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In pursuit of genius

  1. Dec 17, 2012 #1

    I left school legally at the age of 16 and started working for an uncle at his construction company. My plans were to learn everything I could about building homes, start my own company, and become rich. But that was then. I am almost 30 now and will be quiting construction very soon.

    In school, I remember being very interested in math and science. I was good at it. But that was in elementary school and a couple of years of highschool.

    My dream is to spend my life educating myself in those two fields, finding which areas interest me the most, and advancing them, teaching and getting published.

    Thoughts? Comments? Advice? Thanks!
  2. jcsd
  3. Dec 17, 2012 #2
    What you are trying to do is certainly possible. There are quite some people who start with science at their thirties.

    However, it is also quite dangerous what you want to do. There is essentially nothing that guarantees that you will be successful. First of all, there is no guarantee that you will even like math and science. You said you did some science in high school and you liked it. But science in math are very different in university!! They look very little like the science you encounter in high school. Many people I knew quit with mathematics and physics because they did not like it, even though they enjoyed it in college. Before paying for an expensive college, you should really try to work through a college physics or math text. Or you might want to go to a community college and take some courses.

    But even then, there is no guarantee that you will be good at physics or mathematics. You should really consider the possibility that you will not obtain good grades and that you won't get into a good grad school. In that case, you end up with a bachelor in physics, which is not immediately a very useful degree. You will have quit your well-paying job and you will have obtained a useless degree and you will have wasted much money and time. This is a risk you will have to take. And it's a very real risk. There are many people who don't get into grad school. And even less people who get to be a professor.

    You also got to think about how long the path will be. A bachelor in physics is about 4 years. Then you go to grad school, which might take 6 years. And that's only for your PhD. So you'll be at least 40 once you'll have a PhD in physics (and with quite a large debt as well). Then you will have to get some post-doc jobs, which will take up quite some years as well.

    I'm not discouraging you from following your dream. But I'm trying to make things more realistic for you. If you decide to pursue your dreams, then good luck. But you should only pursue it once you know all the risks involved.
  4. Dec 17, 2012 #3
    I'm not exactly in the same position as you, though I can sort of relate. The cliche recommendation is to figure out what you actually want to do, is it teaching (and at what level?), research, coming up with some novel and interesting maths? Because these of course all lie at vastly different levels as far as time/energy/difficulty goes. But I also know that when starting out, such a recommendation is rarely helpful, since you don't know enough to even know what you like, or rather know what you will be able to invest yourself in for years if not decades to come. So really the only way to start IMHO is to just start reading about topics in math that interest you in your spare time. One thing will lead you to the other, and pretty soon you'll find some things that you might seriously like to master. Or on the other hand, you might find that a career in mathematics might not be for you, though there's nothing right or wrong about either outcomes.

    The only sensible path I can see is to work at my paying job and study math on my spare time. But then, I'm not studying to get a job related to math.

    Hope the share helps!
  5. Dec 17, 2012 #4
    I say go for it! GED Prep > GED > college etc. There are many schools that allow you to take the majority of your prereqs online, so you can learn conveniently and also figure out what area of science you wish to concentrate in. Online classes also have that good "independent-study feel" as you can go through the material at your leisure (with the appropriate deadlines in mind of course) and are not in the typical classroom setting.
  6. Dec 17, 2012 #5


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    Hey mathgenius and welcome to the forums.

    Don't be intimidated by those younger and more experienced in the field than you are right now: just chip away at it for a while with the right attitude and you will most likely surprise yourself.
  7. Dec 18, 2012 #6
    Believe me when I tell you that you have time. Sometimes in one's life, you have to live it before you realize what it is you want to do. However, take carefully planned steps and write out realistic goals...how will you manage while going back to school and such. Good luck!
  8. Dec 18, 2012 #7
    I'm unsure if I agree with this, given that unemployment statistics for physics majors, median wages, and employment sectors are good (AIP states that roughly 66% of physics majors end up in engineering, software development, or some other kind of IT).

    Is this misleading?
  9. Dec 18, 2012 #8
    We had a discussion about this here: https://www.physicsforums.com/showthread.php?t=657250
  10. Dec 18, 2012 #9
    It's definitely doable. I dropped out of high school at 15 and spent about 12 years between the military and working construction. I'm now in my senior year of a math/physics double major.

    I'll warn you that, having dropped out of high school, you will likely need remedial math courses before you're at what most programs consider "entry-level". Even if you were good at math you probably haven't had enough of it and what you did know is surely quite rusty. If you're not ready for calc I, you're not prepared for a physics or math degree. That's OK, that was my situation, all it means is that it will probably take 5 years instead of 4 to complete your bachelors.

