# Are theoretical physicists and pure mathematicians just like priests?

TechieDork
I was often told that If you want to pursue something pure and abstract like theoretical physics and pure maths you have to give up the materialism , say good bye to your dream of living a big house , swimming pool and a yatch. there is no weath in these fields.
And people who work in these fields see their works as a calling , pure curiosity to seek the underlying truths just like a religious devotion.
Is this just an anecdotal? Or there is some truth in it

## Answers and Replies

Education Advisor
@TechieDork , I don't think the comparison between physicists and mathematicians with priests is an especially good one.

That being said, I do think there is an element of truth more broadly in what you're saying. People who are interested in the more "pure" of the sciences are (or should be) motivated more by their intrinsic interest in the field, as opposed to how lucrative such study is. This is especially true for those who intend to pursue a PhD in those fields.

At the same time, you do make it sound that those who study pure math or physics must completely give up the big house, swimming or yacht. Setting aside whether you think those are important, there are many people with PhDs in math or physics who are working outside of academia in various industries (e.g. finance, software development, data science, cryptography, etc.) who earn very high salaries.

Ultimately, it comes down to what you, the student, really are interested in and value. I personally think that those who are interested in or passionate about physics or math should definitely study these fields (including further graduate studies), but at the same time make the effort to gain employable skills (e.g. programming, communication skills, writing skills, etc.). And seek internships to gain further employment experiences.

Just my 2 cents worth on this.

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TechieDork
Science Advisor
Homework Helper
2022 Award
Yes I think it is just like religious devotion.

By the way you owe me ten percent of your income payable on a weekly basis.

Thanks.

nomadreid, sysprog and russ_watters
Science Advisor
What the hell am I going to do with a big house, a swimming pool and a yacht? It's unnecessarily expensive, I can make do with an apartment or just a house.

I don't see pure math as some kind of "calling". As far as religion goes, we should only believe in a system of axioms we deem sufficient to give rise to 'interesting' or 'involved' theories. Often these theories have applications in math or in other fields. However, it is not Required to believe any of it, so we fall short on being a 'religion' in that sense. A religious text dictates truths, we all are allowed to make our own conclusions in mathematics [and by extension, in daily life]. For some reason, though, very often we come to the same conclusions..

If there was no wealth in mathematics or any other sciences for that matter, then the institutions would long have ceased to exist, wouldn't they? Of course, it's unclear what is meant by 'wealth'. Suffice to say, my salary is competitive.

According to George Carlin, a joke is always exaggerated or it contains something that is way out of proportion. With that in mind, I think the assessment is more anecdotal than serious.

TechieDork
TechieDork
@TechieDork , I don't think the comparison between physicists and mathematicians with priests is an especially good one.

That being said, I do think there is an element of truth more broadly in what you're saying. People who are interested in the more "pure" of the sciences are (or should be) motivated more by their intrinsic interest in the field, as opposed to how lucrative such study is. This is especially true for those who intend to pursue a PhD in those fields.

At the same time, you do make it sound that those who study pure math or physics must completely give up the big house, swimming or yacht. Setting aside whether you think those are important, there are many people with PhDs in math or physics who are working outside of academia in various industries (e.g. finance, software development, data science, cryptography, etc.) who earn very high salaries.

Ultimately, it comes down to what you, the student, really is interested in and values. I personally think that those who are interested in or passionate about physics or math should definitely study these fields (including further graduate studies), but at the same time make the effort to gain employable skills (e.g. programming, communication skills, writing skills, etc.). And seek internships to gain further employment experiences.

Just my 2 cents worth on this.

My professors often remind me that Physics degree is NOT a vocational degree. It doesn't train you for a one specific career but it's a versatile degree that train you how to think. How to disect a complex problem and solve it using a simple first principle. And you can deal with any unseen quantitative problems not just physics problem sets.
Problem solving skills are important skills that make one employable.

