I'm finishing Applied Physics this month, and the next I will finish my other bachelor degree, engineering. I have many ideas for starting my own research (at the frontiers - not doing things already attempted) and I feel like it would be a waste of time to attend a graduate course, also because I learn more on books than from listening lectures.

In my specific case, I already started attending conferences since a couple of years and presented a poster at one of them. I'm interested in theoretical physics and the possible connections with biology.

Does it make sense to try for one year to do something on my own and see how it goes?

I think that people here sometimes get annoyed at me for reason I don't really understand, so I will explain: I read quite a lot of papers until now, so I have some idea of how it goes nowadays. I don't really want to pollute ArXiv with some utter nonsense, but rather the contrary. My aim would be to learn what I would learn in a normal course, by myself, more deeply, and not only basic things of everything. This example here shows some good resources. For example Feynman learnt calculus by himself, but better. In modern times there are many resources for self-teaching and something like Physics from a theoretical viewpoint should be perfectly doable and learnable from books on my own, like for programming or Biology. Anyway maybe this question is more suitable for Quora?

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – aeismail
    Commented Jan 31, 2016 at 15:35

6 Answers 6


To be able to do meaningful research, "hav[ing] some ideas" is not enough. Also, graduate school isn't just "two years of forced learning by repetition". Many graduate courses are very resourceful and teach you the essentials to understand what has been done in the areas you're potentially interested in.

While it is possible for you to learn on your own and do high quality research, your picture of grad school doesn't reflect reality.

  • So could you tell me also, what IS enough..? Commented Jan 29, 2016 at 23:34
  • There's nothing as 'enough' for research, but you should get the prerequisite so that you can understand the literature, talk to people. After all, you don't want to reinvent the wheel.
    – Newbie
    Commented Jan 31, 2016 at 20:42

I'm not too sure if you're asking what to do next semester or what to do afterwards, so I'm going to answer them both.

Next semester: It can be a good idea to take graduate courses in undergrad as it shows you can handle the material. It's also possible, and highly encouraged, for any perspective researchers to start working with a professor as soon as they can.

After graduation (aka. go to grad school): As you've pointed out, many parts of grad school involve taking classes. That being said, no one likes those parts and they're not really important in the long run. If you're any good, you'll be able to pick up most of what a class would teach you on your own.

The point of any PhD program worth its salt is to teach you how to do research. It's an apprenticeship with you learning from others in the field and creating meaningful connections with other researchers. You might be able to learn this on your own, but it's probably easier and more helpful to go through the program.

  • Thank You, but the hassle of the whole thing is that I don't like the idea of going through two years of forced learning by repetition. I learn more on my own than in class, so I was wondering if I should really go for a master. I was adviced by some more experienced people to avoid PhD if I can, also as far as I can see is not a really nice life (btw: might it be just that it's different between Europe and US?). Commented Jan 29, 2016 at 17:19
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    If you want to do high-level research in physics, it really helps to have a PhD. Else you'll be playing second fiddle to someone who does. I'm not too sure on the system in Europe, but a lot of US universities let you skip the Masters or get it while you're working on your PhD.
    – Ric
    Commented Jan 29, 2016 at 17:27
  • There are master courses lasting one year, however you're right, but you probably need high grades for that (working on PhD without master), which I don't have. Commented Jan 29, 2016 at 17:29
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    Re "avoiding PhD": don't most positions require a Ph.D.? Commented Jan 29, 2016 at 20:45
  • @StephanKolassa I don't want to get a position Commented Jan 29, 2016 at 22:11

You're seriously misguided both about what a research career requires and what is the purpose of a grad school.

Graduate school is very much "learning on your own", only with the possibility of direct support from more experienced peers and supervisors. The main goal of a PhD program is not in the study courses and lectures, the goal is is to enable capable students to learn how to properly do research. This implies that students after bachelor studies are not generally not considered ready for doing independent research. It's possible that you're an exception from this general pattern, but you have not named any specific reasons in support of this, so it's a priori unlikely.

