I am currently a senior high school, and next year I will enroll for my undergraduate studies but I am afraid that my grades would not be good enough to be admitted in good universities like MIT, Princeton etc.

So can I study advanced topics like general relativity, quantum mechanics etc., like at university but without getting into it?

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    You can always self-study, but you won't have the support network a university offers you (exercises, tutoring, structured lectures). – Polygnome Mar 17 at 12:27
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    Getting into MIT or Princeton is not the be-all and end-all. A perfectly good education in physics (and any other field) can be had at hundreds, if not thousands of universities around the world. – astronat Mar 17 at 13:10
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    This past year, MIT admitted 7.3% of applicants across all programs. The implication is that, relative to the number of college applications, essentially no one gets in to MIT, most because they assume they can't and don't apply. – Buffy Mar 17 at 13:22
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    Besides using textbooks for self-study, note that MIT provides video lectures for many courses at ocw.mit.edu/courses/physics for free. There are plenty of such resources online also from other institutions. – Anyon Mar 17 at 13:24
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    Why do you think that "advanced topics like general relativity or quantum mechanics" are not taught at schools that aren't the best in the world? I would assume every well-respecting university with some sort of graduate program will have an offering of advanced courses on at least a selection of the subjects that interest you. – xLeitix Mar 17 at 15:50

This is a response that takes various comments of the OP into account rather than an explicit answer to the question asked - but it is too long for a comment, and I really think that the OP should be made aware of the following points.


I do not intend to be rude, but I would strongly advise you to recalibrate your expectations and your perception of how research and academia work. For instance,

  • you say that you never managed to get good grades in highschool, but your question focusses on "advanced topics like general relativity, quantum mechanics";

  • you are worried (in some of your comments) that you won't be admitted by any university, but your question focusses on places like MIT;

  • in another question you mention research of yours (which I find a bit odd, anyway, since you write you're a highschool student) and don't seem to be particularly convinced of its quality, but in a comment here you claim that you wish to "interact with greatest minds of this world".

Now, it is important to note that none of your goals is completely unreasonable in itself: there are, of course, a lot of potential reasons why a smart student might have poor grades in highschool, and might anyway master theoretical physics later on; it is, as mentioned by others, also absolutely possible to do your undergraduate studies at a respected but not-at-all famous university, and then do your graduate studies at a very well-known place; it is also possible to start out with not particularly good research and to improve quickly and considerably, so that the "greatest minds of this world" would like to discuss your research with you.

However, the only way to achieve any of this is to keep a realistic perspective and to move forward in small and down-to-earth steps.

Currently, your contributions here merely focus on extremes ("bad grades in highschool vs. studying advanced topics in theoretical physics"; "not admitted to any university vs. admitted to MIT"; "research of low quality, produced as a highschool student, vs. interacting with the greatest minds of this world.")

Here are a few suggestions of a more realistic approach:

  • If you had difficulties to earn good grades in highschool, make a thorough (and honest) analysis of the reasons, and try to figure out what you can do to improve this situation when you attend a university. In order to get any degree you will have to pass exams, too, and if you want to have any chance of your dreams coming true, you will have to do very well in most of them.

    If you had poor grades in highschool, this might also indicate (though it is not sure, of course) that you don't know well some of the material from highschool. No matter whether this might not be your fault or what the precise reasons are - it might still pose a problem when you want to study topics in physics at university level. So please try to find out whether you have, for instance, serious gaps in your highschool knowledge of mathematics or physics (and maybe also some other subjects that could be relevant), and if you find some, try to close these gaps before you're heading towards more advanced topics.

    (Please note that much more basic physical topics than general relativity and quantum mechanics - for instance, classical Newtonian mechanics - require mathematical knowledge which goes far beyond the mathematics taught in highschool.)

  • If you intend to become, in a few years, a graduate student in one of these "top-tier" universities, try to make choices right now which can help you get admitted then. For instance, make an effort to find out which kind of undergraduate experience (for instance, research experience, but also other things) are considered advantageous for the admission decision, and then try to choose a university for your undergraduate degree where you have good chances of acquiring this experience.

  • Getting involved with research early is certainly a good idea of you have ambitious plans - but the most reasonable way to do this is within the setting of a college or university and in collaboration with other people who already have experience in doing research.

  • Please try to inform yourself about some details of the academic system. For instance, you write in one comment that you are considering self-studying, then to write a few good research papers and to get a PhD in Cosmology. As mentioned by other users, this is a very unrealistic plan:

    First, being admitted for graduate studies seems to be very unlikely if you do not have an undergraduate degree. So if you want to do a PhD, there is most likely no way around getting admitted for undergraduate studies first.

    Second, producing good research and getting it published in reputable journals is very, very difficult if you do not have any formal education (= education at a university) in your subject and no senior colleagues that support and advise you. Producing really excellent research and getting it published in top journals (which would fit your, in some respects extremely ambitious, goals) is literally impossible without the aforementioned prerequesits.

