Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

Self-Study (books) vs. Formal Education (college, etc)

  1. Mar 3, 2013 #1
    Is Formal education the way to go? If so, why?
  2. jcsd
  3. Mar 3, 2013 #2
  4. Mar 3, 2013 #3
    I would agree with micromass. Self study allows you to go at your own pace. But it is hard to evaluate yourself on what you truly know. That's why I believe formal education is also a good thing.
  5. Mar 3, 2013 #4


    User Avatar

    Staff: Mentor

    It also depends on your goals and which field. If you just want to learn on your own out of interest, but do not plan to actually work in those fields, then self study is fine. If you plan to work either in industry or academia, then a formal education will also be required, if you wish to work in the hard sciences. You can't just show up and claim that you've been reading books for a few years and expect them to listen to you when they have more than enough qualified applicants that have the records, recommendations and experience obtained from a formal education.

    You mentioned you plan to win a Nobel prize, you should look at what is required at research labs that produce Nobel winners, like AT&T labs. They require that you have a PhD minimum then also provide information on your formal research. That's to even be able to submit an application, that doesn't mean they will consider you.

  6. Mar 3, 2013 #5
    formal education with awesome professors > self study

    formal education with terrible professors < self study

    I grew to love chemistry because of a great professor and my love of calculus was almost torn from me from a bad one. A good professor should be able to breath life into the subject from multiple angles. With self study, you may miss a few of those perspectives since you are only using your lens.

    Being on campus and learning to engage with professors and students is a major part of college. Books and knowledge of the subject matter are merely a jumping off point. Being able to interact with the information as a group or one on one in real time is important.

    A formal education should provide you with the most opportunities for careers but doesn't necessarily entail mastery of the subject material. Understanding what the professor thinks is important and then self studying tends to get me pleasurable results.

    On most job forms there is a place where you fill out "Formal Education". Something to think about.
  7. Mar 3, 2013 #6
    This is actually a very relevant question in our era of the "information age." When I entered college initially in 1985, I had no clue as to what I wanted to do other than "party hardy" mon. So I stayed undeclared for two years and just focused on taking my breadth requirements.

    Then in 1991, I got the bug to figure out how the brain works. It was an epiphany in true sense of the word. I was partyed out by then and wanting to get out of the crazy booze cruise scene of Waikiki and get back in to a (relatively) sane university environment.

    But I didn't know what to major in...I didn't even know back in '85, remember, I was undeclared. What I found was that I wanted to know everything, physics, chemistry, astronomy, biology, psychology, you name it. I was faced with overchoice.

    My epiphany was that I really could understand all of these fields if I put my focus on understanding, mastering, how this 3 pound lump of warm gooey carbonish stuff worked. Then all of a sudden this impossible conquest became very tractable, the problem went from a universe of mystery to something I could actually look at and fit in a salad bowl.

    In any case, the point I'm trying to make is that, once I had that epiphany, I really didn't need any formal schooling insofar as it was the only thing I thought about all day long. Having the passion organizes your inner search engine. I knew exactly what I wanted to know next all the time and where I could best find it. Typically the Library or the "just on the scene" research engine "psych-lit", remember that one. There's was also Lexus Nexus back in the early 90's, but I never used that.

    The bottom line is that I didn't need any formal schooling to get the information I needed but the caveat is that no one cared. So I was this real smart guy who knew everything about how the brain worked, but I was working at Budget rent-a-car at the San Diego airport. Plus, Nathew is right, no matter how much you think you know, it IS important to have some kind of standardized evaluation of your knowledge, because without that, you will always be second guessing yourself. So micromass had it right, you gotta do both.
  8. Mar 3, 2013 #7


    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor

    As micromass indicated both a formal education and self-study are necessary, particularly in this day and age with so much knowledge to master on any given subject.

    Ideally, one starts with a formal baccalaureate program at a reputable university/college, and that program is accredited. One studies under the guidance of various professors with expertise in the area of study.

    Then one proceeds to Master and PhD programs. Meanwhile, self-study is a skill that one develops.

    The ability to self-study should be developed as early as possible, as early as elementary school.

    Abraham Lincoln had very little formal education and did much book learning on his own, although his stepmom may have helped in his early years. On the other hand, he was an extraordinary and exceptional person. He apparently learned a lot by listening to and observing people.
    Last edited: Mar 3, 2013
  9. Mar 3, 2013 #8


    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor

    Self study makes it extremely hard - impossible to gain tacit knowledge.
  10. Mar 3, 2013 #9
    What about youtube videos, Ryan? Do these qualify as Tacit knowledge? Especially if you can communicate with the poster in the comments section. Or more generally, any kind of online class environment?
  11. Mar 3, 2013 #10
    Youtube videos are the worst way to learn, in my opinion. It's good as a secondary resource, I guess. But your primary knowledge should come from working through a good textbooks and struggling hard.

