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Advice please : self-study

  1. Jul 31, 2008 #1
    So I have finally decided to study physics and mathematics (starting from undergraduate level) on my own at home...
    Do you think its a good idea? Are there any well-known modern physicist who did not go to a university?

    Also, what journals would you suggest that I shoud subscribe to keep in touch with the latest in physics ?
  2. jcsd
  3. Jul 31, 2008 #2
    If you ever plan on having a job as a physicist or mathematician, I'd advise against it. It can be more difficult than you think to stay disciplined enough on reading and problem solving, and there's no way to get help if you get stuck. And no one anywhere will hire you for a math or physics job without some college (at least no jobs above student level).

    You also miss out on important student and professor interactions... working with other students allows you to collaborate, something very necessary in any real research today... and you often can learn valuable things from your teachers. I wouldn't want to miss out on it...

    If you aren't worried about a career and just want to study physics for fun, then I guess you're ok to study at home; you can get some basic publications like Physics Today that are broad and cover ideas from all fields of physics.

    So I wouldn't do it unless of course you are insanely brilliant and can learn all of it alone, then proceed to publish your own papers by yourself. If you succeed at that then you'd be way ahead of me :biggrin:
  4. Jul 31, 2008 #3

    Well i am a swing trader in the stock markets and thats my job... :D
    So I've got ample free time to study...

    Really, physics for me, is not for career, but a tool to know the truth about our universe...
    And I know that I can miss student/teacher interaction... But still I believe that if I think on my own, and give myself time to do that... I can learn something new about our universe...

    Basically theoretical physics is what I am concerned with... and all I would need to work with is a pen, a paper, and some books... ;)
  5. Aug 1, 2008 #4
    be forewarned this is a difficult task logistically, not just because of the subject matter. I'm in uni and a physics major and wanting to study on my own and having a difficult time. in fact i was about to post a similar question. start with the simplest books. you're not a in a rush so rereading the same material shouldn't be a problem for you. look for books with exercises and solutions, the more of each the better. theoretical physics is a tall order, but still it's not impossible. if you have access to a uni library go there and browse. there a couple of places that set out a self study plan




    go to the library, pick a book on one of those lists at the level you're at and look through it. if it has exercises great, if it has solutions or at least numerical answers even better. look up reviews on amazon for it. for the first couple of books in any one area grab books that reviewers say are really easy. once you have a couple under your belt reading the more difficult ones or even the pedagogically worse ones won't be a problem.

    and actually i don't think there's anything truly keeping you from being a productive theoretical physicist on your own. like you said all you need is pen and a paper and time. only that last one is costly and that's it's more feasible for professors to be productive since they're essentially funded to sit there and study.
  6. Aug 1, 2008 #5
    Lectures are vastly overrated. You'd get more doing a lot of problems than listening to some guy write derivations on the board. This is especially true in math courses. Maybe thats why books like to omit examples? To make lecturers feel important. I'd rather profs just solved a problem or two on the board with ample time for students to try and give motivation to terse material, instead of making them copy out the text.

    Anyway, the only thing you would be missing in physics is some of the lab demonstrations which a book really can't illustrate. Nothing MIT opencourse ware couldn't fix though. Since you are only doing undergrad, you should be okay in terms of getting through physics. If this was math though, you would never understand it - self taught or not. I think Faraday was self taught, and he eventually got a degree for his contributions.
  7. Aug 1, 2008 #6
    Thanks for the links ice109

    I agree with you... time is costly...

    Then again,
    One on hand my mind is pressurring me to write something while I am still in my twenties...
    On the other hand, my other mind is bent on doing adventure instead of academics...

    So, how long do you think it might take to have a complete grasp of modern physics before I become productive...???
    3years, 4 years???

    I feel the need to achieve something while still in my twenties...
    I am 22... Is this right???
  8. Aug 1, 2008 #7
    productive? working full time, ~60 hours a week, maybe 8 years?
  9. Aug 1, 2008 #8
    Though this may be true, university mathematics is very different from high school mathematics. I struggled quite a bit and I did double maths at A-levels. Its different in the sense that it is a lot more rigorous. There is a definite format for mathematics. For theoretical physics I can't see you needing much proper maths really. By proper I mean to the rigor that mathematicians study it. If you really do want to learn maths properly I recomend you start out with set theory, as every book out there will assume you know set theory. Then some algebra (I think quantum use it) and I recomend group theory, not for practical reasons but it is very very interesting. Could read up on probability if you will ever use it, for which you need measure theory and martingale theory.

    I hope you have the motivation to do this because I think it can be done if you put yourself to it. If you have any maths questions you can PM me :)

    Good luck.
  10. Aug 1, 2008 #9


    User Avatar

    Staff: Mentor

    Full-time students in the USA take four years of undergraduate coursework, then two or three years at the graduate level while working on a Ph.D.
  11. Aug 1, 2008 #10
    Ok, well now that I understand where you're coming from...

    I'd say as for the amount of time it will take, that depends on you. In mathematics for certain, there are some abstract ideas that require a certain level of mathematical maturity. You might be ready for this quickly, it also may take time. I know for me, I didn't have a very good grasp of abstract ideas and proofs until about a full semester of upper level courses. But then something in my head just clicked and it's been a lot easier since then.

    It's one thing to understand ideas in theoretical physics and math from a book in the context of homework problems or definitions. It's a bigger step to actually use these ideas in something new, or even just to understand the recent literature using these ideas. If you are going to pull it off, you might want to use PF to discuss ideas with people- you really won't know if you understand ideas deeply enough until you discuss them. At least that's been my experience. I am still trying to gauge my understanding of things like tensors and manifolds... yes, I can do some basic computations involving them and spit out some kind of definition, but I'm not yet at the point where I fully understand them. I think it just takes time and patience... but you can get there... :wink:
  12. Aug 1, 2008 #11
    oh, and to add to what jtbell said, it takes usually ~4 years of undergrad coursework, but I think more than 2-3 years to complete a PhD - I think the average time (at least for theoretical physics) PhD is more like 5 years. Though I guess only 2-3 years of that is courses, the rest being research.
  13. Aug 1, 2008 #12
    I am talking about university math. You can't learn 10 pages of rigor in 1 class.

    To OP, depending on how much math you know, it should take < 3 years to get undergrad physics down.
  14. Aug 1, 2008 #13
    Huh so am I. I'm just saying its a lot different to high school where you compute things by plugging them into formulas. After a while rigor becomes a must, I find it hard to understand things if there is no rigor in the writing, which is why physics text are so horrid in my opinion.
  15. Aug 1, 2008 #14


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    Staff: Mentor

    Yes, I was thinking of the time required for coursework. When I was a graduate student, I did most of my coursework during the first two years. These were the required courses that all grad students had to take: a semester apiece of classical mechanics and thermodynamics, two semesters of E&M, three semesters of QM, a couple of courses outside the department ("cognate courses"). Maybe something else I've forgotten. After that, when I was doing mostly research, I think I had to take one course every year or two, an advanced seminar of some kind. These were usually one-off courses that were offered when a professor felt like teaching something he was interested in. I was an experimentalist, and I ended up taking seven years altogether for my Ph.D.
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