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How to get degree equivalent knowledge without school:

  1. Jun 21, 2007 #1
    Good morning all,
    Anyone who is a physicist please respond to the following question:

    How would one go about gaining the knowledge of someone who has doctorate in physics without actually going to college (I'll explain why in a bit). My question is mainly targeted at what subjects I need to know both in mathematics and in the sciences, but any book suggestions I would appreciate (any degree of difficulty would be welcome).

    I know that labs are a big thing, but the exact field I want to get into is theoretical physics, so unless my first assumption is incorrect I could get by without labs.

    My prior experience in schooling has been very negative. The only school that I can get into does not have the proper courses (not to mention I would have to pay a HUGE bill prior before I can attend). Adding up the fact I would have to go through this school, pay off what I owe, and then go to a school that would be appropriate, I would be about 35 before I finished... Oh yes, by the way I am 20 years as of now case anyone is wondering.

    As of now I believe I have the necessary ability and resources to train myself. I excel at self study, have plenty of extra time (I do mean plenty, unfortunately), I have had an unbreakable enjoyment with mathematics and the sciences, also I have the right materials (I have access to any book and the internet).

    I realize the importance of mathematics to my study and therefore I shall begin with that, I plan to take the next year or two to gain a understanding of what I need. I would assume at very least calculus, linear algebra, topology (for string theory, I am told?). For what else I don't know, please tell me what you had to learn here.

    For actual subjects within the physics hierarchy I'll start with Newtonian, but after that I don't know the order... I know quantum mechanics, relativity, and string theory are thrown in there somewhere, So any idea on specifically what I would need to learn please let me know.

    Also I won't change my mind about studying on my own, but if you really want you can call me insane/uneducated/ or whatever I don't mind :yuck: But what would be nicer would be some advice. Also I apologize for the my writing, it's very early and I haven't yet been able to get to bed.

    Thanks for any info you can share.
  2. jcsd
  3. Jun 21, 2007 #2


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    You can't.

    A PhD, besides having all those classes to take, requires an ORIGINAL work as your dissertation. Unless you have full knowledge of the STATE of the subject area that you specialize in, you can't tell what is new and what isn't. This is where an expert in the field comes in and that is why we all have our thesis advisor.

    Furthermore, a Ph.D doesn't just mean someone who knows a lot about something. It also means a person who has the ability to convey that knowledge in the most effective manner. It is why most PhD candidates have to present their work orally in front of their peers, often many times, and are expected to be able to write and publish their work. These are SKILLS that you can only acquire, and not something that you simply read off a book.

    You might want to read my essay on being a physicist here in this forum so that you might have a better idea on what is involved in getting a Ph.D in physics. It is certainly more than just passing classes.

  4. Jun 21, 2007 #3
    Yes, thats true. But what I meant by gaining the knowledge of a Ph.D was just that, I don't care about the grades, the quote "...who has the ability to convey that knowledge in the most effective manner." I am not really concerned with the aspect of that, I only care about the gaining the knowledge utiilizing it like that isn't my immediate goal. Also my opinion of what someone knows can be read from a book (of course thats not the only way I know how to get information) at least what I want to know can be learned in such a way (yet I could be wrong and at the moment it seems I could be from your response),

    Thanks for your response I should think about what you have said after I go get a cup of coffee. Thank you.
  5. Jun 21, 2007 #4
    Wow, talk about wanting to run before you can walk! Or in this case, wanting to pilot an interstellar spacecraft before you can walk...

    Okay, I'm pretty sure that if you want a PhD, you really must have a masters degree first. And if you want a masters you need a bachelors first. So get a bachelors degree. I dunno how it works in the US, but to use Britain as an example, you apply to a university after school, then that's three or even four years of full time study. Then once you've got your Bsc, another one or two years doing a masters. Then three to five doing a PhD. I have only done the first of these three steps.

    Good luck! If you just want to know the knowledge, for your own edification or to prepare for a university course, many universities put details of their courses up on the web, including suggested textbooks. That'll start you off.

    ETA: Like this, for instance: http://www.phy.cam.ac.uk/teaching/
    Last edited: Jun 21, 2007
  6. Jun 21, 2007 #5
    lol, Well I didn't expect to do it over night.
    Online textbooks may not be a bad idea, I shall go searchin asap, thanks.
  7. Jun 21, 2007 #6


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    Most of us who went through a Ph.D program only took classes during the 1st 2 years or so of our program. I certainly did. Yet, it took me 6 years to get my Ph.D. What did I do for the rest of the 4 years?

