Subject mastery: formal training vs. "on your own"

  • Thread starter SunThief
  • Start date
  • #1
56
10
For those who have achieved a certain level of competence in a particular science-related field (physics, math, engineering, etc.), what percentage of your advanced learning would you credit to your formal in-class education? How much would you credit to your independent efforts that occurred--either in the absence of formal training, or as a follow-up to it?

(I apologize if this topic has been explored here previously; please direct me appropriately if that is the case.)

Thx....
 

Answers and Replies

  • #2
ZapperZ
Staff Emeritus
Science Advisor
Education Advisor
Insights Author
35,847
4,672
For those who have achieved a certain level of competence in a particular science-related field (physics, math, engineering, etc.), what percentage of your advanced learning would you credit to your formal in-class education? How much would you credit to your independent efforts that occurred--either in the absence of formal training, or as a follow-up to it?

(I apologize if this topic has been explored here previously; please direct me appropriately if that is the case.)

Thx....
If you've read my "So You Want To Be A Physicist" essay, you'll see large sections that are not part of the formal, in-class curriculum that are a necessary in the training to be a physicist. I continue to stress that there is a difference between learning physics, and being a physicist. You do not learn to be the latter simply in the classroom or from reading up on the material.

Zz.
 
  • Like
Likes SunThief
  • #3
I think that the true learning/mastery came from struggling to work through research/project related material. A lot of the learning came from trying to follow papers that were related to my research/projects and reproduce their results or derivations.

The tools that facilitated that learning came from classes and sometimes self-study. The classes gave me formal techniques that, when faced with a new problem, I could pull out of my toolbox. They also gave me a breadth of ideas to pull from.

So in terms of a percentage, maybe the lame answer of 50-50.
 
  • Like
Likes SunThief
  • #4
56
10
If you've read my "So You Want To Be A Physicist" essay, you'll see large sections that are not part of the formal, in-class curriculum that are a necessary in the training to be a physicist. I continue to stress that there is a difference between learning physics, and being a physicist. You do not learn to be the latter simply in the classroom or from reading up on the material.
Thanks! I'm on Part VI now, and will defer responding until later. It's good of you to write something like that, I would think prospective students would be hungry for it.

[Just as an aside, I found your assessment--that the 1st two years of college are easier--pretty interesting. My take was the same, but during my time the prevailing wisdom was that those years constituted the "weed out" period for would-be majors.]
 
  • #5
56
10
I think that the true learning/mastery came from struggling to work through research/project related material. A lot of the learning came from trying to follow papers that were related to my research/projects and reproduce their results or derivations.

The tools that facilitated that learning came from classes and sometimes self-study. The classes gave me formal techniques that, when faced with a new problem, I could pull out of my toolbox. They also gave me a breadth of ideas to pull from.

So in terms of a percentage, maybe the lame answer of 50-50.
Thanks! I'll follow-up in a bit.
 
  • #6
analogdesign
Science Advisor
1,140
354
I would agree with @plasmon_shmasmon and say it is something like 50-50 (I'm speaking as an Electrical Engineer, not as a Physicist). The formal part of my education was early, and I'm not sure I would have been capable of the discipline required to learn the good bit of calculus, linear algebra, and physics needed for engineering. It would require diligent study of a well-thought-out curriculum. Formal study (especially that you pay for) is helpful here as failure is an excellent motivator.

After the second year of my grad school experience I had finished formal classes and I had by that point learned the key skill to competence in a technical field: the ability to teach yourself. I had to take responsibility to learn so many sub-fields and technical skills in grad school, on my own. I believe that to succeed in grad school the ability to teach yourself is essential. It has served me well to this day. That said, I think I was only able to learn to teach myself because of my solid grounded of six years of intense formal technical coursework.

In grad school I think your learning shifts from formal to apprentice style. Again, I seriously doubt I would be anywhere near as competent as I am today (not that I'm all that competent) if I had not had six years in grad school working closely with my advisor, and more importantly, a group of highly skilled and open senior graduate students. I learned so much from them.

The next phase I think comes in your early jobs. Try your hardest to find a mentor (preferably a supervisor or team lead) who takes an interest in your career and who will give you stretch assignments which are barely out of your grasp so you will have to struggle (but not too much). The seasoning you get from a couple years on the firing line like that cannot be denied.

I'm mid career at this point and I finally feel like I'm reaping the benefits of my years of study and am delivering good value to my employer. Learning never stops, though, and I keep seeking out projects in areas I haven't worked before and with new challenges to round out my skills. There is rampant age-ism in technology so one thing you should always avoid is getting into a rut and not continually refreshing your skills. This is probably less of an issue in Physics.
 
