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Programs Dream of taking a PhD in physics

  1. Aug 22, 2010 #1
    Hello! Have been browsing these boards for some time now and a question just arose for me. Next year I will be off to Heriot-Watt for undergrad studies (applied with deferred entry), studying http://www.phy.hw.ac.uk/studying/Physics_EE.htm" [Broken], since physics and computers (especially physics) has always been a very keep interest of mine. It is kind of a dream to take a PhD someday, in some area of physics (with QM or particle physics as my favourites), and do you think that taking this would enable me to take a PhD in such subject on a, well, more respected university? and where would that be?

    I am taking the engineering part of the course because, well, it is interesting and it opens quite a lot more job openings, which are fun as well, but would sooo much more like to work with physics (theoretical or applied I do not know so far)

    Secondly, I wont have, to my understanding, much particle physics in that course but quite a lot of QM, but was thinking of trying to get such modules, since Scotland unis are quite flexible (to my knowledge), would that be a good idea?

    And yeah, is Heriot-Watt a good university to read said course? (undergrad)

    Thanks for taking time to answer and it would be much appreciated to get one :smile:

    If I misunderstood some stuff, please correct me ;)
    Last edited by a moderator: May 4, 2017
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 23, 2010 #2
    One more thing, (I know its a lot of questions already but would very much like some kind of answer either way); I am starting to get into programming and is thinking of learning Java or C++, which one do you recommend? or both?
  4. Aug 23, 2010 #3
  5. Aug 23, 2010 #4
    Thanks ;) any luck answering the other questions?
  6. Aug 25, 2010 #5
    Sounds like great preparation for *experimental* particle physics - CERN involves an awful lot of electrical engineering! Try and get to talk to *experimental* particle physics research people and see how much QM theory you need to cover - it will, no doubt, be a lot less than the theory guys have to cover. You can't learn all that mathematics and spend all the hours of the day building particle accelerators as well! It's one or the other. It you find you want to do theoretical physics, and not build particle accelerators, then better change to Physics with Theoretical Physics quick... and you better be straight A in all your undergrad maths courses...
  7. Aug 25, 2010 #6
    Thank you mal4mac for your answer! Much appreciated!

    And yeah, that sounds great! Designing experiments and building them seems very cool indeed ;) Also, talked to a professor there and it seems that I could switch to a more theoretical course if I wanted to, which I very well might, we'll see (and maths is not a problem, always loved it and been good at it)

    And for that sake, there is irony for you, I currently live in Lund, Sweden and we are going to be the host of ESS, The European Spallation Source... and then I move away to study and might move back here
  8. Aug 26, 2010 #7
    Start with C++ focussing on a single language at a time will make it much easier to get used to the syntax.
  9. Aug 26, 2010 #8
    Heriot-Watt is fine. If you put in hard work then it doesn't even matter a whole lot where you get your undergraduate degree from (the thing is that better universities will spur you on to make it 'easier' to do well).
  10. Aug 26, 2010 #9
    There is no need to take the electrical engineering part if you aren't actually interested in it. In the UK, all of the graduate programmes you might apply to for jobs afterwards will accept a physics graduate as much as they will an engineering one. Much of this type of training is done in-house, so if you don't know engineering you might have a little more work to do, but it isn't impossible.

    I'm not really sure what you mean. You won't have a lot of particle physics in any undergraduate programme - maybe 1 or 2 dedicated courses. I wouldn't expect much more for proper QM either, maybe 3 courses worth with one of those essentially being at graduate level (introducing relativistic quantum mechanics).