Now, all these suggestions certainly come across as much less glorious and prestigious than getting admitted to MIT, or studying general relativity as soon as possible, or interacting with great minds. However, please be aware that even the greatest minds spend a considerable amount of their time with completely non-glorious, down-to-earth routine tasks (like advising students, marking exams, writing grant proposals, and so on).

Also, even if someone is born as a genius, a degree from a top university, a solid understanding of theoretical physics and the possibility to work with great people do not simply come to them out of the blue - even the smartest people have to work long and very hard for this, and they do it by taking many - maybe amibitious, but most often still small and realistic - steps. So precisely this is my advice for you.

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    (+1) Super! Several of these non sequiturs, although definitely not ALL that you've pointed out, were going through my mind as I read the question and comments, and I was debating whether to bring any up in a comment, and then I read your answer. – Dave L Renfro Mar 17 at 18:20
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    Great answer, well-written and far better than mine, I hope the OP digests it and puts it to good use. I'd echo Dave as well. +1. My one quibble is you write "Producing good research and getting it published in reputable journals is very, very difficult if you do not have any formal education" - it's also very, very difficult if you do have formal education. :) Effectively impossible without... – Bryan Krause Mar 17 at 19:53
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    @SwayamJha: I appreciate your enthusiam. Still, your comments make me reiterate the main point of my answer: PLEASE do yourself a great favour and take it step by step. Starting out as an undergraduate student and planning to write a "breakthrough paper in theoretical physics" is just not how the game is played. Given the information you provided, it is quite save to assume that, by now, you simply do not have the necessary knowledge to even compare any idea that you might have with the current state of the art - let alone to judge whether it has the potential for a breakthrough. – Jochen Glueck Mar 17 at 22:41
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    Please note that it is not my itention to discourage you. Quite apparently, you have a lot of enthusiasm for science. But in order for this enthusiasm to be fruitful, you will have to take it slowly first and focus on goals and events which you can realistically influence with your current decisions. Aiming to publish a breakthrough paper before your master's degree does not belong to this category. – Jochen Glueck Mar 17 at 22:41
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    "For instance, you write in one comment that you are considering self-studying, then to write a few good research papers and to get a PhD in Cosmology. As mentioned by other users, this is a very unrealistic plan" It's basically a recipe for getting yourself considered a crank and then de facto getting blacklisted from academia. – nick012000 Mar 18 at 0:40

There is nothing to prevent you from self-studying topics in physics (or any field) before you go to university, during your university studies or after you have graduated. As mentioned in the comments, there are many lecture courses freely available online which could help you in such an endeavour.

However, as a physicist myself I would caution you against jumping straight into learning general relativity and quantum mechanics on your own. These are advanced topics that would typically be taught towards the end of an undergraduate degree, after at least two years covering things such as classical mechanics, Newtonian gravity, special relativity, optics, electromagnetism etc, and probably a number of mathematics courses too (this is country-dependent but probably at least algebra and calculus at a higher level than you learned at school).

Furthermore, there are a huge number of benefits to studying at a university instead of on your own. For starters, the degree programme is structured for you so that you don't have to work out all the different bits of physics and maths you need to understand from one topic before moving to the next. You also have the chance to ask questions during lectures, you will have access to a library, be set assignments that you get feedback on, thus allowing you to gauge your progress and you will be surrounded by people studying the same thing, who you can work with and learn from.

Beyond studying for a degree, going to university is an important "coming of age" experience for many people, as you'll probably live independently for the first time, meet many new people, get the opportunity to try out new sports and hobbies, move to a different part of the country etc. So by self-studying you will miss out on all of these important and fun milestones.

Finally, as I said in my own comment, going to MIT or Princeton is not the be-all and end-all in life. I had ambitions to study at a top university for my undergraduate degree that never came to fruition. Instead I went to a tiny university that hardly anyone has ever heard of (it's certainly not reputable for physics) but I am certain that I enjoyed my degree far more and got far better results than I would have if I'd have gone to a top university.

This is because the atmosphere was more laid back, there was a cooperative rather than competitive atmosphere amongst the students and the physics department was really small, meaning that I got to know all my course-mates and lecturers really well. This was infinitely preferable (to me) than suffering through a tough degree for four years on a course where I knew no one and was just a face in the crowd to the lecturers.

In summary: by all means you can study topics in physics without going to university, but I would suggest starting with a less ambitious programme. You don't need to go to a "top" university full stop, but you especially don't need to go to one to learn advanced topics. GR and QM are taught as standard in every reputable physics degree.

