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I am often faced with questions in areas which cross my boundaries of knowledge. For instance, as an engineer, sometimes I am needed to study the basics of Anatomy or something like that.

This might be a temporary interest or might be permanent (There is no way of telling beforehand)

During such times, there is an option:

  1. Go for the "proper" textbooks used by the students in that field. (Say this one :: 960 pages) and study them well.

  2. Get a Schaum's series, Demystified or For Dummies sort of book and get over with it. (Say this one :: 450 pages). Alternately, use this as an entry point for the "better" books.

My professors have always suggested against such books because they provide no motivation for the development of a certain concept but I see that as a valid point only it is your primary field of interest. If an engineer wants to know Statistics or Anatomy, I am slightly skeptical whether such grinding is necessary.

Are such books a good resource/entry point for a new subject?

Note: All of this is under the assumption that the student is within the confines of academia.

  • I think it really depends. I had a look at the book "R for dummies" (it is too basic for me) but it would be good and thorough introduction. Also "Excel for dummies" looks like a good introduction (I think about buying it). But for me as a bioinformatician "Bioinformatics for dummies" is really not an option and I would also not recommend it for beginners. I agree with Ivar Persson on the paragraph about wikipedia. I think also for some topics there are quite good video instructions on youtube or similar websites. – Verena Haunschmid Jun 17 '15 at 13:48
  • I have also a lot background and biology and don't think it is necessary to buy such an expensive book unless you are a medical student. – Verena Haunschmid Jun 17 '15 at 13:48
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I would advise against the use of "for dummies" books, firstly because they are not of academic quality, second they are too big.

There are 2 strategies that I myself use for rapid acquisition of quality knowledge:

  1. a) Start with Wikipedia, identify the basic strands, but most importantly the correct terms for what you want to learn about. So for instance, you probably don't need to study all of anatomy, but from Wikipedia, you would discover that what you need to brush up on, is anatomy of tissues- histology. b) Now that you have the correct term and a narrow focus, put it into google scholar, and read the abstracts of the top 10 cited journal articles. The oldest articles with 3000 citations are the classics, the newest ones with 500 are the review articles with ideas for further reading and useful summaries. You can read more than the abstracts if it seems relevant, otherwise go with the basics.

  2. An even quicker way of cramming in quality information is to use the Annual review series of journals, provided you have institutional access to the journals. These are a comprehensive set of journals in all major fields which have reviews by invited experts on those topics. Not only do you get high quality disciplinary summaries, but also excellent interdisciplinary articles.

The benefit of either of these strategies is focused and quick acquisition of relevant knowledge without having to run around trying to figure out what you need to know in a non-academic book that wasn't written for this purpose. We're talking 50 pages of in-depth reading versus 500 pages of broad but shallow references of minor interest.

Disciplinary dictionaries, like this one,are also a good place to start, provided they have been around for at least 2 editions,

  • 2
    While I agree with this for learning new research topics, I would not recommend this technique for learning how to use new tools, which is what I had in mind when writing my answer. – eykanal Mar 5 '12 at 20:53
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Those books are not only very useful, I would argue they are the best option in many cases, as they represent the best use of your time. You will find that, throughout your graduate studies, you will have to learn aspects of many different fields. In most cases, while it would be possible for you to embark on a thorough study I some other discipline, that would take weeks, if not months. These books allow you to quickly learn the basics, giving you a solid foundation of knowledge that you can expand with further study if necessary.

Edit: this applies to topics only ancillary to your main field of research; you should not use this book on your research topic itself, for the reasons outlined by your professor.

  • Why is there such a big stigma attached to such books? One literally has to hide the book when professors/colleagues step in. Again, this is for a book in a field different from that of primary research. – user107 Mar 4 '12 at 17:44
  • I would venture that's because there's a focus more on doing "hard work" than "intelligent work" in the field. As a PhD student, you're expected to research the heck out of everything. However, you have to manage your time well, and in many cases this it's a better idea to learn what you need and go in-depth if it turns out to be necessary later on. – eykanal Mar 4 '12 at 20:05
  • @nunoxic In my experience, the Schaums books are widely appreciated and recommended by faculty, eg when a student needs some math background. – David LeBauer Mar 5 '12 at 2:43
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They're a decent starting point. They are aimed at folks who are newbies to the subject and are good at an overview of the subject. From this starting point, you'll get a better idea of where to look.

In one rare case, the author of Google SketchUp For Dummies is also the author of most of the other books on the same product, and the dummies book is the one that covers the lastest version of the product.

If an engineer wants to know Statistics

Probablistic methods were an important part of electrical engineering when I studied it. Several courses in statistics/probability were part of the required curriculum. In such a case, the "for dummies" series would only be useful as something to read before starting the semester, so that the first week wouldn't be a total surprise/shock.

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