    I've never seen the benefits of online learning. It seems more like self-study for unmotivated people. And I don't think that anything can really top a formal education at a university.
  12. Mar 3, 2013 #11
    I totally agree. Youtube videos are terribly inefficient and are usually very shallow. I use them to review a specific concept only. If you want to actually learn something (and understand it very well), use a good textbook. When you get stuck and can't understand a specific concept in the textbook, use a Youtube video to supplement or increase your understanding.
  13. Mar 3, 2013 #12
  14. Mar 3, 2013 #13
    Yeah, there really is no substitute for the classroom experience. In the classes I liked at university, I always sat in the front row and was a borderline nuisance since I always had my hand up. I can't tell you how often I want to raise my hand while watching a youtube, MIT, or NPTEL video and obviously can't do so.

    Regardless, I am an informal online science video junkie and probably spend 3-4 hours a day watching amateurs try to educate me.
  15. Mar 3, 2013 #14


    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor

    I think we're stretching the definition of self study if you start proposing collaboration. Videos are a good way to learn, YouTube isn't the best forum for this because of little to no quality assurance and a comments feature that isn't really conclusive to the type of correspondence needed.

    Regardless though there are many, many things that can only be learnt through doing. Studying the theory and observing are one thing but they can only get you so far.
  16. Mar 3, 2013 #15
    Your professors let you ask questions? The classes were too big here so if everyone asked questions, the lecture would never end. The professor would have to only answer like 2 questions every lecture.
  17. Mar 3, 2013 #16
    Why would you possibly want amateurs to educate you?? What benefits are there in watching youtube videos if they are wrong or dumbed down?? The only way to learn is to get a textbook and work through it (including doing the problems). Watching youtube videos doesn't help in education and possibly does more harm than it does good. And even if all the information in the youtube videos is correct, watching youtube videos should take at most 5% of your education time.

    You can not learn something by watching youtube videos. Youtube videos are for revision or introduction purposes only.
  18. Mar 3, 2013 #17


    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor

    In my undergrad it was like this with classes of 50+ students but in my postgrad it was a lot better: 20 students in a smaller room. It was a lot more intimate and students cold casually ask questions, discuss things and the lecturers would constantly be looking for interaction. Those lectures were more like extended conversations which made it a lot easier to learn.
  19. Mar 3, 2013 #18
    @micromass: I think DiracPool meant he watches "Science News" youtube videos - not for actually learning the material, just learning something fascinating that he otherwise would've never learned.

    Example: http://www.youtube.com/user/scishow/videos?view=0
  20. Mar 3, 2013 #19
    Yep, I first entered college at UCSB in 1985. There the typical freshman General Ed classes were held in movie theater type arenas that housed 1000 or more students. Typically, it was an hour class m-w-f, with a "recitation" class as they call it these days once a week on thursday with one of the "TA's" (teacher' assistant for those not in the know)

    When I re-entered school in 1991, as I elaborated on in another post, I wanted to go the smallest, most remote Hick school [but that was still accredited :)] I could find, because UCSB was a big kegger-fest every night and I wanted out of that [at the time :)]

    In any case, I settled on Sonoma State University about an an hour and a half drive from SF, Cali. And it was perfect...Out in the wine country, beautiful weather, small classes >30, great teachers, many of whom were A-list academics who commuted from the the bay area tech regions.

    They advertised the school specifically on their small class size. They had no movie theaters at SSU, and we sat in your grade school style desks with the bin underneath your seat to hole your schoolbooks. It was great.
  21. Mar 3, 2013 #20
    Thanks Invalid, but your only half right...I will watch any Tom, Dick, Harry, or Harriette (see Integralcalc's channel) amateur bozo who is willing to post a video on any mathematical physics topic. I love it. Can't get enough. I especially like the quantum mechanics treatments. If I like it, I will tell them. If I don't like it, I will tell them. And don't look for DiracPool there, I use a different handle.

    I'm not a teacher, but I've heard that teachers often learn alot from their students because their enquires are unadulterated and pure in some sense. That's kind of what I get from these amatuer youtube videos, there's something there that you just aren't gonna get from a more formal treatment. Of course, it isn't a substitute for a formal treatment by any stretch, and in that sense Micromass is right.
  22. Mar 3, 2013 #21
    In most fields, credentials with no knowledge will get you a lot farther than knowledge without credentials.

    The big exception is the arts, where it is easy to evaluate your work. There credentials don't matter unless you want a job as a teacher.
  23. Mar 4, 2013 #22
    Well said. I'd say that's pretty much the way it is..
  24. Mar 4, 2013 #23
    I think that formal studies is better, due to there are students just like me
    Keep on asking question and quite stupid that do not get what the sentence is talking about
  25. Mar 4, 2013 #24
    Yep, I think you demonstrated your point perfectly shinnsohai.
  26. Mar 4, 2013 #25
    I think what formal education provides that self study cannot is several clear examples of a concept. For example I find myself struggling through the textbooks once its time to actually solve a problem, I can read through the text and work through the examples, but its presented from one viewpoint that of the author and does not inter relate to the physical world 9 times out of 10. It is of no use to me to study theories that I cannot myself apply in my real world setting. That's where I feel University comes in to help understand how we can use these theories and apply them to the real world and make advancements as a society. At University you are provided with the opportunity to talk with several people and explain ways to one another that isn't always thought of as the subject norm of explanation. For me self study is useful up to a point, at which point it is important to consult with others and share information in order to come up with a full fledged understanding.
Share this great discussion with others via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook