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Physics A few questions about a theoretical physicist career

  1. Mar 21, 2017 #1
    I'm Michael, am 17 and uncertain about my future (as I'm sure anyone my age is).
    you see, I aim to be a theoretical physicist in the future and Im worried a bit:
    Yes, I know, you shouldnt pick a job just for the money, but I do worry about how much does a theoretical physicist make. do you need to be extraordinary brilliant to be paid well?

    I actually have an idea what to do about that (if a theoretical physicist pay is low). in my country once you turn 18 you must enlist to the army. now, here we take the army VERY seriously, we're surrounded by crazy Jihadists and we're no strangers to them attacking us (or at least trying to). I say this to show that, if I wish, I can begin my theoretical physicist career here, in the army. I can go to a university at the army's expense and be an engineer for a few years (4 years study, 6 serve). If I will manage to get into one of the exclusive programs, I might work in research (actually the only way I would do all of that is of, and only if, Ill get to one of those programs.
    That being said, I can just serve the usual 2 years and 8 months in intelligence, and then study how I want and not how the army wants.

    Im sorry if I was unclear or if I wrote too much, it's late and ive done alot of work lately. I guess I can summarize all of these in this way:
    1. how much do theoretical physicists make?
    2. can one be an engineer first and then become a theoretical physicist?

    thank you for reading and answering!

    p.s: I forgot to mention that here we have almost free education, even if I will not study with the army's money, it wont be a problem.
  2. jcsd
  3. Mar 21, 2017 #2


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    You need to be good and very very lucky to get paid at all. The job market in theoretical physics is extremely competitive in all branches (note that "theoretical physics" is not really a branch - there are people doing theoretical physics in all physics branches) and you will need luck to land a job at all. If job security is your thing, theoretical physics probably is not. Salaries will depend on where you go.
  4. Mar 21, 2017 #3
    Do you have any physics background to begin with? I don't know what the salary is, but if you don't love physics in general then this might be a tough job to just pick up out of nowhere.
    Edit: By the way,
  5. Mar 21, 2017 #4
    If you study hard and get good at physics, odds are pretty good a nation which gives due respect to its military will have plenty of work for you.

    Be a good soldier. Be a great student.

    Odds may be against you being a theoretical physicist in the area of your choosing (astrophysics, string theory, condensed matter, etc.)

    But odds are there are plenty of interesting and defense related problems your country will pay you to solve in ongoing service to their national defense.

  6. Mar 21, 2017 #5


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    ...as a theoretical physicist, especially if it's in the fields that most people think of when they think about theoretical physics: elementary particle theory and cosmology. Jobs in those fields exist mostly at universities. There are few long-term positions as tenure-track professors, and the number grows very slowly if at all; basically, positions mostly become available when a professor retires or dies. To have a chance at them, you have to take at least one or two short-term (2-3 years?) "post-doc" positions after you finish your PhD, and perform very well in them, publishing good papers in respected journals.

    In fields that have applications outside of academia, the odds are better: condensed matter (e.g. semiconductors), fluid dynamics (e.g. aerodynamics or modeling explosions).

    If you can acquire programming and analytical skills as part of your research, that can be transferred to other fields, and you can convince prospective employers that you can use those skills to help them make money, that opens up more opportunities outside of physics. Some former physicists now work on Wall Street, developing algorithms for stock-market trading etc. Others work in programming-type jobs.
  7. Mar 22, 2017 #6


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    As for salaries, here are some statistics for starting salaries for new PhDs in the US:


    You might be able to find more by browsing that site. Salaries tend to increase as one advances, of course. After about 15 years, when one has become a full professor at a research-oriented university, the average might be in the $100,000 to $150,000 range. This is just a guess. I never made nearly that much myself, but I was at a small teaching-oriented college.
  8. Mar 28, 2017 #7
    My adviser in electrical engineering started his career doing experimental electronics and then switched into theoretical physics, and has had an extraordinary career. However he's a 1 in a million type. Moreover, most of the theoretical physics he does focuses on topics related to solid state devices, with a teeny bit of work on fundamental topics.
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