    Do you mean that flexibility might allow you to chop and change from a standard curriculum? If so, this is a core part of most undergraduate degrees. Normally, years one and two are set. You'll take some number of math, physics and whatever courses (you are usually free to take extra course credits if you want, I did, it just means you end up with an extra exam(s)). Then, for third and fourth (and fifth?) (i.e. your honours years) you will have quite a bit of flexibility in which subjects you take. Again, there will still be a core curriculum but it's likely that half of the subjects will be of your choosing from a set pool of offerings. I remember I chose an extra EM course instead of labs, for instance.
  11. Aug 26, 2010 #10
    Generally about the 'dream of a PhD' - if you work hard at undergraduate, understand all of your courses and get stand-out grades, there's no reason you can't *hope* for a PhD position at any university. The thing is, at the top PhD programmes, everyone will have the top grades. It then comes down to extra things like your letters of reference and evidence of extra-academic achievement. Things like scholarships for summer projects, and research projects generally are a very useful thing - not only because you can brag about it but because you'll have that extra experience. You will have learned something, and it will be valuable.

    We're a little different than the US system in that UK students generally don't do research at just any time. Over the summer break is pretty much exclusively the time where it happens for our undergraduates - normally the university itself will have some number of funded positions they can offer up. Otherwise, there are national scholarships (things like the Cormack Vacation scholarship for students interested in astronomy). Finally, there are summer schools themselves. You might travel somewhere else in the world, if you're interested in nuclear or particle physics then CERN have a summer school (though it's extremely competitive) as to DESY. Though, these are the kind of things you won't have to worry about until you reach third year (some scholarships might accept application from an end 2nd year student but it's less common).
  12. Aug 26, 2010 #11
    Thank you very very much for such a thorough answer!! :) but as usual when you answer one question, new ones arises.

    About the flexibility, according to the professor I have spoken to I can actually change my degree once I get there, meaning that I can change to physics or mathematical physics if I want to. And there is the thing, I am very much interested in electronic engineering as well, even though physics is my main interest (very much so). Hence, I don't know what to do, am interested in both the experimental and the theoretical part. You reckon I could go for this course but skew it in a theoretical direction, or switch to physics or mathematical physics? and in that case, which one? I suppose what I mainly want to do is designing experiments and working with results from them, but would also love to construct said experiment... very confused right now...

    and as for programming, I suppose I'll look into C++ then ;)
  13. Aug 26, 2010 #12
    hmm, wouldn't the best approach be to take a broad course in the beginning and then talk to professors working with experimental and professors working with theoretical? or?
  14. Aug 27, 2010 #13
    Those are both duties of the experimental physicist. Don't think of an experimental physicist in high school terms. Essentially, one who works with the real world and it's data is an experimenter. So, if you design an experiment, you're an experimenter. If someone has an experiment, and you analyse it's data - you're an experimenter. If you want to test a theoretical model, you're an experimenter. Having said that, the terms don't actually concern anyone too much - so don't worry about it. Especially not at undergraduate, it makes no difference.
  15. Aug 27, 2010 #14
    I suppose it would, yes. There is no need at any level to distinguish oneself between experiment and theory. Any undergraduate degree that tells you you're getting a degree in 'theoretical' or 'experimental' physics is lying. The core courses an undergraduate will complete are the same regardless. The only difference in these courses tends to be the number of lab based courses and number of math based. This is misleading - most experimentalists that I know don't work in a lab - they sit at a computer programming to analyse data.
  16. Aug 27, 2010 #15
    Also, you should check this out further. Whilst it's true that you can change between physics and mathematical physics (because the courses for first and second year students on each programme will be the same) - the same cannot be said for electrical engineering. Make sure you're taking the required courses to progress on each tree you're considering, if that's possible.

    The university where I took my undergraduate allowed (well, required) three first and second year 'courses' - I took physics, mathematics and astronomy. Now, this meant I had the option of choosing a progressing to either a physics, mathematics or astronomy degree (obviously I had to choose one, or a combination of). My combination was half physics and half astronomy - though I could equally have taken electrical engineering in my first and second years in place of astronomy, and pursued a physics + EE combined degree.
  17. Aug 28, 2010 #16
    Thanks once again! All you say seems very sensible, should probably add some more mathematics as well, since that is one of my major interests as well.

    Hmm, as for a PhD, would it be better to have a combined Phys +EE degree, plain phys or mathematical phys degree? (and for future employability) I am very interested in all three, but with physics much more interesting than the rest, which is also the subject I want to take a PhD in.

    and, what do you do as a theoretical physicist then?

    and thanks again, you are helping me a lot
  18. Aug 28, 2010 #17
    Right, so you'll have some core component worth of maths courses that you need to take along with physics anyway. You might have the choice of picking some extra maths, and if you do, something like another course in linear algebra would be good - it comes up everywhere.

