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Personal enrichment: Self study vs Formal study

  1. Jun 30, 2013 #1
    Hey everyone,

    I want to see if anyone can give me their perspectives on my academic interests and situation. I know up front that this comes down to personal preference, but I want to see if anyone had any thoughts that might push me one way or another.

    I am a physician who is somewhat unchallenged in his career. When I was in undergrad, I studied biochem and really loved math and physics. Somehow or another, I wound up in medical school, and now 7 years later here I am as an attending emergency physician.

    The world of medicine is quite different from academics. When I was in college (and even med school to a certain extent), I really loved working on problems that challenged me to the core, whether in physical chemistry or electricity/magnetism, or understanding how kidneys work and the biological pathways that lead to renal failure. But now, my life is all about patient satisfaction surveys, dishing out antibiotics on demand for patients' viral infections, and trying to convince surgeons to get out of bed at 3am to come help take care of sick people. Don't get me wrong - I can choose my hours and emergency medicine provides a comfortable lifestyle with a lot of free time. But what I am lacking is higher level academic thought.

    So I decided last year to start getting back into math and physics. I had taken mechanics, E&M, and calculus 1-3 in college. Loved them. So I am now enrolled in an entirely online B.A. program for mathematics through the University of Illinois at Springfield. I can do one class per semester, and they have a ton of great courses (I finished linear algebra last semester, it was exactly what I had hoped for). The whole point of the math degree is to get my skills up to speed to augment my study of physics.

    And so - and this gets to the heart of my question - I have to decide whether I will continue formal academic study once I am done with mathematics and moving on to physics. What I am finding is that there are no similarly good options for physics, and I would have to start taking courses in person. I live in Chicago, and so I was thinking that I would do this through UIC (it's where I went to undergrad, so I know the department well).

    There are a couple of problems with taking courses in person:

    - I work in Wisconsin for 5-10 days at a time. This is fine for online coursework, but this would not work in-person academics.
    - Life is about to get busier for me. I am getting married this year. Kids will probably come soon. Between being a doctor and a husband/dad, I wonder if formal courses would be an unnecessary stress.

    However, when I consider the idea of just buying books and going through them page by page, problem by problem, and progressing through a curriculum worth of textbooks, there is something in the back of my head saying "Don't you want something to show for all that work?"

    So I have come up with a few pathways I could take, detailed below. What do you think is most reasonable? What would you do? As I said, I recognize this is a personal preference, but I want to see what insight I can gain from the physicsforums community.

    Remember, I am NOT planning on changing careers. I plan to simply learn and study physics and math as a lifetime interest (like how WWII buffs know everything there is to know about Hitler, but are not themselves historians). So how would you do it?

    Option 1: Full formal academic study. I would finish my math degree, and then enroll at UIC as a nondegree student, taking a number of courses that would put me on track to get a masters degree (I have no interest in experimental physics, and so the PhD is definitely overkill). Given time restraints, I would work at a pace of one class per semester. This would probably take 4-6 years or so. But again, this is all for fun. Apply to grad school and go through one class per semester. Finish grad school with a shiny masters degree as validation and recognition of my efforts. Not sure what then, probably continue taking graduate classes indefinitely on a nondegree basis.

    Option 2: Partial formal academic study. Forget the idea of getting the masters, just take as many courses as I can find. They will probably mostly be in-person at UIC as a non-degree student, but there are a few online advanced physics courses here and there that I could complete. Do this...forever?...as a nondegree student.

    Option 3: Self study. Forget all of this formal education business. Take my time and leisurely explore the world of physics. Go chapter by chapter, textbook by text book, going through modern physics, quantum mechanics, thermodynamics, electrodynamics, etc. Basically follow the curricula offered in each formal course, mirroring the textbook choices, learning everything on my own, and taking as much time as I'd like to go through it. If I get stuck, I have the vast internet resources to help me.