But

However it's not easy to define and measure problem solving skills.
Could anyone provide me some concrete examples , In what ways that problem solving skills you have gained from studying physics help you tackle novel problems outside of physics?

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TechieDork
What the hell am I going to do with a big house, a swimming pool and a yacht? It's unnecessarily expensive, I can make do with an apartment or just a house.

I don't see pure math as some kind of "calling". As far as religion goes, we should only believe in a system of axioms we deem sufficient to give rise to 'interesting' or 'involved' theories. Often these theories have applications in math or in other fields. However, it is not Required to believe any of it, so we fall short on being a 'religion' in that sense. A religious text dictates truths, we all are allowed to make our own conclusions in mathematics [and by extension, in daily life]. For some reason, though, very often we come to the same conclusions..

If there was no wealth in mathematics or any other sciences for that matter, then the institutions would long have ceased to exist, wouldn't they? Of course, it's unclear what is meant by 'wealth'. Suffice to say, my salary is competitive.

According to George Carlin, a joke is always exaggerated or it contains something that is way out of proportion. With that in mind, I think the assessment is more anecdotal than serious.

Here there's an interesting insight from a https://www.researchgate.net/post/What_motivates_a_theoretical_physicist on researchgate.

Robert Shour -- 2nd Feb, 2019 :
Neuroscientist Read Montague says that the brain sometimes gives a chemical (dopamine) reward for solving a problem (p. 110, Why Choose This Book? How We Make Decisions). Part of the motivation for a theoretical physicist might be the chemically induced physical 'pleasure of finding things out' [Feynman]. Solving problems feels good and makes the problem solver want to re-experience the pleasure of finding things out.

nuuskur
Science Advisor
Education Advisor
This idea is silly. Physicist. theoretical or otherwise or any scientist for that matter , do what ever they want. Look at Anthony Lisi. I knew one who was a mountaineer in his leisure time. But that aside, priests take a vow to remain faithful to their vocation. Scientists who remain in their discipline do it out of interest and commitment to the fields. Yachts, swimming pools or material wealth in general have little if any place of prominence in their lives. The great ones are rewarded. The not so great I think have good lives. How that works out for others in their lives is another question.

An anecdote: When I was an undergrad way back it was anathema to talk about financial rewards for doing physics. You just didn't even think about it.

Can a productive scientist serve two masters faithfully?

nuuskur and TechieDork
Staff Emeritus
Science Advisor
Education Advisor
This idea is silly.

True that.

and a yatch

I am not sure what a yatch is. They sound expensive.

If you mean a yacht, there are ~600,000 of them in the US. (Defined as a recreational boat over 26' in length) There are 125M households, so we're talking roughly $800,000 per year. It stretches the imagination that if physicists were not doing physics they would be earning$800,000 per year.

Experienced physicists make enough to end up in the 90-th (+/- about 5) income percentages. Hardly a vow of poverty.

Education Advisor
My professors often remind me that Physics degree is NOT a vocational degree. It doesn't train you for a one specific career but it's a versatile degree that train you how to think. How to disect a complex problem and solve it using a simple first principle. And you can deal with any unseen quantitative problems not just physics problem sets.
Problem solving skills are important skills that make one employable.

But

However it's not easy to define and measure problem solving skills.
Could anyone provide me some concrete examples , In what ways that problem solving skills you have gained from studying physics help you tackle novel problems outside of physics?

This is an interesting question, with an answer that may not be immediately obvious.

But essentially, the problem solving skills you gain from studying physics, mathematics, or other similar quantitative disciplines (e.g. various forms of engineering, statistics, etc.) involve taking a problem and creating an abstraction to the problem through a mathematical model.

Once you have done so, then you either (a) see and match whether said problem matches with other problems that have already been solved, or (b) less commonly, see if you can use mathematical reasoning to formulate a brand-new solution. Then you implement said solution (sometimes through pen-and-paper, but in this day and age through programming -- hence why it is so important for you to gain programming knowledge and experience).

