c0nrad's c0rner

Learning and learning

Oct 15, 2020 - 6 minute read - personal

Independent Study

Thinking out loud about my future.


Last year I quit my stable job at MongoDB with two dreams. Start my own company and learn more about the universe. A few months ago my startup hit profitability and I additionally enrolled back at my previous university to get a B.A. in physics. On both fronts, it’s been going very well.

But, now that I’m 7 weeks back into school, I remember why I left school in the first place (7 years ago).

School seemed like the perfect fit:

  • Meet other people fascinated by physics
  • Get involved in research projects, open new doors
  • Get the piece of paper (degree) so I can check the box on future jobs
  • Spend my time learning in a structured environment

Why it’s not working

But it’s not quite working out that way.

Partially due to COVID, and partially due to the age gap (me turning 29 soon, while other students being significantly younger), finding friends in physics is turning out to be a little more difficult. I’m also a bit of a weirdo, and a little bit on the serious side, which makes friendship a little harder. (I find I thrive in a mission-based setting.)

There’s a lot of research out there to do, but a lot of it just seems like research for research’s sake. I specifically want to understand why the universe exists, and those specific projects seem very difficult to get involved in. It’s tempting to get involved with a different unrelated project, but there’s a significant opportunity cost associated with that. If you’re going to spend a year or two on a project, how do you know it’s the right project?

And the big reason school isn’t working out, personally I find it very hard to learn at school. I have either an A+ or A in all my classes, but I’m not learning in school. I learn by doing and exploring and asking questions, and that’s doesn’t seem to be how school works. There are two classes I legitimately enjoy (out of the 7 classes and 2 labs I have this semester). But the rest I could do without. And even in those two classes I enjoy (I enjoy them due to the professors), I could move at a much faster pace.

When I reflect on my previous degree (electrical engineering), I sadly know very little about electrical engineering and I went to school for 4.5 years and did decently well in the classes (B+/A- GPA). I could give some examples of how little I know about electrical engineering, but I’ll save those for a different day.

Being not humble, I think I know a decent amount about computers/programming/security. And that all happened outside of the classroom. I built 100s if not 1000s of programs. I have 400+ books on computers I’ve read (some skimmed) over the last 15 years. Every weekend is a new project, a new exploration, a new idea. That’s how I learn.

I’m frustrated that school isn’t working out as I had dreamed.

Big Picture, I don’t know where I’m going

As I apply to graduate school, I realize I have no idea what exactly I want to do, and that puts me at the mercy of others. I think it’s common for physics students to get involved in a project that a professor they like is working on, next thing you know your name on a paper as an undergrad, and then you’re getting your Ph.D. in that subject because you can because you have previous research. Not because you originally wanted to, it just happened that way.

I know I want to learn more about the universe, and I think that will lead me to “Beyond Standard Model” theories. But what does that even mean? I’m reading some books on Quantum Field Theory, but I am in no position to say what exactly I want to study. String theory? Quantum Loop Gravity? Something entirely different? Maybe the answers are in neutrino oscillations? Searching for dark matter? Working at the next collider? It’s all luck, but I want it to be my luck.

I know I want to do something spectacular, but I’m not in a position to say “THIS”, “THIS” is what I want to spend the next 5-7 years of my life studying.

Gap Year

For those two reason, I’m thinking of taking a gap year to self-study and play to my strengths. Thankfully my previous software career left me in a position to take a few years off, and I’m very good at learning things independently.

I imagine it’ll almost be like my own personal “masters”. I have a specific list of books I plan on doing all/most of the problems from, along with some projects I want to make available to everyone (such as my feynman diagram validator, coming soon) and “pretend presentations” that I’ll put on youtube, similar to presenting to a class.

I plan on spending a decent amount of time on these projects that I’ll open source to hopefully demonstrate that I’m learning a lot about the subjects. I have some fun ideas that I think will be (1) useful to others (2) very cool to see (3) demonstrate my knowledge of physics. Long term I plan on building tools for the very smart physicists, so having some solid tools in my portfolio will be useful regardless.

I was doing independent study the months leading up to me returning to school. I learned a tremendous amount just spending 8 hours a day reading and doing problems from textbooks. I plan on continuing this pattern.

Oddly independent study is surprisingly stressful. It reminds me of when I first started working on Csper. You become very aware of every “wasted hour” not spent working. So a non-trivial amount of time will be spent on “structure”, and making sure I don’t get burnt out (nor let my stress leak into others around me).

You’re also aware you’re making a very non-conventional choice, and you feel that pressure of “what if this was a terrible idea and I’m an idiot and waste a year”. That pressure can be very motivating.

So I’m hoping a year from now after reading more QFT/GR/Particle books, (and some books on the fundamentals I’m missing, like stat mech, and advance quantum/E&M, advance math), and research papers, I’ll know exactly what I want to do, and be in a better position to carve out my own path. And hopefully know more about the universe, which was my original goal!

And if it sucks, I’ll get a job as a programmer again. But if it works, I’ll come out as a serious problem solving machine.

Anyways, curious about everyone’s thoughts. If you think this is a terrible idea, I’d love to chat. c0nrad@c0nrad.io .