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I am an undergraduate student who hopes to switch my major from engineering to Physics. Although this switch is possible, I lack several crucial foundation courses in Physics such as electrodynamics and quantum mechanics in my transcript and I hope to offset this by self-studying, either by:

  • Going through a textbook, make notes for each chapter and attempt some of the exercises at the end of each chapter.

  • Or, go through the MIT OCW courses and attempt the problem sets, projects, exams etc.

(I am personally leaning towards the latter as it feels more organized and less overwhelming).

But whichever path I take, I hope to type up all my notes and solutions on LaTeX and post it publicly (mostly a GitHub repo). I realise that doing this is not even remotely as rigorous as actually taking the course at university and being graded for it, but I would like to try.

My question is, how do graduate admissions committees and potential supervisors view self-studying of this sort? Does it carry any importance?

Note: I hope to apply to graduate schools in USA/Canada/Germany. My research experiences are all in Physics. This question is pretty similar to mine, but this question is for a specific CS course, and I would like a more generalized answer.

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    Graduate school is not really a thing in Germany, where PhD students are hired as employees. You'll also likely need a Master's degree before being accepted for a PhD there.
    – astronat
    May 23 at 8:14
  • @astronat yes sorry, I should have made it clear. With respect to Germany, I meant applying for a Master's program.
    – justauser
    May 24 at 2:42
  • In Germany if you are allowed to pursue a PhD they might ask you to take (and pass) the classes in paralell.
    – lalala
    May 24 at 18:57
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Does it carry any importance? (to admissions)

Little to none. Anyone can claim to have studied something independently. If you want to increase your chances of admissions, you need to provide evidence that the admissions committee can easily check. Your repository does not count.

You should, however, do sufficient self study that you are able to succeed in graduate school. You may be required to complete graduate courses and to take qualifying exams; do start preparing for those things if they are applicable.

Successful research experience is more important; the purpose of a PhD is to do research. If you have already done it, that is very convincing to an admissions committee.

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    This might be a bit of an off comment (do lmk and I'll delete it if so) but while self-studying and OCW doesn't help, does something like edX (with the certificate ofc) help with universities?
    – user220704
    May 23 at 18:32
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    Thanks for the answer! @user220704 does this answer your question? academia.stackexchange.com/questions/21526/…
    – justauser
    May 24 at 2:41
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    Not sure I agree with this. From my experience: I was missing calculus when I applied to grad school but self studied and mentioned doing so in the free-text of my applications. Got into 3 programs that all required it as a pre-req; a CS PhD and two Bioinformatics/Computational Biology MS programs. Good ones, too. Maybe they ignored the omission but, now, I get the sense that they may have appreciated the initiative and autodidactic approach to filling in a gap — after all, that’s a lot of what grad school is.
    – Greenstick
    May 24 at 7:19
  • @justauser yes ty. Hope it helps OP as well
    – user220704
    May 24 at 7:21
  • @Greenstick that's interesting. I'll keep that in mind, thank you.
    – justauser
    May 24 at 11:39
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In addition to Anonymous Physicist's answer, keep in mind that there may be opportunities to fill in certain gaps early in your graduate studies, at least if these gaps aren't too severe. In some countries in which a Master's degree is the normal route to a PhD, you might be able to take one or two upper level undergraduate courses as part of the Master's. Or you may be given the opportunity to do a "Pre-Master's" course and spend a semester filling in more substantial gaps. The latter option is common, even required in some cases, in the Netherlands.

Of course, by all means self-study courses to improve your chances of succeeding at your studies, but don't count on this having much affect on the admissions procedure. You could for instance mention it in a letter of motivation.

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  • Thanks @J W for the answer, yes I plan to mention it as a part of my statement.
    – justauser
    May 24 at 2:39
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A lot of grad programs require you to take an entry exam, and also write-up an essay to send to the grad advisor.