Most likely any papers you can publish at this stage will not be very good, even if you're genuinely capable: without a grad school training you won't have sufficient training to recognize what's considered "good" by the community you want to impress. Even the papers actually happen to be good (i.e. not only interesting ideas, but also solid methodology, broad knowledge of the field, awareness of which research questions are "hot", etc.), they are unlikely to be noticed by the community in the first place, as being an independent you won't have the same opportunities to make academic connections and to promote yourself. Furthermore, being an independent researcher without solid credentials means that you have to constantly fight an uphill battle to be taken seriously.

Does it make sense to try for one year to do something on my own and see how it goes?

The best you could do in this year is to try to maximize your chances to be accepted in a good graduate program.

You say that you want a career in science, but "independently from a university". Being an independent scholar is unfortunately not a viable alternative at your stage of research career. The only viable alternatives are governmental or industrial research labs, but there are fewer of these jobs compared to e.g. postdoc positions in academia, and they nevertheless typically require academical credentials. Perhaps more to the point, they're unlikely to offer you more freedom in your research compared to a university.

  • You have a point, but I would like to make you notice that graduate programs are different from country to country, so "Graduate school is very much "learning on your own"," it's a statement invalid for some places in Europe. Academics often show elitism, but when you confront people with facts they change. Also, "...hey are unlikely to be noticed by the community in the first place..." I think the only way to be "noticed" it's with solid new advancements, which is likely to happen both following school or not Commented Jan 30, 2016 at 10:38
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    Don't apply for these grad schools then, search for a better match instead. As for "being noticed", it's not a binary predicate, but more similar to a real-valued function. Science is a human endeavor, which means that it involves politics to some extent. There are plenty of examples how valuable scientific results remain obscure for years, until they are rediscovered by more reputable and better known research groups.
    – kfx
    Commented Jan 30, 2016 at 11:08

"I feel like it would be a waste of time to attend a graduate course, also because I learn more on books than from listening lectures."

You are quite right about this.

"Does it make sense to try for one year to do something on my own and see how it goes?"

Absolutely not. Listening to lectures is not an important part of graduate education in physics. Some PhD programs include lectures, some do not. But in every case it is the independent work that counts. The value of doing your research in a (good quality) PhD program is

  • They will pay you
  • There will be other people to work with
  • You gain reputation

None of these things will be provided to independent researchers.

  • Thanks. I mean to try to work on my own also because if I will want to access a PhD I would like my own "results" to count for it, though I have an around 85% avg on my grades I don't like school system and spending other time trying to get higher grades makes me feel I waste a lot of time. I don't mind those things you mentioned, really. Not at the beginning at least. The central point of my discussion is what you said, "But in every case it is the independent work that counts" Commented Jan 30, 2016 at 8:16

Learning, plus increasingly doing more research. You need to specialize in a specific direction after a few years.

But you need to go to grad school! And it's better to take courses. Self-learning should complement your formal program, not to replace it.

  • if is this an answer - to what question, sorry? Commented Jan 29, 2016 at 23:35
  • To the question "Does it make sense to try for one year to do something on my own and see how it goes?". I answered, though it's doable, it's better to go through a formal program and supplement it with "something on your own".
    – eli
    Commented Jan 31, 2016 at 21:01

As others have mentioned, graduate studies are less about classes and more about research apprenticeships.

You already know how to learn theory. What can you work on next? Collaboration. Physics research, and research in general, is for the most part a group effort... for many reasons. Some reasons are bureaucratic, while others are purely pragmatic. If I were you, I'd find a way to work with a professor - someone whose personality suits you - who is active in an interesting field. The easiest way to do this is through graduate studies.

Also, regarding classes...I get it. Sure, I often learn better on my own as well (though it's remarkable how often I recall my professor's mannerisms and metaphors when explaining certain phenomena!). But my grades and classes do give me one thing: credibility. When a professor assigns you a grade, they are vouching for your skill, tenacity, reliability... a host of factors. Regardless, it becomes easier to progress in research when you have established experts supporting you!

  • this was valuable, thanks. it's that I have some fellows that are on grad school and as far as I can see it's not as you all are describing, maybe I just need to change university. Or try at least one semester. Commented Jan 31, 2016 at 12:57

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