    Mathematics and physics are hard degrees even without the additional struggles that come with being an non-traditional student but if it's what you really want then go for it. It can be done.
  11. Dec 20, 2012 #10
    Thank you for the replies.

    Aren't there shortcuts to getting all these credentials (degrees, doctorates, etc)?

    I've been thinking about buying several high quality books on physics and mathematics and just studying 'til I've learned it all. Studying day and night until every thought and every dream is about those two subjects. Hopefully later I'll be able to come up with my own quality work that'll get me recognized.

    That's the dream right there.
  12. Dec 20, 2012 #11
    I'm afraid not :frown: The system is how it is. I don't think there are significant shortcuts.

    Not a good idea. Let me explain why. Self-studying is certainly doable. But it is very easy to fool yourself. You might think you know something while you actually don't. This happens more easily than you think!! Self-study can only work if you already have experience with the topic and if you already know the pitfalls. And even then it is dangerous. To be able to communicate with other people is really a must. Guidance from a professor is also very necessary.

    Certainly when you're going to do your own research. If you don't have a professional to guide you, then you're screwed. You need to know where you can do something new, and what has been done already. A professional can tell you these things. You will likely not know when you're a beginner.

    To start in science, there is little else to do then to go the conventional route. That is: bachelor => PhD => post-doc. It really is the best way!
  13. Dec 20, 2012 #12
    Can you give an example of this? Are you speaking from experience?
  14. Dec 21, 2012 #13
    I did self-study for two years when I attended a distance-learning university. Speaking now as a physics senior at a "flesh & bone" university, it was by far the hardest thing I've ever done. It requires an amount of discipline that even the most dedicated people will struggle to put up with. It also takes longer to complete a degree this way, which could put a real test on your patience and finances should you choose to attend a distance university. You will not learn anywhere near as fast or efficiently as you would by getting regular lectures to guide your learning, frequent drills to test your knowledge, and the ability to pose questions to profs that you can't find answers to in a textbook. A 5 minute conversation with a good prof can save you 2 days of searching through half a dozen textbooks looking for an answer to a simple question in my experience.
  15. Dec 21, 2012 #14
    The take away from these comments should be that self study is a useful supplement to professional study at a university. Believe me, I took Griffith's quantum mechanics and tried to learn it all before my first course in QM; I barely got through a tenth of the material we covered in class! However, I did learn useful things. On one of the two midterms, I had more or less studied a linear algebra problem in Shankar's over the summer which appeared on the test, and nobody else really understood! So really the more time you put in, the better you'll get.
  16. Dec 21, 2012 #15
    You should re-check those stats, I dont think that is right. I just pulled up the AIP report to make sure.
  17. Dec 21, 2012 #16
    Not going to happen. It could take you many generations to come up with quality work going that route. Why avoid the traditional route? It would be much easier with all the expertise, infrastructure and intensity of studying under professors and with peers. Do that and you could be putting out your own quality work in less than one generation.

    I would advise to start taking beginning math classes and other requirements at community college in anticipation of transferring for an engineering degree. If you want to do science you are looking at over 10 years of education, more like 15 counting post docs and then you start competing for jobs that most PhDs will never get.

    (Note that the grass is always greener... I wish I had done what you did when young and actually worked and got marketable skills rather than wasting my time studying math and science. Math and science are fun, but can be hard to market.)
  18. Dec 21, 2012 #17
    Aah, I double checked. It looks like 53% of physics bachelors work in the private sector, and 74% of those work in STEM fields, so it looks like 40% of physics bachelors work in STEM.

    Which still means that a little less than half of physics majors work in STEM which I think is actually quite decent, given that I know nothing about the work environment for the remaining 60%
  19. Dec 21, 2012 #18
    40% of full time employed bachelors, depending on what qualifies as "STEM". Those statistics dont count the unemployed, the part time employed and those who do the same thing they did before or during college.
  20. Dec 21, 2012 #19
    From the AIP,
    Do you dispute this? Is it misleading? So the number is a little less than 40% working in STEM fields, since there appears to be roughly 4% unemployment amongst physics bachelors.
  21. Dec 21, 2012 #20
    5% unemployed according to this quote, better than the national average for sure. 27% of the employed are not included in the statistics for some reason. That brings it down to under 30% of recent BS in STEM, where STEM is everything ranging from 'hard core' research to 'have you tried rebooting it' IT. (Probably some of that 27% are doing IT though...)
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