    You can gain some superficial knowledge of the stuff you learn in textbooks. A Ph.D degree is where these things are applied into an area that are STILL unsolved or unknown. One is truly working on something new or unsolved! This is where you truly start to truly understand the things you learn from the pages of a book. But not only that, you also are expected to ADD to the body of knowledge beyond those books. By the time you graduate, you are spening more of your time "learning" from papers more than books. You should not only know the material within your area, but also the state of knowledge and expertise of that area. This is the level of knowledge that is expected out of someone with a Ph.D.

  8. Jun 21, 2007 #7
    Ah okay I see what you were saying now. Well in that case I guess I will have to eventually go to school but I can at least learn the fundamentals first (Probably in less time) :cool:

    Thanks for your advice.
  9. Jun 21, 2007 #8
    If I may interject, I'm pretty sure that theoretical physicists need to have a very good knowledge of experimental physics as well. I do my graduate research for an experimental astrophysicist, but the theoretician in our group sometimes works on hardware issues alongside the experimentalists. I suppose that a mathematical physicist (i.e. a mathematician who works on physics problems) might be able to get away without putting in any lab time. But I'm pretty sure that any real physicist, theoretical or otherwise, is going to have to do some amount of experimental research.

    Can any of the PhDs comment on this?
  10. Jun 21, 2007 #9


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    I'll comment on this, but I am utterly bias since I'm an experimentalist. To me, the only theorist that is worth his or her salt is a theorist that pays a lot of attention to experiments. It is why, for example, I admire theorists like Phil Anderson and Bob Laughlin. They never lose sight on the body of knowledge from the experimental side. Laughlin certainly has an experiment to thank for (the fractional quantum hall effect discovery) for his Nobel Prize.

    Edit: I forgot to also add that the theory group here within my division (high energy physics) exists to support and analyze the results coming out of Fermilab and also what is expected out of the LHC. So essentially they exist to analyze and also guide the experimentalists. So the group certainly focuses almost entirely on experiments.

    Last edited: Jun 21, 2007
  11. Jun 21, 2007 #10
    Well, on the one hand I agree that there is no way you will become a working physicist without any degrees, I see absolutely no reason to discourage someone from learning as long as they understand this. I am an undergraduate but I often find myself learning a lot more on my own during summer time than what I pick up in my classes. On the other hand we do all get bored or discouraged at times and it might get difficult to study such a huge amount of material without any outside motivation. I'll go ahead and list some books that I have used and liked:

    I'll assume that you have at least seen some calculus before. If not I've never really come across a good high school calculus type book, but any of them should be ok for a first exposure. After that you can get into a more serious treatment of calculus.

    In doing the following you must work out a majority of the exercises, or you will learn nothing useful and forget what you have read rather quickly.

    Start out with M. Spivak's "Calculus" https://www.amazon.com/Calculus-Mic...7081259?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1182435834&sr=8-1

    This covers calculus of a single variable. When you have finished the entire book move on to linear algebra, which you must learn before attempting to move on in calculus. An excellent book is Hoffman's "Linear Algebra":


    After learning linear algebra see Munkres's "Analysis on Manifolds" for treatment of the calculus several variables

    After this you will have a pretty solid grounding in calculus, but to learn the adjust to the language of 'vector calculus' as used by physicists you should read "div, grad and curl": https://www.amazon.com/Div-Grad-Cur...7081259?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1182436193&sr=1-1

    which is a rather short and physically grounded book.

    At this point you are ready to begin learning some physics as well. Kleppner's "An Introduction to Mechanics" and Purcell's "E+M" are excellent (advanced) introductory books:


    You should watch the lectures on MIT's open courseware at the same time, although they are at a slightly lower level.

    After this you can start learning about waves (don't discount this, it will be very helpful come qm) with the accompanying OCW lectures. French's book is excellent. Bekefi and Barrett is not too bad.


    There is also a good book on special relativity by French


    And you're finally ready to learn quantum mechanics (well, you would ideally know functional analysis first but most people don't). Shankar is a good mathematically grounded introduction. Be sure not to skip over the chapter on classical mechanics, and read through the math section to get used to the new notation.


    Time for some more math:


    (this is about where I am in my studies, so from here on it's books that I plan on using, which I have heard good things about, proceed with caution)

    Now you are ready to learn some real mechanics. I've intentionally skipped the garbage books (e.g. marion and thornton) aimed at undergraduates. See Arnold's "Mathematical methods of classical mechanics"


    Electrodynamics by Schwartz:


    Arnold's book on differential equations:


    Also add real and complex analysis, perhaps lie algebras (I used the book by Hall), differential geometry, functional analysis

    Then you can make your way into quantum field theory, string theory, etc.

