My Ph.D. research in materials science and mechanics was entirely experimental with some MatLab coding to analyze the results and some image analysis through the image processing toolbox. However, in my 2 years postdoc with my Ph.D. supervisor, I am planning of carrying out computational simulations using Molecular dynamics and Finite element analysis. I have limited mathematical background (undergraduate 1,2,3rd years) and programming (undergrad, master's and through Coursera). Through self-study (books and online lectures), will it be possible to be proficient in these modeling tools and methods? Or has that ship sailed when I started the experimentalist path?

Has anyone followed this path in their career?

  • 3
    One of the outcomes of a PhD is that you have learned how to learn. So, time to learn some new things!
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Aug 20, 2020 at 0:21
  • I don't think you need any knowledge of mathematics or programming to conduct molecular dynamics or finite element analysis. It depends on which tools you wish to use and what problems you need to solve. I do not think you would learn much about good theoretical research by using such applied simulation tools. Commented Aug 20, 2020 at 5:36
  • 1
    Matter Modeling SE might be helpful for you
    – Thomas
    Commented Aug 20, 2020 at 8:06
  • Aren't computational simulations some kind of experimental research?
    – user151413
    Commented Aug 26, 2020 at 9:17

3 Answers 3


Actually, pioneers in a field have no other option but to learn from self study. So, yes, it is possible and there are others before you.

In fact, for non-pioneers it is easier than in the past since there are now resources that didn't exist in the past. You have named some of them. You no longer have to depend on yourself and obscure papers that are probably misleading.

I assume that many of us here changed fields after their doctorate as I did.

But, a circle of collaborators or other contacts can be a big help in this so that you get some guidance. This is fairly easy if you hold an academic position at a place with, in your case, theoreticians.

  • Why the downvote?
    – user111388
    Commented Aug 19, 2020 at 21:24

Not at all! as @JonCuster has pointed out, one of the main goals of Ph.D. is to learn how to learn; you don't have to be schooled for every single skill.

Plus, I think you might even have an advantage over those who studied only theoretical. I wouldn't neglect the importance of the intuition gained from doing experiments. If you talk with people from a purely theoretical background, they don't even know how the experimentalists are experimenting with the system under study. That is why, in general, when their model doesn't work, they have no idea which of the assumptions that are being made are possibly failing.

Not an answer, but if I were you, I would go with OCW courses [mit, harward (see cs50), etc.] instead of that of websites such as coursera.


Theoretical and experimental thinking is quite different. These are not just different topics, they are different worlds of thinking. That being said, some of the best scientists are proficient at both. There are experimentalists which are strong in theory and where experimental intuition guides them towards good theoretical approaches; and theoreticians which keep their feet on the ground by being aware of the experimental realities.

Your problem is not just learning the material, but actually learning the way of thinking and the language. My recommendation is to work closely with or inside a group that does the type of theory you are interested in, and you will see how well you can absorb this type of thinking.

It does not work for everybody, as both experimental and theoretical talent are quite different in character. But it's worth a try. However, I recommend to "go to school" in your new work, in the sense that, apart from doing the daily research you are expected to be productive in, you set yourself a hard self-study program with clear schedule/topics by which you make your way into the topic. E.g. as if you take a course of (say) 2-3 hours every day to just work through the textbook material, as if in class, until you "swim free" and become comfortable with the basics and more capable of moving freely through the literature.

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