  • Actually, I am finding a back-up plan that at worst cases I can train my mind and acquire knowledge of graduation level without university and then try to publish few good Research papers which may help me to get P.hD in Cosmology. – Swayam Jha Mar 17 at 15:42
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    @SwayamJha I would say that it is impossible to get a PhD in cosmology without having a degree in physics. Even if your self-taught knowledge is the same as the content covered in a degree, no university will admit you for a PhD without proof of prior academic qualification. This would typically be a BSc or BSc + MSc depending on where you are in the world. – astronat Mar 17 at 21:16
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    Furthermore, publications are not a prerequisite for admission to PhDs in cosmology (source: I am a cosmologist). You will be much better off studying diligently, getting consistently good grades across your physics degree and working on a small research project (possibly in cosmology but it's not necessary) towards the end of your degree. Build good relationships with lecturers so you will get good reference letters (see again my point about the benefits of studying in a small department/university). – astronat Mar 17 at 21:21
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    @SwayamJha While it is theoretically possible to get admitted to a ph.D. program without having attended a university (and in fact it did happen in the past), it is extremely hard. Harder than "once in a generation" hard. I strongly urge you not to consider it a viable option. – Denis Nardin Mar 17 at 22:03
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    @SwayamJha In case you want to do some self study here are the topics I studied in my first year: calculus 1, special relativity (not general relativity!), Intro to classical mechanics, statistics + Lab work, calculus 2, electromagnetism, waves and optics. It's better to build to build a good foundation in these rather than losing your mind over general relativity. A little preparation doesn't hurt but you will have a hard time if you try to do an entire study on your own. What's wrong with a university that's not MIT? – AccidentalTaylorExpansion Mar 17 at 22:47

Frame-challenging a bit, because the question seems to be originating from fear of not being admitted to a "top" university, rather than a focused interest in self-study.

There is little direct educational benefit to enrolling in MIT, Princeton, etc as an undergraduate rather than, for example, well-respected state research universities.

There are some possible side benefits, like A) You're attending classes with other people admitted to MIT, Princeton, etc, so you may find more competition that drives you, B) You have a chance to network with people who have "connections", including fellow student, alumni of the institution, and various visitors, and C) You get to put a "fancy" name on your resume which might make people more likely to read your resume and maybe even hire you/admit you to graduate school based on the name of the school you attended.

There are also possible downsides. Professors at the "top" institutions may have less time for individual undergraduate students (and even grad students) than professors at respected-but-less-prestigious institutions.

Importantly, all of these factors are also incredibly individually variable.

Self-study is okay, but I don't think it's a good serious learning path for most people (certainly fine to pursue as a hobby, but you'll lack the support and external motivation that being enrolled in official courses provides; you'll also lack connections to research opportunities). It doesn't sound like you are particularly interested in self-study, but rather that you are looking for a backup plan if you aren't admitted to your preferred schools. There are lots of good institutions where you can learn about relativity and quantum mechanics: don't limit your search to MIT and Ivys.

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    It's worth clarifying that in science it matters a lot to have the right name on your grad school degree, but you can get your bachelor's from any decent school and it's probably fine. (Also I think you answer the question that should have been asked, which is more important than the question that was asked) – user133933 Mar 17 at 15:19
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    @Libor Even then, your advisor matters more than the name of the institution (of course the two can correlate). – Bryan Krause Mar 17 at 15:21
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    @SwayamJha Seeing your comment on another answer that you want to publish some papers...if that's your goal, definitely do not do the self-study path. It's extremely hard to succeed that way, I'd say effectively impossible. We regularly get questions here from people trying to publish on their own without support; there are very few good answers for what they can do. Don't get stuck in their spot. Find a university that's a good fit for you, and study there. – Bryan Krause Mar 17 at 15:44
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    @SwayamJha Ok, well there is a very very big gap between "not admitted to MIT" and "not admitted to any university". If you did find yourself somehow in the "not admitted to any 4-year university" you're still better off starting in a 2-year program and transferring to a 4-year if your goals are as you state, rather than self-study. – Bryan Krause Mar 17 at 16:29
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    I wanna ti learn and interact with greatest minds of this world like Brian greene, Walter lewin, Alan guth, Leonard susskind --- Even if you get into MIT, Princeton, Harvard, or whatever, you're NOT going to be interacting with those people, not unless you're a once in a decade type person for that university, and probably not even then. – Dave L Renfro Mar 17 at 18:25

There are also many reasons for NOT trying to get into one of those "top" universities. Foremost among them is money: if you don't have either wealthy parents, or the qualities (not all of them academic) needed to get a full-ride scholarship, then how will you pay tuition & living expenses? Going to a state school in your home state (if you're a US resident) is going to be significantly less expensive.

Second is quality of life. Admittedly this is subjective, but you do need to consider what your life will be like outside of class & academic work. I suppose MIT deserves its reputation as a great school, but the downside is that it's located in the Boston metro area, which is IMHO the pits. Same is true of most top universities: I did my first year at a fairly high-ranked school in a largish urban area. Academically it was fine, otherwise the place was an invitation to either alcoholism, depression, or suicide.

Likewise, if you have a good, supportive family, you may do much better choosing somewhere close to them. Or if your family is of the other kind, a place as far away as feasible may be a better choice.

Finally, as others have said, where you do your undergraduate work is not nearly as important as how well you do it. It's quite possible to get into a graduate program at one of those top schools with an undergrad degree from your local state university. It's also possible to participate in interesting research programs and/or remunerative industrial jobs with a grad degree from those state universities.

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