This form of problem-solving is quite common in a wide range of problems outside of physics (e.g. finance, software development, numerical analysis, game design, data science, etc.).

TechieDork
Science Advisor
Education Advisor
My professors often remind me that Physics degree is NOT a vocational degree.

I disagree. A physics degree does prepare you for a vocation, doing physics is a vocation from the Latin vocatio (to summon). Were we (you) not summoned to do physics?

Education Advisor
I disagree. A physics degree does prepare you for a vocation, doing physics is a vocation from the Latin vocatio (to summon). Were we (you) not summoned to do physics?

I disagree with your disagreement.

Physics (along with mathematics) is indeed not a vocational degree -- an undergraduate physics degree teaches you the foundations of physics as a science, but doesn't prepare you for a specific job or career on its own, unlike (say) medicine, engineering, law, or nursing.

That's what it means for something to be a vocation, not the original Latin meaning of being summoned.

TechieDork, symbolipoint and russ_watters
Science Advisor
Education Advisor
Picky picky In the common use of the term I still think it is appropriate. It is most often used in HS programs (or vocational schools) like electrician, auto mechanic or plumbing. But these programs usually let you become apprentices which after several (?) years of additional course work and working under the supervision of a journeyman or master craftsman that you are allowed to work unsupervised. Gee doesn't grad school sound like an apprenticeship?

symbolipoint
Science Advisor
Homework Helper
Gold Member
2022 Award
I was often told that If you want to pursue something pure and abstract like theoretical physics and pure maths you have to give up the materialism , say good bye to your dream of living a big house , swimming pool and a yatch. there is no weath in these fields.
And people who work in these fields see their works as a calling , pure curiosity to seek the underlying truths just like a religious devotion.
Is this just an anecdotal? Or there is some truth in it
Women can become physicists and mathematicians. Physicists and mathematicians are allowed to get married.

Mentor
I was often told that If you want to pursue something pure and abstract like theoretical physics and pure maths you have to give up the materialism , say good bye to your dream of living a big house , swimming pool and a yatch. there is no weath in these fields...

Is this just an anecdotal? Or there is some truth in it
The average salary for a physics prof in the US is $106k. The average salary for a priest or pastor is$97k (surprising to me).

Average overall is \$48k.

They might not be rich, but there aren't a lot of common material possessions either have to forgo.

PeroK
Mentor
I disagree. A physics degree does prepare you for a vocation, doing physics is a vocation from the Latin vocatio (to summon). Were we (you) not summoned to do physics?
That physics and math are not vocational degrees is an extremely thoroughly discussed problem on PF. It strikes me as an obvious/common knowledge issue.

@TechieDork right: the skills you learn are useful, but unless you are one of the lucky few to find a job with "physics" in the title, proving it and worse making the hard choice to abandon physics for an unrelated job is a really difficult thing to deal with for many recent physics grads.

I guess you object to the label or broad description, but the problem they describe is real.

TechieDork
Education Advisor
That physics and math are not vocational degrees is an extremely thoroughly discussed problem on PF. It strikes me as an obvious/common knowledge issue.

@TechieDork right: the skills you learn are useful, but unless you are one of the lucky few to find a job with "physics" in the title, proving it and worse making the hard choice to abandon physics for an unrelated job is a really difficult thing to deal with for many recent physics grads.

I guess you object to the label or broad description, but the problem they describe is real.

While you are correct about the problems facing many recent physics graduates, what you are failing to mention in this thread is that if you dig a little deeper, many of those physics grads had failed, during their period of education, to broaden their skills beyond what is taught in the traditional physics curriculum (the same can also be said of many math graduates).

The skills acquired in a physics degree are useful, but those skills need to be both paired with an overall skillset that can be marketed to employers, and need to be tied to specific careers.

