I'm currently starting a phd program in theoretical physics, specifically in quantum gravity, but I have a problem with my self-study method.

For me, it is always better to study things by myself instead of going to a class, however I have realized that my method is not efficient enough.

I always start reading a book, article or something. Then, I try to explain by myself what I read as if I were trying to explaining it to someone else. After that, I summarize the main ideas writing them in a notebook, but with enough detail to review what I wrote, even many years later, and to be able to understand the topic again. In other words, I try to simplify what I read using my own words. Finally, I do exercises, many exercises.

I have filled many notebooks using this method since I was in highschool (there, I used this method only to study physics). During my undergraduate studies, I didn't used this method, and it was pretty difficult to pass my subjects. My grades were very good, but they were only numbers, not reflecting my real knowledge.

Now, during my phd, sounds strange but I have more time to study things by myself, and I am trying to learn a lot of different topics, but my method is not efficient enough.

It is very difficult to learn something without summarize it in a notebook, and impossible without doing exercises. I have tried to apply some methods like the "Feymann method" or the The SQ3R Method, but I always end up using my own old method.

Is there any way to study theoretical physics deeply and efficiently by my self using a different method?

1 Answer 1


I’m in pure math, and the writing approach you are describing is basically identical to my method for studying and working on research, which I’ve used for many years. Other successful mathematicians I know also take a similar approach. (Some of them do at least some of their writing in the form of a blog.)

I think you are right that writing things out yourself in a fair amount of detail that goes beyond the textbook/paper and adds your own perspective and observations, is simply necessary to gain a deep understanding of a subject. There’s simply no way around it. In my experience, just reading someone else’s writing, no matter how well-presented or detailed, will give you at best a superficial sense of the subtleties that difficult mathematical and physical theories have. As a friend of mine (a mathematical physicist) once said, mathematics is like riding a bicycle: you can’t learn it by watching someone else do it, you have to do it yourself.

In terms of efficiency, the only potential room for efficiency gains I can think of is the choice of medium for your writing. I used to write mainly on paper notebooks, now I also do some of my note taking electronically (in LaTeX, personal wikis etc), and also combine note taking with calculations in Mathematica notebooks. But for certain types of notes, nothing I’ve found beats plain old handwriting in an old fashioned physical notebook.

To summarize, you are doing what you need to do, at least for the important subjects that you want to specialize in, so don’t worry too much about efficiency. For other subjects without immediate relevance for your research goals, you can perhaps afford to just read articles and books without doing the whole writing thing to quickly gain familiarity with those subjects and broaden your knowledge. That will be useful in case you ever need some of those subjects in the future for your research, at which point you can revisit them in more depth.

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