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Self Learning

  1. Mar 16, 2012 #1
    Is it just as valuable to learn something on your own, without credit, in respect to actually taking the class? For example, I am striving towards a degree in Electrical Engineering, however, I have some interest in solid state devices. Could I learn quantum mechanics and solid state physics during the summer months on my own without credit, but following the identical outline that is covered at my university? My degree does not leave me much room to take these courses for credit.
  2. jcsd
  3. Mar 16, 2012 #2


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    What do you mean by valuable? You'll probably pick up some of the concepts, but you won't have anyone to test your knowledge of them or verify that you learned something. Teaching yourself something isn't normally something you'd mention on a job application, unless there's a way to easily verify that you know it (like speaking a language or writing code). But if you're just doing it for your own benefit, then sure, go for it.
  4. Mar 16, 2012 #3
    I plan to apply to graduate school and specialize in "Electronic Materials and Devices". However, Quantum Mechanics and Solid-State Physics are minutely taught to Electrical Engineers, and there is not much room to take these types of courses towards my EE degree.
  5. Mar 16, 2012 #4
    I would like to echo the comment by eri and ask what you mean by valuable? Clearly knowledge is knowledge, so in that respect it will be just as valuable. It may be harder to demonstrate competence without a letter grade, but if you will take more advanced classes building on it does it really matter? However it may be harder to learn if this is your first time doing serious self-study.

    In addition what do you mean that you do not have room. Is this in terms of your free time or the number of credits the University allows you to take? If the former self-study is unlikely to help, if the latter it of course could very well.

    Usually professors are very accommodating and understand how formal requirements can hurt students, so if you shoot of a polite mail to the course instructor explaining that his/her course sounds very interesting and you would like to follow it, but you have filled your quota of credits with ee classes, so if the professor doesn't mind could you sit in on lectures without credit. Unless your university has strict rules against this, then the professor will likely be happy. Professors love it when you express genuine excitement for their subject matter and it won't take extra time from his/her schedule. You will likely not be able to have your homework graded, but usually you should know whether you have done a good job. (EDIT: I should say that some universities do have strict rules against this. I have mostly heard this reported from undergraduates in the US, but it can never hurt to ask and unless they actually have a third-party check attendance the professor may help you anyway.)

    Personally I like to self-study (albeit as a math student, not ee). You will learn important skills that you will be expected to learn in graduate school yourself anyway such as how to motivate yourself without deadlines in sight, how fast to proceed through material you may not fully grasp, how to deal with not understanding something and not having an answer on hand, etc. If this is your first experience of serious self-study please remember that it may not go as smoothly as you are used to with ordinary classes.

    The major downside is of course that it can be hard to convince graduate schools that you truly understand the subject.

    Try to give a little more background on why you feel self-study is right for you, why you feel it is necessary and what you hope to accomplish. We can then comment on if that sounds realistic.
  6. Mar 16, 2012 #5
    I think it's essential to self-study something. Eventually, you don't have anyone to teach you or grade your work, and you have learn to deal with that. It's a pity to have the mindset of having to have something to show to employers or grad schools for everything you do. I want to have something to show to myself first, employers second. True, I may be in a tough position career-wise because of this at the moment. But I know my priorities. Math first (pursuing my own mathematical curiosity, that is), jobs and publications second.

    As a former EE student, I can say that trying to learn quantum mechanics and solid state is pretty daunting. I was really annoyed when I took electronics because of the shallowness of the way the physics was discussed. But, I wasn't quite ready for quantum mechanics. I made some attempts, but didn't get far. If you are well-prepared, it could work out well. It helps to know a lot of math (most importantly, linear algebra), and as an EE major, I wasn't that mathematical at that point (now working on math PhD). It also helps to know a lot of physics, particularly Lagrangian and Hamiltonian mechanics. I am pretty extreme about having an in-depth understanding, though, so maybe it is possible to get by with less background.
  7. Mar 16, 2012 #6
    Thanks for the response. I think self-study would be sufficient because A) I primarily self-study as is, and B) taking the courses would not count towards my EE degree. In order for the credits to "count", I would have to start over and strive towards (at minimal) a 3-year Bachelors in Physics.

    I am indeed worried about exactly that which you pointed out; the difficulty in convincing graduate schools that I truly do understand the subject material, despite the lack of "formal education".

    Essentially, I feel as though I have two realistic options. 1. I can spend the money to get a formal education in ~4 courses ($2400 tuition, 12cu hours), however, these credit hours will not count towards anything. 2. I can self-study the same material, save the money, and come out of it with the theoretical knowledge. The downside to this is the lack of laboratory experience.
  8. Mar 16, 2012 #7
    By the way, the problem is that grad schools won't take it very seriously if you put it on your application, maybe, although they might appreciate the idea that you have done some work on your own. Once you get into grad school, my experience is that you don't have to worry too much about prerequisites, as far as what classes you want to take. They'll let you take what you want to take. Somehow, it's a bit less structured than undergrad. Grades don't matter as much. Classes are more like a book that you can take off the shelf, rather than something that you're held accountable for, except maybe there are some weed-out type classes.

    Anyway, as long as you have a good application, I wouldn't worry about not being able to prove to them that you know the material. It just won't really count for that much for said application.
  9. Mar 16, 2012 #8
    I'm beginning to think this is the case. At my current University there are 4 research areas for Electrical Engineers upon post undergraduate education; one of which is Electronic Materials. However, Electrical Engineers only take 2 classes on Electronic Materials and Devices, and during the whole of these 2 courses Quantum Mechanics is only touched slightly.
  10. Mar 16, 2012 #9
    If you are worried about whether it will 'count' in terms of a graduate school application, you might try to do an informal reading course with a professor at your school and have them write you a letter of recommendation. This is what I did a couple of summers ago. I had finished an REU and still had a couple of weeks before school started again, so I emailed a professor that had recently taught point-set topology at my school asking for an outline of material and the assignments he used for that class. Then I just spent the remaining time I had left before school started teaching myself topology, doing the assignments, and emailing them to the professor to look over (easier said than done, I was essentially studying for 12 hours a day for 2 weeks trying to cram this material into my head). Most math grad schools want to see a topology class and I don't have one on my transcript, but I mentioned this self-studying on my statement of purpose and asked the professor who looked over my work for to mention it in his letter of recommendation. I went on to take 3 actual classes from that professor, so in the end he knew me quite well, but at the time I emailed him about doing this I had never even met him.
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