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When do you make the jump from textbook to original ideas?

  1. Jan 6, 2009 #1
    So far, I'm pretty happy with my education. I feel like I'm understanding things as well as they are presented and developing insight into physics and engineering, but my college seems to think that their degrees speak for themselves and if you grind through their classes, you will automatically become a stellar mathematician/engineer/physicist.

    The idea that ONLY following a syllabus will produce good scientists and technicians is ridiculous and I've met with many people in the field and that have stated that if you ever want to be truly competent and explore your own ideas, you need to do more than homework. I'm not suggesting that completing classes is below me or inadequate but it's not the whole picture. I'm curious as to what else I can do to expand my ideas beyond the solid base given by textbooks and homework. Do you do research? Read books that aren't required? Internships? Any input would be appreciated, thank you!
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  3. Jan 6, 2009 #2
    When one wants to do original work in mathematics, the way that one often starts out is by finding a professor and trying to get in on what he/she is working on. If you just want some ideas, it would be good to find some books on open problems in mathematics or look at journals in mathematics. Obviously mathematics research is easier to do in the comfort of your own home than mathematics research or physics research, so if you are not a mathematician/theoretical physicist you need equipment, maybe a team, ect on top of your open question.

    Now, if you are a math student, just go look up open problems and math journals and you will find a problem you feel like you might be able to tackle in no time(of course you might find that you need help, so you should ask your professors about it), if you are a science/engineering student, I have no idea except that some professors will offer you intern positions and assistant positions if you express interest and have sufficient knowledge. They might make you learn some basic programming. As you mentioned, the REU's are a good idea as well.
  4. Jan 6, 2009 #3


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    This is a great question Miss Silvy.

    I think you really hit the nail on the head when you say you need to do more than just the homework. Undergraduate programs should give students sufficient background knowleged in a particular subject, but they're not perfect, and ultimately I'm not sure that they really teach anyone how to develop original ideas. In fact, I'm not convinced that's a skill that can really be taught at all.

    Personally, I made the first jump in my Ph.D. program, and even that didn't come all at once. In order to really develop new ideas, I think you need to be very well-read in your field - to the point where you keep track of the major journals so you know where the cutting edge of research is. You also need a good toolbox - a set of skills that will allow you to exlore any ideas and allow you to evalute whether or not a given idea is worth pursuing.

    Things you can do at the undergrad level to compliment your studies:
    - join or form physics and engineering social clubs
    - join competative engineering teams (eg. solar car, robotics, etc.)
    - form a journal club
    - get work or volunteer in a lab
    - talk to graduate students and professors about the research they are involved in and ask them about the specific processes they have for developing ideas
    - attend conferences (This is a big one.)
  5. Jan 6, 2009 #4


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    Some students start in high school with Science Fairs. Others start some time during undergraduate program.

    One of my colleagues started research in his junior year as part of a work-study program. He did some programming and analyses during his junior and senior years, and continued the research in his MS and PhD programs.

    Choppy made some good suggestions. Basically one has to learn the tools of the trade and state of the art, which is what one learns in the mathematics and science courses. By the junior year, one should be able to have some understanding of the research in one's field. Most introductory courses provide the theory with some basic applications of the theory, and one is exposed to the classic experiments.

    Specific applications or research can be learned from professors or graduate students, and most departments have lectures or presentations by professors and grad students regarding their research. Scientific journals are another source of information on current research.

    Also, I high recommend joining the local student chapter of the national scientific or technical society. This exposes one to the major issues in one's field of study.
  6. Jan 6, 2009 #5
    This is a concept that many people just don't seem to comprehend. I've met a lot of people that think their 4.0s and their prestigious degrees automatically makes them really smart and valuable people. I have never seen anyone who drastically succeeds in academics give exceptional performance in the real world. The smartest and best engineers I have ever worked with taught themselves skills and knowledge through hobbies and practicing their interests. Many of which thought of their degrees as expensive pieces of paper.

    So my advice, do what interests you in your leisure time. I know robotics, electronics, rc helis, and my random science experiments have incredible amounts of skills and knowledge that my university never could.
  7. Jan 6, 2009 #6
    Thank you guys! I was hoping that you guys would at least sort of agree with me but it seems that it got a better reception than that :)

    I knew that I would have to wait a little bit before I could comprehend most of the things that modern journals are talking about but I'm glad to see that I don't have to wait until I'm old and gray. I like the idea of joining clubs and doing research, even if the idea is a tad intimidating. I was surprised that there were alternative theories to calculus, so I still have a ways to go. However, I think that this is the hardest jump of through for many students like myself. From the little I've spoken to grad students, some still haven't quite gotten there.

    I'll look into every option that has been so generously provided on this post and thank you Bourbaki, Choppy, Astronuc, and Topher for the input!
  8. Jan 7, 2009 #7
    Pro sports players don't get there by getting good marks in PE class. Top musicians don't get there by playing in the school band. It's kind of odd that so many people expect that you could get good at math or physics by just taking classes.

    In every skill-based field, you see that the people who succeed are the ones who are always pursuing their own ideas and small projects, outside of the structured activities.
  9. Jan 7, 2009 #8
    Read biographies of people like Einstein and Faraday to see what they did. Then ride a few light beams....
  10. Jan 7, 2009 #9
    You need to read books and journals to help come up with new ideas and topics and or modify existing ones. If textbooks don't provide enough depth read journals and professional math books. or checkout mathworld.
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