For example, in the course of completing a physics degree, students will learn to conduct numerical simulations as part of their computational physics lab work. The skills acquired can then be applied to jobs in areas like signal processing, scientific computing software, game design, etc. But it is up to the student to make the case that those skills can be of use to a future employer.

One of the best ways to do this would be to pursue internships or research opportunities while the students are still in school.

TechieDork and symbolipoint
Science Advisor
Education Advisor
That physics and math are not vocational degrees is an extremely thoroughly discussed problem on PF. It strikes me as an obvious/common knowledge issue.

Sorry I missed those discussions.

The skills acquired in a physics degree are useful, but those skills need to be both paired with an overall skillset that can be marketed to employers, and need to be tied to specific careers.

We keep telling students to obtain skills useful to future employers. Sound vocational to me.

TechieDork
This is an interesting question, with an answer that may not be immediately obvious.

But essentially, the problem solving skills you gain from studying physics, mathematics, or other similar quantitative disciplines (e.g. various forms of engineering, statistics, etc.) involve taking a problem and creating an abstraction to the problem through a mathematical model.

Once you have done so, then you either (a) see and match whether said problem matches with other problems that have already been solved, or (b) less commonly, see if you can use mathematical reasoning to formulate a brand-new solution. Then you implement said solution (sometimes through pen-and-paper, but in this day and age through programming -- hence why it is so important for you to gain programming knowledge and experience).

This form of problem-solving is quite common in a wide range of problems outside of physics (e.g. finance, software development, numerical analysis, game design, data science, etc.).

Liverpool FC uses data science to improve their gameplay strategy.
Guess who is behind this work...A physicist who worked for CERN.

Gold Member
I would like to quote two sources. One, when I was studying in Germany, I was invited to listen to a lecture given to new students of pure mathematics (even though I was not new at the time). The lecturer, in true German style, first showed the graphs that gave the chances of getting a job in pure mathematics, the comparative salaries of mathematicians with other professions, and so forth. Then he remarked that the mathematics students at the university were viewed as being a bit strange, disconnected from the world ("weltfremd" in German) because they considered money as secondary. He concluded by saying that if anyone in the audience was mainly concerned about getting rich, then she should look for a different field of study.

The second comment is from Terry Pratchett's "Small Gods", which takes place in the equivalent of ancient Greeece; putting "pure mathematicians" in place of "philosophers" in the following gives you some idea as to why companies like IBM hires pure mathematicians as well as the other kind: "That’s why it’s always worth having a few philosophers around the place. One minute it’s all Is Truth Beauty and Is Beauty Truth, and Does A Falling Tree in the Forest Make A Sound if There’s No one There to Hear It, and then just when you think they’re going to start dribbling one of ‘em says, Incidentally, putting a thirty-foot parabolic reflector on a high place to shoot the rays of the sun at an enemy’s ships would be a very interesting demonstration of optical principles… "

TechieDork
Education Advisor
We keep telling students to obtain skills useful to future employers. Sound vocational to me.

You're missing my point.

Yes, there may be advisors who tell their students to obtain useful skills, but those skills are often not part of the standard physics (or math) curriculum in many universities around the world. In essence, the degree program is not designed to be a vocational degree, in the same way that, say, an engineering degree is by default.

It is up to the students to design their studies so that they include vocational aspects into their studies. That's the difference.

TechieDork and symbolipoint
Science Advisor
Education Advisor
There is no doubt in my mind that a life devoted to the discovery and study of the truths of our universe (science) is a vocation. The term vocation has taken on a hackneyed meaning in recent decades but it original meaning is most appropriate for any passionate intellectual pursuit and still relevant even without a religious connotation. The fact that one can use it as a career to sustain this devotion makes it no less a vocation.