Self-study won't necessarily help you pass the entrance exam. Depending on grad program, you often get stuck with a generic GRE exam that just ensures you know basic stuff you should have learned.. like reading, writing, math, etc. Some programs have had issues with foreign student language, so they may ask a foreign student to also pass a language test. (The tests must not be very hard, because I had quite a few exchange students in my grad program that could barely speak English.)

Where your self-study will shine is if you keep a portfolio of projects / work you do on your own, and you can reference that in your entrance essay.

Grad advisors are like hiring managers at jobs. They see tons of run-of-the-mill essays that just try to BS. But, if you can write an essay that specifically references things you worked on, are working on, etc, the grad advisor might be more impressed.

EG: I applied to info sys grad program at my college. I had years of experience in the working world as an analyst. So, in my essay, I explained how I had focused my career on doing info sys work, how the undergrad had helped me, but also how, because of my experience, I knew the undergrad was not enough to take my career to the next level. So, I really wanted to shoot for the grad program to do that, which had more focused studies. I pointed to several research projects I did on my own to help show that I was serious about what I did... I quit my job and went to college full-time to get my degree(s), too. Grad advisor was impressed with my work and essay, because it stood out.

For a Physics program, professors and advisors would probably be more interested in someone that's so into Physics they like to mess around with it in their spare time. So, self-study could help.

Self-study would also make it easier transitioning into a grad program, because a lot of times the classes start with a refresher. You'll be able to reinforce knowledge you already have, and can possibly have a leg-up on others b/c you already know some of what's going on.

If you're serious about pursuing physics, then do a project portfolio. It can't hurt, and it can only help. A lot of careers are wanting folks to have portfolios of work now.. not just art folks, but programmers, analysts, etc. It's just the direction we're all going in.

There's mixed signals about this, though... Hiring Managers say they're interested in seeing someone that has personal projects; shows the person is dedicated to what they do. But, recruiters and hiring managers also say they barely glance over a resume, let alone side projects someone has done. So, it can seem pointless.

So, my opinion about personal projects is to work on ones that you are interested in and have fun on. When publishing a project, explain how it can apply to real-world application (applied science), because there's a lot of folks that have trouble taking high-level theory and translating it into application. We need people to "translate".

EG: I'm trying to implement a physically-based rendering lighting model in a video game. My head spins reading a lot of high-level white papers. But, I give kudos to folks that have taken the time to interpret that into real-world application in tutorials. If I was a hiring manager or grad adsvisor, I'd look at that and go "this person added value by translating academic speak into something more practical folks can understand."

I could go on and on about this...

But, side projects and self-study will help you get into a program if you can leverage it to show a grad advisor that you're serious about the field.

Some colleges are bypassing GRE's, and just letting folks into grad school now... I think it's for certain things grad programs that are hurting for money... like MBA's and junk. Colleges are in business to make money, so as they saw less folks pursuing masters (b/c the cost is outrageous, and the benefits are not as good as they used to be), they try to entice (sucker) more folks to sign up for grad programs to since $40k of their life away.

You need to be really sure the grad program you want to shoot for will actually help you.

I got a masters in info sys, and it's been pretty useless. In the analytics industry, a degree is just a check-box. All most folks care about is that you have a bachellors. A masters doesn't really get you anything else. What folks are really interested in is if you have 5 yrs exp in specific software suites, ERP's, etc. OR, that you have 5 yrs exp as a data scientist.

So, if you love physics, make sure the masters in physics would actually help you before pursuing it. Some folks (like myself) jumped for a masters thinking it would put them ahead, and all it does it leave you in a dead zone.. b/c folks think you're over-qualified for entry work, and under-experienced for senior work.

My masters in IS would help me if I had management experience, b/c it's what CIO's, IT managers, etc need. But, I've never had management experience, so nobody's going to hire me out of the blue and take a chance on me as a manager.

You have to make sure your degree is going to be worth the time, effort and expense.

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