    Again, I am balancing the luxury of learning at my own pace and in the manner of my choosing against being led through this academic path in a structured manner. However, I am also wrestling with the idea of spending so much time and effort with no product in the end. Nothing. No street cred. No voucher or official seal. But if I don't need it, who cares? But I'm doing the work anyway, why not get recognition for it?

    Ugh. What do you guys think? What would you do? My gut tells me to just be happy with the self study path, but I feel like I'm selling myself short. But then I tell myself, "This is not your career, it's a hobby. Get over it."

    Set me straight, y'all.
  2. jcsd
  3. Jun 30, 2013 #2
    Formal academic study has two huge advantages in my mind. First, the schedule/exams/etc. can provide some much needed motivation to do the work. Second, you have someone to talk to, be it the other students or the professor. I think the second part is vital. I've taught a lot of physics of to myself outside of the class, but having friends who were doing the same was pretty important to me in terms of learning the material. So, in that case, I'd say take some classes. Especially if you don't have a strong background in physics already. I think you will ultimately get more out of formal study.

    As far as pursuing the degree, I don't know. I don't know what UIC is like; the physics courses you took for pre-med most likely are different from even the intro physics courses for a physics major. So you have a lot of coursework to complete before you should even consider entering a master's program. It sounds like you got the math under control; you'll want to take up to linear algebra and multivariable calc, with any thing extra being icing on the cake. Most physics programs have a Mathematical Methods for Physics course that goes over (quickly) ODEs, PDEs, complex integration, and any other math you might need, enabling you to do a physics degree with out having to have a B.A. in math.

    Also, you may or may not be aware of this, but many programs don't really offer just a master's in physics. I don't know if UIC fits into this category. They don't come out and say this on their web page, but the only real way to get just a masters from many programs is to either flunk out after you complete your coursework (about 2 years in) or drop out some point after that same time. A corollary to this is that many graduate physics programs are intended as full time and don't make any concessions to part time students. That being said, there are masters only programs designed for part time students; just check to see if UIC is like that before you embark on this grand plan, only to find 4 years down the road that they won't let you do a part time masters.

    As far as having nothing to show for your work, I have a Ph.D. in physics and have zero street cred. Pretty much everyone I interact with thinks I have no 'real world' skills and that college is a waste because it's not giving people the skills that employers want. I'd say employers must feel the same way, because I've been unemployed for a year. To be bluntly honest, I'm not sure my official seal counts for much.
  4. Jun 30, 2013 #3
    Dont waste time on long articles and studies,

    Just know that self study and extensive study is key to success.

    Whereas formal study is good for short term exams or school exams.

    When you face outside world you need to self study.

    PM for more help!
  5. Jun 30, 2013 #4


    User Avatar

    Staff: Mentor

    utkarshraj, please do not ask people to PM you for help, it goes against the purpose of this forum, all questions and answers should be posted in the public forum for the benefit of everyone.
  6. Jun 30, 2013 #5
    Why not start studying independently and see where it takes you? It won't set you back like going to a university would (in the event you don't like it.)

    I think one class a year in addition to your medical duties is already a lot to handle. So let that Math BA run its course and then see where you are.
  7. Jun 30, 2013 #6


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    Science Advisor

    Hey rxfudd and welcome to the forums.

    Given that you have the discipline to become an emergency physician, I think going back to undergraduate coursework would be a waste of your time.

    Having enough self-discipline to learn something in depth by yourself is a transferable skill to any other area and if you want to learn for the sake of learning (and not for the sake of pursuing a career in it) then I would suggest you do self-study or online study.

    The self-discipline is one of the major components that people have to learn, especially if they have come from a high school background where they more than likely have a high dependency on their teachers. By the end of under-graduate, that situation has become a lot better and if they have gone on to graduate school and completed it, then the situation is completely different again.

    You would probably end up being bored out of your mind attending under-graduate course-work and I feel it would be a waste of time for you given your past background and education attained.
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