TechieDork
Mentor
While you are correct about the problems facing many recent physics graduates, what you are failing to mention in this thread is that if you dig a little deeper, many of those physics grads had failed, during their period of education, to broaden their skills beyond what is taught in the traditional physics curriculum (the same can also be said of many math graduates).
Agreed, but how are they to know their physics skills aren't enough when many don't even know they aren't going to be employed as physicists?
We keep telling students to obtain skills useful to future employers. Sound vocational to me.
And it is. But the point is, we're telling them that exactly because those skills aren't built-in to the degree, so they need to be added. Nobody needs to be told that when they get an engineering or medical degree that they need additional coursework beyond the standard plan of study to be employable (because they don't).

PeroK
Education Advisor
Agreed, but how are they to know their physics skills aren't enough when many don't even know they aren't going to be employed as physicists?

This problem is not unique to physics degrees, but is in fact something that is more broadly true of almost all degrees at the undergraduate level, with the exception of the few vocational degrees, like engineering, law, medicine, accounting (note, a general business degree is not a vocational degree), or nursing. Students in those programs have it easy -- people who graduate from those programs are essentially trained to pursue specific types of jobs and where to apply, so there is no ambiguity in terms of what they will be doing in the future.

The simple truth is that students, by the time they have finished their first year of study, have to take responsibility for their education, and develop at least some idea of what types of careers they would actually be interested in pursuing. That means that students should be doing research and educating themselves about different career options.

Universities have many resources on hand to help students in this regard (never mind the Internet). Every college/university should have a career counselling service or career centre, as well as hosting job fairs. Internship opportunities are constantly being advertised on campuses. Students have no excuse not to be aware of this.

TechieDork, Vanadium 50 and russ_watters
Mentor
Sorry I missed those discussions.
I just took a quick scroll through the Career Guidance forum and it looks to me like this issue is a significant and explicit issue being discussed in about a third of the threads on the first page.

Mentor
There is no doubt in my mind that a life devoted to the discovery and study of the truths of our universe (science) is a vocation.
I would tend to agree that any job is by definition a vocation, so perhaps the issue here is more the limited number of jobs available in that vocation - particularly outside of academia - vs the number of grads.

Edit: An important caveat is that a bachelor's degree in physics does not typically qualify a person for a job as a "physicist".

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Dr Transport
Mentor
This problem is not unique to physics degrees, but is in fact something that is more broadly true of almost all degrees at the undergraduate level, with the exception of the few vocational degrees, like engineering, law, medicine, accounting (note, a general business degree is not a vocational degree), or nursing. Students in those programs have it easy -- people who graduate from those programs are essentially trained to pursue specific types of jobs and where to apply, so there is no ambiguity in terms of what they will be doing in the future.

The simple truth is that students, by the time they have finished their first year of study, have to take responsibility for their education, and develop at least some idea of what types of careers they would actually be interested in pursuing. That means that students should be doing research and educating themselves about different career options.

Universities have many resources on hand to help students in this regard (never mind the Internet). Every college/university should have a career counselling service or career centre, as well as hosting job fairs. Internship opportunities are constantly being advertised on campuses. Students have no excuse not to be aware of this.
I agree with all of that...just, this thread is about physics and math, not art history.

Staff Emeritus
Science Advisor
Education Advisor
I was often told that If you want to pursue something pure and abstract like theoretical physics and pure maths you have to give up the materialism , say good bye to your dream of living a big house , swimming pool and a yatch. there is no weath in these fields.
And people who work in these fields see their works as a calling , pure curiosity to seek the underlying truths just like a religious devotion.
Is this just an anecdotal? Or there is some truth in it

This whole premise is built on the popular misconception of what "theoretical physics" is.

John Bardeen was a theoretical physicist. Do yourself a favor and figure out why he is such an important figure on why you have your modern electronics. Theoretical physics is not "something pure and abstract". Considering that there is a huge number of theorists in, say, condensed matter physics that actually deal with the physics of materials, saying that they have to "give up ... materialism" is amusing.

Zz.

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Dr Transport, Vanadium 50 and PeroK