[This post is part of a series on turning rejections into motivation. If you don’t see a Table of Contents to the left, click here to view the series, where you’ll get more value than reading just this post.]
A PhD in physics is a challenge by any measure. Choosing to start the major in your junior year makes catching up that much harder. I felt I was always catching up, filling in details I missed having had to teach myself required classes from a textbook over the summer. Many physics majors know what they want to pursue when they start and finish college with twenty or thirty math and physics classes. Though I was always good at math and science, I hadn’t yet learned that geekiness and nerdiness were orthogonal to coolness and had run away from the fields for fear of the emotions being made fun of in high school had caused.
The head of Penn’s physics department, where I began my PhD, was a stern man, difficult to deal with for any student. I was struggling to keep up with my classmates, so dealing with him for me was that much more difficult.
When we passed once in the hallway in my second semester, he stopped me and said since I wasn’t doing well, maybe it would be best if I didn’t take such hard classes and took some undergrad classes instead. I think he even said this with other people around, overhearing a conversation nobody wants to hear.
At the time physics was one of my two passions (ultimate being the other). The suggestion to let up hit my ears like suggesting to give up. Looking back now, I can imagine good advice someone in his position could have given, but I don’t remember such advice from him.
In any case, one of my fundamental principles of education is that the student rises to the level expected of him or her. For an educator to lower his expectations and ask the student to lower his is the opposite of education to me.
By contrast to that department head, I remember great encouragement from my adviser and a couple professors at Columbia’s physics department. I felt more supported in that community. I got in touch with people at the department there, got my grades up, transferred back, and finished my degree there. In fact, after I took my qualifying exams there, I heard my scores were just below those of the students in some theory groups, who usually score highest.
There is a caveat to these motivating rejections. If the motivation you derive from them doesn’t resonate with the motivations you’d have without them, you’re operating reactively, moving in directions you wouldn’t choose on your own. For example, I ended up leaving physics and may have continued farther than I would have absent that conversation. At the time I knew only my passion for physics, so I consider my decision sound. For that matter, going in new directions can bring more reward than you’d expect.
As always the foundation is awareness — of your environment, beliefs, emotions, and behavior.
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