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College drop out, Good choice educationally?

  1. Oct 15, 2012 #1
    I am a sophomore math and physics major who would like to go to study biological physics as a graduate student. My aim is not to go into the medical field, i.e. Hospitals, pediatricians etc. but my interest generally is to research ways to prolong the human lifespan.

    Lately I have been thinking that my academic career is actually in the way of my education instead of helping it. I don't pay attention in lectures because I'm unimpressed with the level of instruction, and continually find OpenCourseware lectures to be much more informative than the lectures at my university. From what I understand the level of instruction drops while the corse #'s increase at my school so, as a consequence the thought of dropping out of college and studying the materials on my own has been increasingly intriguing me.

    I am a very self-disciplined and self motivated person and have learned to teach myself things very well. With the money I save in tuition I could pay professors I liked to help me out when I get stuck on topics (or I could also find a grad student in my area to help me with this).

    The idea of self-paced learning is something that really resonates with me for the idea's that are vaguely represented in the link below. And in the end, if I ended up finding that its to much for me to do it on my own I can just as easily get back into school because my GPA is relatively good, 3.6.

    I would probably stay in school through out the next semester (Spring 2012 and possible Summer 2012) so that I can grab somethings for my toolkit before I say goodbye, e.g. some research for my resume and one last math corse with a professor who I really think will resinate with me.

    My four questions are, realistically how good would my GRE subject scores have to be to get into good Graduate schools if I tried this method?
    And does anyone have any tips for corse material i could use? Obviously OpenCourseware but books that are written for self education more then lecture based education?
    Does anyone know of any research opportunities for non-matriculated students?
    Any other general advice?

    Last edited: Oct 15, 2012
  2. jcsd
  3. Oct 15, 2012 #2
    Self-learning is an important skill, but in this economy, it does not replace college degrees. One reason is that college degrees credibly convey the information to employers that you are well-trained in your field, and that you paid good money for this training, so that you did not take it lightly.

    On the other hand, self-study might be more efficient in the end and you may come out learning more, but when you think about the information asymmetry between the employer and the applicant, the lack of a college degree can cause huge lack of incentive to employ you, even if you actually are more skilled than the other applicants with a college degree.

    It is a sad state of affairs, but getting a college degree has now become the Nash equilibrium, despite its inefficiency. Online degree programs are making efforts to fight this inefficiency, but the tradition is still to go to an actual college and get the degree, whether or not you learn much from it.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Signalling_(economics [Broken])

    Last edited by a moderator: May 6, 2017
  4. Oct 15, 2012 #3


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    To get into graduate school you need an undergraduate degree. It doesn't matter how good your GRE score is. If you don't qualify, you don't qualify.

    If you're not getting that much out of lectures and think you can self-learn much more efficiently then you could try simply skipping the lectures and using the time for self-directed learning. No one takes attendence at these things anyway.

    I would however make a point of telling the administration at your school that you don't feel you're getting much out of the lectures. If no one complains, things are unikely to change for the better.
  5. Oct 15, 2012 #4
    Actually, if you read the admission requirements for graduate study at many universities, there is a clause that states something to the effect: "If the department feels that a student has the ability to perform graduate level work...etc,"

    I would be working off of one of these clauses, I am sure of that. I also understand that this path might arise many new challenges but I am looking more for insight on what these challenges might be and how to combat them.

    I appreciate your input, thanks
    Last edited: Oct 15, 2012
  6. Oct 15, 2012 #5


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    Many people would say it isn't going to be any better in grad school. :wink:

    More seriously, even assuming you can learn enough on your own to get a high score on the GRE, where are you going to get letters of recommendation and research experience from?
  7. Oct 15, 2012 #6
    Speaking as someone who is directly involved in the selection of graduate students, I can say without any doubt whatsoever that if somebody applies for a PhD programme here without first having obtained an undergraduate degree, their application quickly finds its way into the bin.

    You would be amazed at the number of such applications we get every year, even though our application guidelines state quite specifically that you need an undergraduate degree in order to be eligible for graduate study here.