    Of course, it depends what you want to do the PhD in. And, with a pure physics degree you should be able to pursue a PhD in an electrical engineering discipline if you so choose - the reverse cannot be said of EE to physics. You would have a bit of work to do to catch up with the engineering way of thinking but it's certainly doable.

    On the other hand, taking a joint degree in physics + electrical engineering shouldn't hurt your chances of finding a PhD in physics afterwards if that's what you wanted. Then you would also have a knee-up on EE related PhD work as well.

    No problem.
  19. Aug 28, 2010 #18
    Something that may not immediately obvious to you right now is that taking a lot of EE courses will greatly improve your understanding of quantum mechanics and vice versa. A lot of the mathematics of quantum mechanics is identical to the mathematics you will be learning as part of your EE degree (Fourier transforms and linear algebra), and deep knowledge of quantum mechanics will help you understand how semiconductors work. Also the concept of entropy in EE signals processing is exactly the same concept as entropy in thermodynamics.

    Take a look at your EE textbooks on signal processing. Then open up an intro quantum textbook. Same math. :-) :-)
    Last edited by a moderator: Apr 25, 2017
  20. Aug 28, 2010 #19
    QM is a bunch of operators acting on a Hilbert space of states, I think (I don't actually know), with some axioms, and signal processing is a bunch of operators (systems) which influence signals, which tend to be broken up into components in a linear algebraic sense.
  21. Aug 29, 2010 #20
    Then why post..? :smile:
  22. Aug 30, 2010 #21
    Thanks everyone for all the replies! You have helped me a great deal!

    So, if I got this correctly, doing EE will actually improve my understanding of QM, which might in turn might help me get a PhD? Does this apply to theoretical as well as experimental physics? Or is it better to take mathematical physics for a theoretical PhD? I just don't want to close the doors just yet, since I do not know if I will go experimental or theoretical. And of that note, I am mostly interested in QM and high energy physics ;) and a little astrophysics but that door I won't close just because I don't take and undergrad course in astrophysics, right?

    Also, I am now during my 'gap' year taking the first year worth of Maths, since I couldn't stand not doing anything intellectually challenging for a year (and it is interesting). How much more is involved in a mathematical physics degree?

    Thanks again for all the replies!
  23. Aug 30, 2010 #22
    Because I have heard that perspective tossed around a lot and know there's something to it. However, I am not a physics major, nor do I have much experience with quantum is what I meant by "I don't know". I do know something about mathematical physics, but that can be "fake" ...
  24. Aug 30, 2010 #23
    Yes. My undergraduate EE courses helped me a *LOT* in quantum mechanics and vice-versa. Even having two different teachers try to explain a concept some like fourier transforms in two different ways helps a lot.

    Yes. The basic mathematical techniques of EE (fourier analysis, complex analysis, linear algebra, delta functions) are pretty much the same as the basic mathematical techniques of QM. Also it helps a lot for a theorists point of view since you start thinking deeply about *why* the maths are similar.

    You won't really have to make a decision until first year grad school. To be a good theorist you need to know quite a bit about the experimental background, and to be a good experimentalist, you need to know quite a bit of theory, and at the undergraduate level, you'll be better off trying to be well rounded rather than specializing.

    One good part of physics is that the whole point of the game is to find unexpected connections between two things that aren't obviously connected, so its really hard to take any math and physics class that *doesn't* help you with something else. Also taking a lot of different classes helps you see some of the interconnections between different topics.
  25. Aug 30, 2010 #24
    I can put in the some details....

    Imagine an electron. It's represented by a wave, and the frequency of that wave is related to its momentum. So you spend a lot of your time in QM doing math that converts from ordinary space to frequency space and vice-versa (fourier transform). That's exactly what you are doing when you are building a radio.
  26. Oct 17, 2010 #25
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