  • Like
Likes SunThief and plasmon_shmasmon
  • #7
1,879
1,074
...
analogdesign's post says what I was thinking, much better than the words I had in mind.

the key skill to competence in a technical field: the ability to teach yourself
Learning never stops, though, and I keep seeking out projects in areas I haven't worked before and with new challenges to round out my skills.
I have been out of school for near 40 years and I still learn new things every day. I'd say 80% of what I know & use on the job I learned after "formal" education.
 
  • Like
Likes SunThief
  • #8
Dr. Courtney
Education Advisor
Insights Author
Gold Member
2020 Award
3,298
2,459
For me, my formal training was a necessary launching pad to develop my capabilities for learning on my own. I needed the structure of my undergraduate coursework in physics, mentoring through undergraduate research experiences, formal graduate coursework, and mentoring through several years of graduate research before really blossoming with the capability to truly tackle new subjects and disciplines with the ability to master them sufficiently enough to be a capable employee or productive researcher.

There is a high level of self-awareness necessary to truly be able to master new subjects "on your own" because you don't have someone there to help you assess how well you've mastered things so far. Most younger folks think they've "got it" long before they really do, so they stop or slow the needed efforts.

I estimate my formal/self split as the following in subjects where I've published original work:

Physics: 70%/30%
Math: 40%/60%
Blast Injury: 10%/90%
Ballistics: 20%/80%
Fisheries Science 20%/80%

Mastering each new field well enough to publish original work takes thousands of hours.
 
  • Like
Likes SunThief and analogdesign
  • #9
analogdesign
Science Advisor
1,140
354
Most younger folks think they've "got it" long before they really do, so they stop or slow the needed efforts.
Indeed. I feel like I reached "peak confidence" (or hubris) in my field right around the time I got my MS. While I was finishing up my PhD I because to appreciate I didn't really know what I was doing and it's been downhill from there.
 
  • Like
Likes SunThief
  • #10
56
10
Wow... I appreciate all the responses.

Just to clarify, the thread got moved to this forum, but the focus is not about me personally. It’s meant to be about the idea of mastery in general. In hindsight I should have chosen a topic heading of “Securing and Maintaining Subject Mastery”, or something like that. I recognize that this process is perhaps not deterministic. But I’m interested in hearing (reading:smile:) your ideas—anecdotal though they may be—about the subject.

Permit me to frame things a little:

There’s a lot of stuff in the world along the lines of “how to do everything, be successful, and still have time to become a gourmet chef part-time.” Not as much focus on the importance of mastery. I read the forum essays @zapper mentioned, one by @Dr. Courtney, and a few of the others. There are a lot of good tactical and strategic recommendations for learning amongst them. Here are the kinds of points/variables that I identified in the stuff I read today and elsewhere:
  • Learning How to Learn / Deliberate learning
  • Effort
  • Content Knowledge, Retention, and Recall
  • Passion & Curiosity
  • Talent/Aptitude
  • Analytical Thinking skills
  • “Toolkit”
  • Career shifting (assume lateral for the point of discussion)
  • Rapid change
  • Specialization
  • Trade-offs
Out in the popular media it’s presented that if people combine 10,000 hours* with deliberate learning, they can achieve subject mastery. But we’re no longer talking about just a “Key on a Kite string.” Pick your field: the content base is enormous and, one may argue, variable. In the context of attaining mastery, I guess I have two basic questions:

1) “What works for achieving mastery?"
2) “What endures long-term?”

I think a lot of what's been discussed here and in the forum guides has included aspects of #1. I'm interested in that, and particularly #2. The point has been made during schooling and here that the Sciences and Engineering teach you how to approach problems. But how does one retain expertise in the context of the variables noted above? How do you remember things you did 10 years ago?

I'm going to step out here, and let you all go back and forth, if you so choose. I've already reached my level of incompetence. Maybe you can add stuff to your book(s).
Thank-you!!

…………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….
* I believe attributed to Anders Ericsson, followed up by an interpretation in Malcolm Gladwell’s book, “Outliers”.
 

Related Threads on Subject mastery: formal training vs. "on your own"

Replies
13
Views
4K
  • Last Post
Replies
4
Views
2K
  • Last Post
Replies
2
Views
2K
  • Last Post
Replies
9
Views
7K
Replies
3
Views
2K
Replies
9
Views
15K
Replies
20
Views
5K
Replies
12
Views
1K
Replies
11
Views
1K
  • Last Post
Replies
14
Views
5K
Top