    You need to understand a couple of things:

    • there are quite literally thousands of people looking to get entry to graduate school in mathematics or physics each year;
    • this pool of applicants contains far more highly qualified students than there are available places;
    • few, if any, PhD advisers are going to take the risk of working with someone who didn't have the self-discipline to complete their undergraduate degree when there are so many other qualified applicants available to choose from;
    • even if there weren't qualified applicants available, why in the world would an adviser want the headache of dealing with someone who can't figure out that applying for graduate school without a first degree is, prima facie, a terrible idea?
  8. Oct 15, 2012 #7
    Don't drop out. Worse decision you'll ever make. You are a sophomore, meaning you have 2 more school years left and need to get some research positions in order to be considered by graduate school (I am still an undergraduate but my professors say that research is essential which is what I am basing those comments off of). Tough it out, do well, move on to what you want.

    Also, you and I are practically the same in outlook. I am a physics (B.A.) major, chemistry minor, with an emphasis in biological science. My main goal is to eventually study human longevity and cancer in graduate school.
    You won't get anywhere by quitting, so don't quit, instead just reinforce your knowledge by doing OCW and your university courses along side one another like I do. Helps with thinking differently! Please don't drop out, that would be a horrible, horrible, HORRIBLE, decision, especially at this juncture.
  9. Oct 15, 2012 #8
    Thanks for the contribution, but for my undergrad classes, Quantum, Thermo, Physical chemistry, etc. they are all offered online with high quality instruction from the top universities in the nation through OpenCorseware. Graduate class instructions aren't that abundant or, I would assume, easy.

    My letters of recommendation would come from the professors I choose to work with. Better yet, I was thinking of possibly auditing or even taking a couple of courses at the university of my choice as a non-matriculated student in order to possibly get a professor from with in the university to write a recommendation for me. I know it sounds cheesy but I watched a video on youtube from Washington University of a student who did that, and now their a member of the department they applied to.

    Research opportunities are something I haven't got a plan for yet, suggestions are welcome.
  10. Oct 15, 2012 #9
    Your insight is very helpful, in your comment you talk about Ph.D Programs but what about M.S. Program's are they similar? I would assume that they are still difficult to get into but easier than Ph.D correct?
  11. Oct 15, 2012 #10
    I can't speak for other universities but here the policy for masters candidates is the same as that for doctoral candidates: no relevant first degree, no entry. Even if they could gain entry, no scholarship committee is going to award them the funding to pay for it.

    A career in physics is, as in life, all about playing the odds: your objective is to maximise your probability of achieving your goals. Even good students will find that the odds are already stacked against them by virtue of places in graduate school being a scarce resource. By not gaining a first degree, you're making the chance of being accepted in a reputable graduate programme vanishingly small.

    I suspect that, deep down, you already know this but it might be helpful to hear it from someone else: what you're proposing is a thunderingly stupid idea. You've already got quite a good GPA and are presumably capable of obtaining a correspondingly good degree; why would you throw all that away simply for the purpose of making things harder for yourself?
  12. Oct 15, 2012 #11


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    That's true, and I'll give you an example that I personally know about where that get-out-of-jail clause was used. The applicant allready had a first class undergraduate degree from the Univserity of Sarajevo, but he couldn't prove it because (1) the war in Bosnia had reduced the university to a heap of rubble with his academic records somewhere at the bottom, and (2) so far as the Bosnian authorities were concerned he was an army deserter, so returning to sort out the paperwork would most likely have put him in front of a firing squad.

    As an asylum seeker, He got accepted for a PhD at a top UK univserity - but only on condition that he sat their final undergrad exams at the end of his first year in grad school.

    But if you want to try your luck and apply by that sort of route, don't let us stop you!
  13. Oct 15, 2012 #12
    You certainly raise a good point, but even since I was a young student I always felt that my learning experience inside of the formal education system felt very against the grain, and I've always been seeking alternative ways for myself to learn. I find that I am very receptive to OpenCourseware and other digital education platforms and would like to pursue the idea that they might be capable of being my primary source of education.

    Might I ask you, as a graduate student selector, how it would look to the university your affiliated with if I had a one year gap in my education process from say, sophomore year to jr. year? I don't mean to seem like a masochistic learner rather I'm very passionate about learning. My curiosity really stems from how much more effectively, if more effectively at all, I can learn on my own. This idea is one that is full of wonder for me and is something I almost view as a really neat research project. So, if it just turns out to be what it looks like on the surface, an odd college kid trying some bizarre plan, then I reenlist in my undergraduate program (maybe even try to get into a better one) after a year, and the whole thing is just one big failed thought experiment. Would that look bad on my resume?

    Add in: I make it seem like my school isn't ranked very well, its right outside US news top 100 so it wouldn't be hard to get back in but It's not a terrible school.
    Last edited: Oct 15, 2012
  14. Oct 15, 2012 #13
    Yes, terrible.
  15. Oct 15, 2012 #14
    Thank you for your thoughts, I consider them a great contribution to my learning experience, judging by your post you seem very knowledgeable in academia. Would you be able to suggest where I might be able to find undergraduate research work as a non-matriculated student if I were to try this?
  16. Oct 15, 2012 #15
    That is surprising to me and seems so cookie-cutter, very often do students graduate in five years. I don't understand please elaborate. Does it look bad if student graduate in five years of straight undergraduate work? Or take a year off in-between graduate and undergraduate?
  17. Oct 15, 2012 #16
    Taking a year off is probably acceptable if you have a reasonable explanation for the hiatus. I am assuming that this break would look terrible on a resume because your reason for the break would be, to most review committees, inadequate.

    Btw, I share in your frustrations :-/
  18. Oct 16, 2012 #17
    Most professors including those who you see on OpenCourseware were not trained to be educators, they were trained to be, physicists/mathematicians/engineers etc. So the idea of expecting someone in another college to have a better skill at lecturing is incorrect way of thinking.

    You also have to remember your not the only person in the course, and different people learn at different rates, so the idea of sure you might fully understand everything going on. Someone else might be totally lost, so the lecture must slow down to accommodate for everyone.

    By self learning you will also be missing out possibilities of making contacts with others who share your interests. Which could very well open up many doors down the road when you get a career.

    The idea of not having a degree in this economy is ludicrous, couple this with the fact that only more and more people will get degrees, and things like PhD's are becoming commonplace, and its a recipe for disaster.

    Many people end up going to college thinking they will get a PhD for instance, and stop after there bachelors degree, its just too much work for most people.
  19. Oct 16, 2012 #18
    Would it be reasonable for one to skip out of a certain course, and take the more advanced variant, if one were to have studied the prerequisite on one's own?

    Say, one studying intermediate E&M with Griffiths' book, and then taking the course that uses Jackson's? Or studying from one of/a combination of the books by Kittel, Morin, and Klepper & Kolenkow, and then taking the more advanced classical mechanics class which uses the text by Goldstein?
  20. Oct 16, 2012 #19


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    As someone who has taken year long courses from Jackson and Goldstein, this is foolish. These problem sets give graduate students nightmares after theyve taken the course. Jackson crushes souls. I enjoyed the experience, but i benefitted from each and every gram of preparation. The gap between Kleppner and Kolenkow and Goldstein is enormous. Do not do this.

    To the OP, your idea is foolhardy.
  21. Oct 16, 2012 #20
    Unless there's a very good reason for it, seeing that a student has taken longer than usual to complete his/her degree is already a red flag; seeing that it was for a patently ridiculous idea like the one you're proposing is enough to get your application binned.

    I know that you don't want to hear this, but that's just the way it is. Graduate applications committees already have far more applications from outstanding students than there are places. Often, a not inconsiderable portion of a department's funding is tied to completion rates of graduate programmes as well as the impact of graduate students' publications. I simply wouldn't take the risk of recommending that your application be accepted if you were to think that going off into the wilderness for a few years is sufficient preparation for a graduate programme.
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