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Branching into another field

  1. Sep 19, 2008 #1
    Hi everyone,

    I'm applying for graduate school in physics this year (if the PGRE goes okay).

    I've got pretty good GPA, a nice set of classes (a few graduate math and physics classes), but no publications. I've been doing research in relativity the last year (though have been meeting with the professor for about 2 years to learn the basics). I LOVE my project, and could easily do something in gravitational physics forever very happily. But, I also know what the prospects of a career as a theorist are; smart student I am, but no Feynman or Hawking, and there are just not a lot of jobs. So - I figure I've got to branch into some other field to make myself useful and employable (and to get into a graduate program), but don't know what to branch into. Any advice?

    About my interests ... In short, I really like mathematical physics topics - I love differential geometry, linear algebra, and I'm starting to get a good handle on tensors. I would like to do work that would involve these things, if possible (number crunching would kill me). I also like black holes and cosmology, but am not too sure what kind of math these people use in their research. I prefer really abstract concepts over concrete ones, generally. I really enjoy E&M too, it's definitely my favorite classical physics subject.

    I also think I'd like Quantum field theory, but I just started my first QM course this semester so I don't know that much yet (I love the class so far though!).

    I am now thinking a math PhD might have been a better idea to do mathematical physics, but it's too late to start studying for a different subject GRE, so I think I'll stay in physics .

    Thoughts, anyone?? :shy:
  2. jcsd
  3. Sep 23, 2008 #2
    Hi Quasar,

    I'm only in year 10, in Australia, but I think I share a similar interest... I love those types of physics concepts too (no grasp for the mathematics used yet, that's very far off!). :surprised

    As for advice, considering you really enjoy differential geometry, have you considered studying string theory (if it's offered at your university)? Sure, it doesn't have much application, but then again (don't quote me on this!), if it interests you, it will also challenge you and develop your mental faculties (dealing with abstract concepts, rational and lateral thinking, etc). Employers really like these skills, at the end of the day.

    Also, kudos on getting a handle on tensors! Very advanced maths there, so I have a lot of respect for that. I do extended maths in my year (basically pure maths one step below pre-tertiary) and just passing (some of it, I'm cruising through though) and so you clearly have a massive aptitude in mathematics, studying tensors at your level.

    I'm really curious about electromagnetism and I'm sure I'd love quantum mech too (from the amount of reading I've done on the subject). QFT would certainly extend on from here, and so if you enjoy quantum mech as passionately as you obviously do, then I'm sure QFT is going to be your cup of tea too.

    As for the Mathematics PhD, I plan to do a combined degree (Bachelor of Computing and Bachelor of Science) and I want to double major in maths and physics, hopefully to do honours in theoretical physics. I think this type of grounding would be enough, and that a physics PhD would probably be better suited to you (or basically anyone doing physics, even the most mathematical flavours) anyway.

    Take Ed Witten for example, his degree was in applied mathematics, then he did his PhD in physics, and is the only physicist ever to win a Fields medal! Here's proof I think that a PhD in physics (theoretical/mathematical) would be more advantageous to you than a mathematics PhD, as brilliance in maths doesn't always equal brilliance in physics (as really, they are coupled, but different disciplines, and different methods of thinking involved).

    Perhaps we should correspond a little, as I think we have very similar interests and a lot of passion for these subjects. :biggrin:

    As to this article, I've provided some info, but it's open to debate, as I don't claim to be the most experienced (and far, far, far from it!).

    Last edited: Sep 23, 2008
  4. Sep 23, 2008 #3
    Thanks for the compliments, Davin. :cool: It sounds great that you've got such a strong idea of your interests at year 10! Don't worry, I think Tensors are really actually very approachable by the time you've almost finished your BS degree - they're not so bad as they sound. I appreciate your feedback - I'm looking a lot into QFT right now!

    And PS - Sydney Australia is one of my favorite places in the world! I loved Australia when I was there!
  5. Sep 23, 2008 #4
    String theory is a lot of algebraic geometry.

    Why not just go for what you like? There are some really nice GR departments (Penn State I know is a good one). You seem to like GR and DG (no coincidence of course, they are one and the same to a mathematical physicist) so pursue that.

    Many physicists are very mathematical. Wald's GR text has real proofs in it. Don't be too discouraged, look around for physicists who "toe the line" between physics and geometry, there are a lot of them. However, a lot of them seem to do algebraic geometry as this is the mathematics used heavily in string theory.
  6. Sep 23, 2008 #5
    It's nice to hear someone say that! It seems like everyone I talk to is saying "don't do GR, there's no jobs". Maybe I'll just head in that general (hehe, no pun intended) direction and figure it out.
  7. Sep 23, 2008 #6
    Hi Quasar,

    This sounds great. I agree that I think you should pursue what you enjoy, and then find a job afterwards (whether it's in that field or not, I still think employers value the skill set you provide to them).

    As for tensors, that does surprise me, but it is certainly nice to know. As I'm likely to do a combined degree, it'll mean 4 years of university study, before I can go on to honours level study for example, and it will likely be the fourth year before I study topics like diff. geometry and the like (the majority of my pure maths courses will be in the final year, so that I can build up in my mathematical ability, through my applied maths study, as I often hear that the pure maths and analysis mathematics throw you in the deep end).

