Career advise: theoretical physics PhD?

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When I was studying the bachelor in physics, I was happy and got good marks (not the best, but good). I always liked the more theoretical and mathematical subjects. Then I did a masters in Theoretical Physics in Spain. At the beginning I was happy: all subjects were hard but interesting. I spent my free time studying all the new mathematical concepts. But this happiness didn’t last long. Soon I couldn’t study on my own anymore, since I had to do assignments, and these took all my time outside class. Then exams, then more assignments… Until I finished the master, tired of not having time to fulfil my curiosity and feeling I hadn’t learnt all I could have learnt. My final marks were not bad, but I felt I had only passed, I didn’t remember enjoying any moment of study because I couldn’t go till the end of anything. Everything had to be done so fast.

This was a hard experience. So much so that I decided not to do a PhD in theoretical physics, which was the plan before starting the master. I am afraid theoretical physics is actually hard and it requires not only hard work but also good aptitudes (maybe I’m not intelligent enough). So I’ve thought perhaps I should try something simpler like quantum computing. I don’t find it as interesting, but perhaps it is a balanced option.

What do you think? Maybe my experience is biased by the particular master I have studied, and I should pursue my original plan somewhere else? Or is theoretical physics really a hard world, where you really need to be intelligent and give all your time, otherwise you don’t enjoy at all?
 

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  • #2
Choppy
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I would start with the assumption that any PhD in physics is going to be challenging and will have long hours of work on stuff that's not immediately interesting to you. So the strategy of going for something you think might be less challenging could quite easily backfire and you'd end up studying something that is equally as challenging that you didn't really want to study in the first place.

If it was the pace of the work that was really the challenge to you, maybe you could consider strategies to slow that down, or ways to make time in your week for your own reading and projects. Talk to some current graduate students and professors too. I'm not familiar with the Spanish educational system, but I'm assuming that the master's degree was largely course-based. A PhD tends to be a different animal where the focus shifts from courses to research projects.

And all of that said, I think a lot of people do end up quite successfully pursuing a field that's different from their first love, and for a number of reasons. Often there's a balance between what you think you'd really like to be doing and what you think you'll end up getting paid to do.
 
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Orodruin
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Then I did a masters in Theoretical Physics in Spain.
Maybe my experience is biased by the particular master I have studied, and I should pursue my original plan somewhere else?

Was your Spanish master a one or two year master?

Or is theoretical physics really a hard world, where you really need to be intelligent and give all your time, otherwise you don’t enjoy at all?

It would not be too much to say that it is a harsh world. The entire academic structure with finding PhD positions, postdocs, and tenure track positions can be very unforgiving. That does not mean you cannot have other interests or enjoy the journey.
 

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