1. Limited time only! Sign up for a free 30min personal tutor trial with Chegg Tutors
    Dismiss Notice
Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

Doubts of an aspiring Theoretical Physicist

  1. Oct 29, 2014 #1
    I hope I do not extend myself here. I am a Brazilian High School student, graduating this year, that plans to pursue a Physics undergraduate in the United States. Since I started High School I decided on my degree; I love physics and my ultimate dream is to research the depths of the field, discovering new and useful things and leaving a legacy in general. I dream in becoming a scientist. And even if this dream has not faded, and my love for Physics continue strong, I have found some opinions scattered around the internet that led me to a big doubt: Is my dream (getting an undergrad physics degree, a PhD and going into academia) possible, and, let's say, liveable?

    I don't want you to get me mistaken. I do love to study, I love Physics and Math, and, even having some difficulty in parts of the subjects (I'm no genius), I am willing to do everything I can to achieve all of this. But the opinions I've read around scientists' blogs, posts in this forum and around the internet in general seem disturbing. It seems almost no one who has my goal achieve it, becoming anywhere from a stable hand to a computer programmer on the way.

    What I want to know, and I'll put it in bold for the people who didn't read all of this bible, is: is a PhD in Physics (Theoretical, probably), and a career in academia, off limits for most? Am I falling into a trap, probably ending up with no life outside of work and no perspectives out of it? If not, how can I be sure to at least have a chance at this? And, for the ones who answer "yes", what are other options for someone who loves science and wants to make something good for the world, that would not lead to this trap?

    I hope I was clear, and that someone will help me. I'm willing to do anything, again, I just don't want to end up with a temporary research job on my 40s, or trying to get money for a research no one wants in my 50s. I love theoretical physics a lot, but I've been in doubt if it really is possible for me to take that as a career.

    This is my first post here. Please, be nice if I did any **** along the way. Thanks for anyone who answers

    P.S. - I know it's probably to early in my life to decide stuff like this. I'm just really deluded with everything I read today, and need to hear other opinions
  2. jcsd
  3. Oct 30, 2014 #2


    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Education Advisor

    There are two separate issues in your question here.

    1. What are the chances of you actually going into the exact same field that you have envisioned yourself at this age?

    If you look at the unscientific survey that I did in this forum, you'll see that the odds of you ending up in the very area that you have in mind right now is extremely small


    2. Do you even know what "theoretical physics" really is? An "applied" field such as accelerator physics, material science, etc. also have theoretical physicists working in them. They have a much rosier outlook on employment than someone in String theory.


  4. Oct 30, 2014 #3
    I am aware that my field of preference now may (and probably will) not be what I'll end up. I just love physics and science, but the prospect of moving every two years, having to spend my whole life to get grants and have no spare time for relaxing and hobbies seem so... I don't know, it just seems dreadful to me. I have no real idea of how the science market works, obviously, and all these doubts came with reading opinions on the internet.
    I can't imagine myself in another career that's not science, but neither in this trap life that an academia career seem to be to most I've read. I just want to know if this is really a trap, and what are my other options. Working in industry or programming seem so boring to me. Thanks for replying, btw
  5. Oct 30, 2014 #4
    We have too many people who want to be physicists, way more than the demand for them, so a lot of people are going to have to be left out, plus the all the competition has turned it into a screwy career. That's what happens when supply far exceeds demand in the job market. Same thing happened to game programming in the US because too many people want to do it compared to the demand, so it tends to be more work and less pay than other programming jobs.

    Why not just do it as a hobby? If you want to relax, academia is probably not for you, although I hear rumors that some professors at very teaching-oriented places have a little more free time. That may depend on how easy teaching is for you. I think I'd have an easier time working 60-80 hours a week somewhere else than as someone who is primarily teacher because teaching is that difficult for me. Last time I taught, it was summer course (calculus), which is a little more intense than usual (plus, it was my first time teaching it, which is much more work), but basically, I didn't do anything besides teaching-related stuff for 6 weeks, and I'm not even exaggerating.

    There are various exit plans you could take, like planning to change majors to engineering or getting a masters in engineering if physics doesn't work out, or just picking things to study in physics that are in higher demand.
  6. Oct 30, 2014 #5
    Is it kind of "set on stone" that, if I get a PhD in, say, Astrophysics, Particle Physics, Quantum Field Theory or something related - and I'm not pretending to think it will be easy - I'll have to move every two years, doing 2-3 post docs, than HOPEFULLY getting a tenure (If I'm not a genius, and I'm not)? I am willing to do hard work, don't get me mistaken. It's just that this seems like work would be your life, not having time for anything else - from family to entertainment of any sorts. And as much as I love physics, I don't know if this is the path for me. It's not something I don't want, I just don't know if it's something I can handle.

    I know I'm thinking really ahead of time. Just want to see my options clearly. And yes, engineering would be my back up plan. Still, science (and even if it wasn't Physics, if I could do research that would in any way help mankind I would be happy) is my passion
  7. Oct 30, 2014 #6
    Hope I'm not being too ignorant. This is my first reality shock and I'm discovering something new about the fields everyday
  8. Oct 30, 2014 #7
    There's something far worse to contend with than the sheer competition: The fact that all of the fields you mention are basically dead.

    Even if you were the "lucky one" who got the job in theoretical HEP or black holes or whatever, there are no good experiments* going on, and thus nothing for a theoretical physicist to do.

    Do yourself a favor and work on something more cutting edge.