    When you're all done perhaps check out Penrose's book.
    Enjoy the next few years.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 2, 2017
  12. Jun 21, 2007 #11


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    Then you have misunderstood my responses. I never once told the OP that he should stop learning what he wanted to. However, the question was to get the SAME level of knowledge as someone with a Ph.D in physics. I was trying to explain the misconception that someone with a physics Ph.D has a set of knowledge that is only available and obtained from books. This is false for the reasons that I have explained.

  13. Jun 21, 2007 #12


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    Like everyone else has said, you really do have to go to school in order to get to where you want to be. The great thing about being in a school is that you will have interactions with practicing physicists, whether they be professors or guest speakers etc.

    But you seem to really be interested in learning math and physics, which is a rare trait these days. Like the others said, you won't be able to "teach yourself" a PhD, but you can still teach yourself some physics. If you want to teach yourself some physics, here's my recommendations.

    Start with Calculus. I recommend "Calculus 5th Edition" by Stewart. The book isn't really the best book for mathematicians, but I think it does present Calculus well for science students.

    If you can make it through this book, then you have more than enough math to tackle a General Physics book. I recommend Halliday, Resnick, and Walker's "Fundamentals of Physics."

    At this point you are going to want to cover some Differential Equations and Linear Algebra before moving on. I recommend Blanchard, Devaney, and Hall's "Differential Equations." It presents the material with large emphasis on physical interpretation, great for a physics student. For Linear Algebra, my school uses Anton's "Elementary Linear Algebra," but I'm not sure how this book actually is, since I haven't taken the course yet.

    Now, I would suggest finding a modern physics book, like Serway's "Modern Physics." It will be a nice intro to both Special Relativity and Quantum Mechanics.

    At this point, a physics major will begin moving into upper level undergraduate courses. For Thermodynamics and Statistical Physics, I used Bairlein's "Thermal Physics." For Quantum Mechanics, Griffith's "Introduction to Quantum Mechanics" is a must. For E&M, I have heard that Griffith's "Introduction to Electrodynamics" is good.

    I have yet to take Classical Mechanics, so maybe someone else can help you on this one. Please consider going to school if your this interested! The world is always in need of more good, hardworking scientists! Good luck!
  14. Jun 21, 2007 #13


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    You don't actually have to go all the way through calculus before you start to tackle physics. A Halliday/Resnick type General Physics textbook assumes that the student knows the basic concepts of derivatives and integrals of single-variable functions, and how to do the simpler types, but you don't need to master all those trig substitutions, integration by parts, etc. for that purpose.

    As you progress further, you need to be able to solve more sophisticated calculus problems, and work with vector calculus (multivariable calculus) and differential equations.

    Even though you're not planning to go to school, I strongly recommend that you visit some college/university Web sites and study their physics curricula. Find out what sequence physics majors are required or recommended to take their courses in, prerequisite math courses, what textbooks are used, etc. The details vary from one school to another, but the general outline is similar among most of them.
  15. Jun 22, 2007 #14


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  16. Jun 22, 2007 #15
    lol i was just about to post that one ...nice
  17. Jun 23, 2007 #16
    I very much appreciate the books and links, I wish I hadn't gone out and bought books before I waited for your responses :frown:

    Since you all seem to know what your talking about, I'd like to get your opinion on the books I decided on:

    Trigonometry (eight edition)
    Lial, Hornsby, Schneider 2005
    Dug this out of my closet for referencing case I have forgotten anything :wink:

    Modern Calculus and Analytic Geometry,
    By Richard A. Silverman, 1969
    Slightly older, but seems to be a very nice book, not to mention all the errors are correctly by now (hopefully).

    Proofs and Fundamentals
    Ethan D. Block, 2000
    Well... This one just looked nice. I'm sure it'll be good once I finish the Calculus book. 1951

    Mathematics of Classical and Quantum Physics
    Frederick W. Byron, Jr. and Robert W. Fuller
    I'll read this one after my Proof and Fundamentals book down packing what I have learned and refocusing towards the sciences (well mainly quantum mechanics)

    Atomic Physics
    Max Born, 1969.
    Preperation for quanum mechanics also appears to be a classic :biggrin:

    Quantum Theory
    David Bohm,

    I think now I'll get some of the books you recommended, I think I will get the "Linear Algebra" by Hoffman and "Analysis on Manifolds" by Munkres, the others I'll wait off on till I finish with the first few.

    Also thanks for the advice, but for now I think I'll start without heading back to school.

    Thanks again.
  18. Jun 23, 2007 #17
    you skipped E&M and Mechanics? you're going to be lost without first learning those.
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