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Physics Can you get two PhDs in two branches of physics at one time

  1. Nov 10, 2016 #1
    Im a senior in high school and im interested in pursuing a PHd in physics. Im looking at nuclear physics but im also considering a,I believe it is called a duel degree, in ether astrophysics, plasma physics, or theoretical physics. IM leaning towards theoretical physics myself. Can this be done what im curious about.
  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 10, 2016 #2

    Simon Bridge

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    You can double-major for example, but grad schools usually will only enroll you for one PhD at a time.
    Seriously, though, you are thinking way too far ahead. Concentrate on doing as well as you can for your Bachelor-honors, and be prepared to be flexible as you learn more.
  4. Nov 11, 2016 #3


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    I agree with Simon.

    People very rarely do two PhDs - most of the time it's not practical.

    Once you get into university you'll specialize in a given field. Some people can choose to major in two fields - a double major, but this isn't "astrophysics" and "plasma physics" - at the undergraduate level its "physics" and another subject completely. Some common ones that are combined with physics include mathematics, computer science, or various branches of engineering. One you finish that you go to graduate school (where you do your PhD) and that's really where you specialize. Some undergraduate programs will specialize somewhat, or at least stream. In general, it's better not to get too specialized too soon as a undergraduate though. Early specialization tends to close more doors than it opens in my experience.

    Doing a single PhD takes a lot of time and energy. At the end it's rare that people want to do another one, even if they could (I suspect many universities simply wouldn't let you). And there often isn't much point. If you want to go into another branch of physics after completing a PhD there are easier ways to do it - getting a post-doctoral fellowship in the area, for example.

    At your stage of the game the point is to study hard and build a solid foundation so that any of those options are available to you when the time comes to make a decision. Also learn as much as you can about the areas you're interested in on your own. This makes those big decisions a little easier when you have to make them.
  5. Nov 11, 2016 #4


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    After I finished my PhD, my advisor switched from experimental particle physics to biophysics. He started by spending part of his time working with one of the biophysicists in the department, and learning about the field, then increasing it to full-time as the particle-physics experiments he was working with finished up.
  6. Nov 11, 2016 #5
    If you have a PhD in one field of Physics, transitioning to other fields is more a matter of thoroughly learning the new field and publishing a few papers. Once you have published a few peer-reviewed papers in recognized journals in a field, not many people are gonna say, "But his PhD is in nuclear physics and not astrophysics."

    It's not that you couldn't earn two PhDs (but sequentially, not at the same time), but in practice it tends to be superfluous.
  7. Nov 11, 2016 #6
    Is it likely to get a postdoc in a specialty different from your dissertation? Isn't a postdoc expected to be self-sufficient to crank out more papers and to mentor grad students, rather than start over in a new specialty and require hand holding from the prof?
  8. Nov 11, 2016 #7


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    If I were you, I'd worry MORE about getting through the undergraduate program FIRST. There are waaay too many obstacles and pitfalls between "senior in high school" and "PhD in Physics" that thinking about that now is a bit absurd.

  9. Nov 11, 2016 #8
    But this is a lot easier to do as an established prof (especially a tenured one) than as a fresh PhD. My undergrad physics advisor was well-established in various transport phenomena in single crystal materials. He then got interested in aspects of transport phenomena in biological materials. He brought in an MD as a part-time researcher. In grad school, a well-established semiconductor physicist got tired of semiconductor physics after 20+ yrs and switched his research over to population dynamics. Fortunately, a large expenditure of capital funds to build a lab was not required, and the university was one of the original supercomputer sites, so he only needed sufficient funds to cover computer time and a couple of grad students.
  10. Nov 11, 2016 #9


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    The likelihood depends on a lot of factors: how close the two sub-fields are to each other, the relevant skills a candidate brings to the table as a researcher, competition for the particular post-doctoral position or the funding that supports it, whether the position is growing out of an existing relationship, etc.

    And I don't mean to imply that it's generally "easy" to just jump into another field. It's a lot of work. But it happens, and it happens a lot more frequently than people returning for a second PhD.
  11. Nov 14, 2016 #10
    One Ph.D. is an act of madness. Two means you are certifiable.

    Stick with one.
  12. Nov 16, 2016 #11
    Sound advice. Please pay attention.
  13. Nov 19, 2016 #12


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    You can work in an interdisciplinary area which is related to many fields and sometimes even be coadvised. However, the purpose of a PhD is to focus and become an expert in your research area so you cannot expect to do something like nuclear physics and theoretical cosmology.
  14. Nov 19, 2016 #13


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    One case I know of is a second PhD in a genuinely different field to support a career change. For example, a math PhD going back some years later and getting an economics PhD has happened. Within physics, however, it seems to make no sense per others comments.
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