    *Even something like the LHC isn't a good experiment; not because the people working there are stupid or lazy, but because it's not doing anything interesting. The Higgs Boson was interesting to theorists decades ago.
  9. Oct 30, 2014 #8
    Hm... So maybe I should just research more areas of study and wait until I get to college to explore options further. I'm just in doubt if the research career is the way I said and feared (i.e having to move all the time, no time for anything else etc.). But I'm willing to do sacrifices for it, if it comes to the spot.

    P.S. - Is Astrophysics and Quantum Physics dead? I was unaware. Why you say that? I always see astronomy/astrophysics news, and quantum stuff appear quite often too. Or maybe I'm looking at the wrong places
  10. Oct 30, 2014 #9
    I forgot that you mentioned astrophysics, there's still stuff going on there.

    Research advancing quantum theory is pretty stagnant, but research using it is quite active from chemistry, to engineering, to condensed matter physics etc.
  11. Oct 30, 2014 #10
    Oh yes, I imagined that. I got quite hooked on particle physics first, then quantum and astro. Well, I will wait for college to decide exactly which field I might focus on. My concern is if this PhD oversupply may make me end up in a dead-end much of Post docs, starting to really work in my 40s if I'm lucky... I love Physics, it's just that everything I hear about the research seems so negative and discouraging, and THAT'S the part that interests me most
  12. Oct 30, 2014 #11
    There are certainly more PhD's that want careers in academia than there are positions in academia (there may be a bit of ambiguity in how this is defined). So, not everyone that wants a job like that will get one.

    My suggestion is unless you feel very compelled to do physics don't do it. If your overall goal is working in science and you think you'd be happy doing engineering type work, I think you should strongly consider majoring in some field of engineering. You still have time to decide, so there's no rush.
  13. Oct 30, 2014 #12


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor

    One of the most interesting advances in quantum field theory is the conjecture that a quantum field theory without gravity can also be a theory of gravity. If this is true, then there is a non-perturbative UV complete theory of quantum gravity. Our universe is probably not contained within this theory, but if we understand how gravity emerges, we may be able to generalize it to more realistic cosmologies. Open question remain. !s the conjecture true? If it is, what are the essential ingredients that make it work?

    That is just one example. A career in physics is certainly difficult and dependent on a lot of luck, but it is far from true that research in quantum field theory is dead.

    The Large N Limit of Superconformal Field Theories and Supergravity
    Juan M. Maldacena

    Another interesting example of a recent discovery which was surprising from the point of view of theory is the perfect liquid found at the RHIC. The theory underlying it is believed to be known, yet the theory was not and is not well enough understood to explain why a perfect liquid emerges in some regime of the theory.

    New Forms of QCD Matter Discovered at RHIC
    Miklos Gyulassy, Larry McLerran
    Last edited: Oct 30, 2014
  14. Oct 30, 2014 #13
    That is very misleading atyy, the work you are referring to is so far removed from experiment that it does not even qualify as science.
  15. Oct 30, 2014 #14
    I feel very compelled to do Physics. Without doubt it's my major dream in life. It just seems like a career of more luck than skill/hard work in the US, and that concerns me a lot. I'm thinking of getting a degree in the US and coming back to Brazil to work here, as it is an expanding field (different from what seems to be in America)
    Anyhow, I think in Engineering I'm mostly interested in Aerospace and MechE. But I had a doubt: How is a research career in these fields? I can't imagine myself working as an engineer, but I may consider it if it is to research, to develop new technology. Not my first option, but definitely one
  16. Oct 30, 2014 #15
    This is nonsense.
  17. Oct 30, 2014 #16
    Care to elaborate upon your profound remarks, Clope?
  18. Oct 30, 2014 #17
    This is equally pretentious in my opinion.
  19. Oct 30, 2014 #18
    atyy edited his post to include QGP, which is less esoteric, but apart from that the statement is not pretentious, it is factual.

    If you are no longer saying anything of use to the experimenters, you are really not doing science anymore, and telling the OP anything else is giving him false hope that the field isn't tending towards stagnation or effective extinction.
  20. Oct 30, 2014 #19


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Education Advisor

    Whenever high school age kids talk about doing theoretical physics, they always forget about condensed matter. Not all of theoretical physics is in HEP, there is also tremendous research being done in CMT. A lot of it is also just as exotic as HET but may have some relation to actual experiments being done. Quantum information is a great example, people in condensed matter theory have proposed lots of different types of qubits. It is possible that we could somehow use majorana bound states (quasiparticles behaving like majorana fermions) occurring on superconducting interfaces as elements of a quantum computer and many theorists have proposed experimental setups for this. There have been several experiments lately that have claimed to observe these states. By contrast, we still do not know of any majorana fermions in particle physics (possibly the neutrino but not confirmed).

    The AdS-CFT correspondence proposed by Juan Maldacena (in the context of string theory) is actually being used in CMT to look at strongly correlated systems. You can essentially look at systems near a critical points by solving problems in general relativity and connecting these solutions to the original system at the boundary of AdS.
  21. Oct 31, 2014 #20
    More nonsense. Theories can be written down and experimenters can test the validity of the model or experimenters can discover some phenomenon and theorists can write a general model about it. There isn't just one way to do science and to pretend that there is nothing but painting a farcical account of what the field is like.
Know someone interested in this topic? Share this thread via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook

Similar Discussions: Doubts of an aspiring Theoretical Physicist
  1. Aspiring Physicist (Replies: 6)

  2. Aspiring physicist (Replies: 8)