ as a composite of four scores. Two of them are working memory and processing speed, which is your general ability to quickly solve problems. Another two scores are Verbal Comprehension index and Perceptual Reasoning Index, which measure loosely your problem solving skills and pattern recognition. Many score high on one, and not the other.

Some problems are hard, and it is very difficult to learn how to solve them. But, after solving (or understanding solutions to) many, many of them, you develop the feel how to approach a new problem. If you are passionate about the field, so much so that you have enough discipline to practice and work hard day after day, the results will come.

Last, take care of yourself. And you might want to read up on imposter syndrome, https://counseling.caltech.edu/general/InfoandResources/Impostor . A very common occurrence in academia, it is a mindset where people downplay their own successes, focus only on their struggle, fail to see others' struggles. For example, just from your post: you are more educated that the rest of your family, you have been admitted to a top school, are eager to tackle some of the most difficult problems, and have a very heavy class load. These are your successes. Give yourself credit for it. Focus on the struggle: you tend to call yourself names, and over-generalize several setbacks (bad grades), while seeing others in glorified way. A more constructive would be to look for a solution for your current struggle that takes an advantage of your strengths: maybe dropping a class, if you can, to give yourself more in-depth studying time.

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Having taken the courses you mentioned in college, you feel about how I would expect someone to feel in your position. If you feel you're overwhelmed its because for your workload you can easily be overwhelmed. I agree with @Davidmh and @afaust on their points.

Also remember you're comparing yourself against 10 other students (who i assume) have similar interests. If you were all equal, you might expect yourself to get the best/right answer 10% of the time. So it would feel as though everyone else is always doing something better than you. The only objective measure i see in your post is that you got the lowest score on a test. Everything else is just feelings.

Also, think about the pool you're in. Say the baseline for your opinion of yourself was high school. You went to a college where the bar for average people was raised. Then you went on to a program that sounds similar to mine so I assume the average raised more. Now you're taking courses that are again challenging courses so the average raises more. Judging by where you are now, I suspect you were at the top in high school and now see yourself as failing because you aren't 'the best.'

If you can't cope with the fact that you're competing with more and more qualified people, you need to dial it back a bit and get to point where you're feeling good again. Other people may downvote this, but you should drop a course, get some sleep, and get your bearings. Try the course next time its available.

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    +1 for "drop a course, get some sleep, and get your bearings. Try the course next time its available." Personally, I'm deliberately taking a lighter courseload than I could because I know it would be very difficult for me to manage additional classes. Knowing that I can do what I've signed up for allows me to be successful and feel good about school at the same time. – Kevin Feb 19 '15 at 1:02
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First: I wholeheartedly agree with the answers by Davidmh, afaust and Carlos Bribiescas.

Since your title asks about handling peers and your questions included "How do you cope?", I want to answer that aspect:

Don't see the others only as rivals. They are your peers and you are in this together. Think about joining/forming a study group.

I'm socially shy and a bit awkward, but my first year professors got me into the habit of looking for or forming study groups and whether I was the fastest or slowest student in my study group I always profited a lot by seeing other people's approaches, by learning to explain my reasoning and by having others help me stay focused.

I participated in study groups of 2 to 4 students for many but not all of my classes, and having a study group was a real bonus every time. I did some classes solo and did well, but the material of classes I took with a study group came so much easier to me that I really can't recommend it enough.

One thing to keep in mind when doing study groups: Besides any questions you might have from the lecture, do discuss (and maybe solve) homework problems until you're satisfied that everybody understood enough to write a solution, but never let anybody take home any homework solutions from the study group - if you can, meet in an empty classroom, use the board, and erase when you're done. The purpose of the study group is to work on an understanding of how to do the problems but the actual doing has to be done by each student on their own, in order to get the practice in and also to avoid plagiarism issues.

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One thing that impresses me about you, based upon what you've written, is that you seem to be able to handle more adversity than the average person. Unfortunately, you don't realize it. There are several very basic things that you should probably focus intensely on:

  • Stop knocking yourself because you are obviously stronger than you think. When you berate yourself, you are wasting time and being counterproductive.
  • Spend some quick and intense effort thinking about what kind of occupation you'd like. Spend some time looking at this resource.
  • Realize that you might very well be a "deep thinker". You reject easier, more superficial solutions quickly because you want to find the BEST solution. Many times, if not most times, "creative" solutions are in the eye of the beholder.

I think you have a lot more going for you than you realize. Sit back and, logically and objectively, analyze your situation.

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A person says s/he is diagnosed with manic depression and there are a lot of very important details that might drive to a very unhappy state of mind. But the advice is to get some sleep and don't force yourself too much, be nice to yourself, you are beautiful.

Using these examples, I can tell you my own experience in academia (with a phd, did some post-doc bla bla) I had the same pace like you but my story ended up not so bitter as you might anticipate however ridiculously difficult in the making. I'm now kind of known internationally in some small circle and it came much after the time I was struggling desperately inside academia so I don't care now but once in a while I review a few papers for the fun of it.

This pattern probably going to be like this. While it might seem very attractive as you can get away with minimum human contact and sticking to your own imaginary world and enjoying algebraic constructions, academia unfortunately gets more and more socially demanding and on a subjective note with very unpleasant pretentious geniuses around you. After some masters or phd you will find yourself OK, what now? and then people will start saying well you should have done some networking too, or better talk to that department head, this professor and suddenly you would find yourself in a self-pitching game. Well the idea was to avoid that stuff WTF? Then your options would be much fewer than now.

Also it gets more and more demanding in terms of non-research like stuff, grants or teaching or this paper form, that email etc. So the initial kick that almost you get from other substances wears off very quickly. The internet is filled with grad student stories and most of them are not dealing with half of your challenges and still having those hard times. Do the math(excuse the pun).

So this utopia of oh maybe you would do amazing things is nothing more than buy a ticket, you might win the lottery. You don't even know what you might be working on. And that is the danger. You like the idea of research but you don't even know if you would like the topic or not. Imagine the frustration now and fold it many times if you get stuck in a topic that you don't like. On top of all those "succesful" people stress, you would be extra depressed that you don't want to work on bla bla.

My strong recommendation is that don't see research as a place where people let each other alone and it is relatively peaceful for introverts. It is definitely not. And if you can try to comfort yourself and achieve smaller things, having smaller steps and most importantly if you can keep yourself happier bit by bit, two steps forward a few back, 5-2+3-6+2+1-7 ... you get the idea, keeping the total a bit on the positive side then you don't need this stuff. You can think about stuff outside academia anyways. You can even make money as analyst or some other thing that you can utilize your analytical skills.

Lastly, instead of hanging out with the academia, you can use your thinking skill to create something that might lead to a path that you can walk on. Not some grad student's errands. And don't underestimate those Web development stuff. you sound like an academician already. Watch those youtube videos and try to do them then complain about triviality.

You'll see pretty clever stuff also in those things. Clever people are everywhere and even better; math people are still people. Open any bell curve look at it carefully. That small percent that on the right side still denotes the intelligent people. I've seen some math people in quite good institutions whose IQ might be somewhere between a paper weight and a toaster. They know the lingo for sure but what they do with that information is still the same.

If you find out that you get your kick out of a specific topic then consider academia and find out if there is a demand for it. Otherwise do it outside academia. There are more people like you out there than inside the academia. I think this would make a nice problem for you about the distribution of the risk and your chances.

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    I had trouble following this answer. – genisage Feb 19 '15 at 2:23
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    The field you are known internationally in must be Rambleogy! – gnometorule Feb 20 '15 at 4:38

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