    I've been to Sydney twice (once about 5 or 6 years ago, and the other time was when I was very little...) and it certainly is a nice place. I live in Tasmania though (down south), so if you get a chance to visit, head to the eastern coast for the nicest scenery!

  8. Sep 24, 2008 #7


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    I recommend doing what most academic scientists do...pursue the field you love most, but always set aside a little time to work on a second line of work that is "safer" that you can do to pay the bills if your first choice isn't going to get you a job or funding. These two areas of research are usually related, so you have a cohesive focus to your research objectives (you don't want to be scattering your ideas all over the place...that won't get you a job either), but it could be that one is more theoretical and the other a more experimental application of that theoretical work, for example. If you love the theory, but it's experimental work that gets you a job, work on the theory as a small side project...progress would be far slower than if it was your primary work, but it'll always be there for you, and if a job opportunity arises where you can use it, you'll still have a foot in the door to show you have the experience in that field to get that job.
  9. Sep 24, 2008 #8
    Hi Moonbear,

    I agree with your first line entirely - "pursue the field you love most, but always set aside a little time to work on a second line of work that is "safer" that you can do to pay the bills if your first choice isn't going to get you a job or funding."

    I think that really is a good idea. Perhaps this has cleared up Quasar's question, and certainly my own - no doubt I'd want to do something similar. :biggrin:

  10. Sep 25, 2008 #9
    To me it is just not an option to pursue something safer but that I really don't like that much. As a math student, I would never ever pursue something like numerical analysis in graduate school, even though I can probably get a good job out of school with it.

    What exactly are the numbers in terms of a breakdown of physics students? How many do experiment, how many do condensed matter and how many do GR/QM/QFT/String, you know what i mean. I always hear that the majority of physicists do not work on GR, QFT, strings, quantum gravity.
  11. Sep 27, 2008 #10
    Hi Jason,

    Are you saying that few study QFT, GR, ST and Quantum Gravity, or that few work with these topics in their work (surely, almost exclusively academia)? I know I would absolutely jump at the chance to do a PhD in Theoretical Physics, dealing with string theory even (of course, the most pure topic of physics at the moment, like number theory to mathematics).

    Condensed Matter and Experimental Physics is certainly more prevalent outside of academia, but these areas don't seem as exciting as those areas in theoretical/mathematical physics. My own plan at this stage would be to do theoretical physics with *possibly* some experimental physics on the side. I would also have a Computer Science degree (as my first degree will be combined, with a double major in Mathematics and Physics - not sure whether this means pure or applied maths) and so, there is a fallback for jobs, with mathematics and computer science. My biggest passion remains in theoretical physics however.

    Also, some of you may like to have a look on this forum at a post I made called "Diff. Geometry Question" (under Topology and Geometry) as I have asked for comment on the field, from both mathematical and physical points of view. I was also asking for comparison with algebraic geometry. I mention a few of the fields mentioned here, so it's well worth a look. :smile:

  12. Sep 27, 2008 #11


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    Firstly, I would say that there is a lot more to theoretical physics than string theory. I'm not quite sure in which sense you think that string theory is 'pure,' but it's certainly a long way from being agreed upon as correct. I would urge you to keep your mind open, especially at your age. Who knows what will happen in 7 (or so) years' time, when you come to enter grad school. Another theory may be more popular, and more widely worked on by then.

    I also don't think you should be entirely set upon studying theoretical physics until you have actually studied it. Try and get as solid a background in physics that you can, both experimental and theoretical, before you try and specialise, since you never really know what you will like until you do it.

    Finally, you should read ZapperZ's 'So you want to be a physicist' which is stickied to the top of this forum: it will probably answer a lot of questions.
  13. Sep 27, 2008 #12
    Hi Christo,

    Thanks for the advice. I agree with you, things may change in that amount of time. When I said pure, I was referring to the level of abstractedness and elegance of the theory (in this case, it was string theory) and also, the fact that it may not be describing our own universe (although from what I know, I hope that the string theorists are on the right track!).

    There certainly is a lot more to theoretical physics than string theory, as it is a huge, HUGE field! Lots of areas to study and like/dislike.

    All I know now, is that I have deep, deep curiosity about many of the topics in theoretical physics, and this is where my main interest lies at the moment. If everything falls in place as I go, and I remain interested and passionate, it's no doubt what I'll study. While I'm an undergrad, it'll be a combination of theoretical and experimental topics that I'll cover, so I won't be specialising this early - now that would be a bad idea! Specialisation is from Honours and upwards.

    As for ZapperZ's article, I read this some time ago, so I should re-read it. It certainly is a good article, so kudos and thanks to ZapperZ.

  14. Sep 28, 2008 #13
  15. Sep 28, 2008 #14
    Hi Jason,

    I don't know if I would want to be working in academia at the end of the day, but that is still pretty scary! What about all of physics? How competitive are placements here in academia? I'd be interested to know.

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