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Education Choice

  1. Jun 20, 2010 #1
    I'm currently a Junior in High School and have been thinking about possible career choices. It's definitely tough to find something that offers both money and satisfaction for the job itself. I've always been interested in physics and math, so I thought that theoretical physics would provide that satisfaction. However, from what I've read, the money is a little bit lacking.

    So, I guess what I would really like, is to know if it's worth it. Obviously no one can answer this question except myself, but if I have a little more information I can make a better decision. Anyway, what I would like to know is:

    What do theoretical physicists do specifically on a daily basis? Is it a routine of teaching and research? Is it tedious, does it ever get "boring" or "dull"?

    What is the average pay? I used to want ridiculous amounts of money and the financial sector looked very nice for a while. Anymore, I think that about 120k would be great! It's a far step from the millions I could be making in finance, but is it asking too high for this profession? What is the salary I should expect?

    Thanks for any answers. A better picture of being a theoretical physicist would be most appreciated.
  2. jcsd
  3. Jun 20, 2010 #2
    The average pay in finance isn't millions, almost none earns that much no matter what you study! The best reliable income from any undergrad degree comes from engineering and it can give you ~80-100k after a few years. Physics professors can earn 120k but most likely you wouldn't become a professor and it requires a lot of extra years studying.

    But yeah, if you expect millions from finance then expecting 120k from physics isn't any less realistic...
  4. Jun 20, 2010 #3
    I meant that you'd make millions after a longer period of time, I can see why that was misleading. Some jobs, however, make at least a million or two. If you don't believe me I came across this site that gave jobs and compensation. How credible the site is is beyond me, but if you believe everything you see on the internet, here's the counter-example: http://www.hrg.net/

    Anyway, I really don't want this thread to turn into something about how much jobs in finance make. If there's any other people who disagree with me about it, I'll give up and declare you correct in advance - I don't care.

    But thanks for your answer, I appreciate it.
  5. Jun 20, 2010 #4
    If you're trying to get a lot of money from physics/math, well... you won't get very far. You should only pursue these career options if you want to learn, etc. You can always get high salary jobs from other majors which may be easier as well.
    And "settling" for 120k is really not settling at all. I hope that was a joke. That's a pretty high salary in most people's standards (unless you include a lot of insurance such as malpractice, etc.). If you purse a job in finance, don't expect to get "a million or two". That largely depends on luck and skill, which is very rare. I'm sure that after you attend college for a while, you'll understand salaries a bit more.
  6. Jun 20, 2010 #5
    If one can judge what theoretical physicists do from what the grad students going to theoretical physicists due, it involved quite a bit of WoW.
  7. Jun 21, 2010 #6
    I just want to note that those jobs are extremely competitive, most in finance don't earn nearly that much. And looking at those job listings you see that very few of them earns even one million... Finance attracts many of the brightest and most ambitious minds out there and unless you are one of those you will never make millions. You will still make more than the average physicist but not millions.

    Here is a description what the Hagan-Ricci group does:
    Last edited by a moderator: Apr 25, 2017
  8. Jun 21, 2010 #7
    Alright, how much do theoretical physicists make, on average? A simple number will suffice.

    People from finance make a lot, how much specifically doesn't concern me right now. I never said anything about "settling" for 120k, so no, it isn't some sort of joke. I think I said "I think that about 120k would be great!". That's not quite the tone of someone who just "settled" is it? I would just like to know if that number is unrealistic. And once again, I have no interest in the financial field right now. If anyone disagrees about the "millions" comment, sorry, I was thinking about over a longer period of time. I'm sure that someone can become a millionaire by managing their money correctly and being in the financial field, that's what I meant.

    The biggest thing that I would like to know that I can't find anywhere is what the job is actually like! What do theoretical physicists do specifically on a daily basis? Is it a routine of teaching and research? Is it tedious, does it ever get "boring" or "dull"? That's what I would like to know. Thanks.
  9. Jun 21, 2010 #8


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    "Theoretical physicists" are pretty much professors and depending on how the department is where you get a job (IF you get a job), you may be swamped with teaching duties that give you little time for your research or you could find a good department where you have some freedom. Of course, you could unfortunately be like some professors who get tenure, walk into a class and read off a book, then go away never to be seen again. It just depends on where you get hired and what the situation is where you are and how good you are.

    You'll be hard pressed to find someone who finds research boring or dull. People give up on fields that they are capable of finding boring long before they finish a 6 year doctorate program in it. The teaching on the other hand.... totally up to you. Some people love it, some find it the only obstacle to their true happiness :rofl: .
  10. Jun 21, 2010 #9
    Last edited by a moderator: Apr 25, 2017
  11. Jun 21, 2010 #10
    Why do you want to go into theoretical physics specifically? From what I've read, it seems like the job market, both inside and outside of academia, for experimental physicists is better. I would imagine that it would be easier and more fruitful to get a job in industry after getting a PhD in experimental physics. Keep in mind, I'm a freshman in college and I know nothing of this from personal experience so take it with a grain of salt. But what I can tell you, is that I think you should try to keep an open mind when it comes to physics. If you do end up going after a physics degree, don't rule out experimental physics. I, like you I'm assuming, used to think theoretical physics was much more interesting than experimental, but as I've read up on and heard more about it, I'd say that I'm just as interested, if not more interested, in experimental physics. The media tends to sensationalize theoretical physics, so I would just recommend keeping an open mind.
  12. Jun 21, 2010 #11
    From talking to grad students, it seems that finding a job outside of a professorship in theoretical physics is hard (not to imply that a professorship is easy to get). Experimental physics is much more marketable. IF you really want an industry/research job, the most marketable branch of physics would be experimental condensed matter physics.
  13. Jun 21, 2010 #12
    No guarantee on how "average" this is. But I just looked up two nuclear physics theorists in my department. One is an assistant professor, and last year he made $80,000 (he just got tenured, so the '10 number will likely be higher). The other is a full professor who's been here 18 years, and he made $107,000 last year.

    Yeah, this is probably true. Based on what I've seen in my department, if you want to get a good job, DO NOT consider anything besides experimental condensed matter. If you go into high energy or astrophysics, you'll end up programming a computer for the rest of your life. And if you become a theorist...yeah, probably the same thing. Experimental CMP is a pathway to all kinds of nifty jobs. I know people who've ended up working for hardware-based companies designing hard drives, OLEDs, and other such stuff.

    But hey, what do I know? I'm just a pissed off astrophysics grad student, so don't take my rantings too seriously. :biggrin:
  14. Jun 21, 2010 #13
    Astro? Poor fella...

    lol jk.
  15. Jun 21, 2010 #14
    Why do so many study astrophysics? Really strange imo, I never found it interesting at all.
  16. Jun 21, 2010 #15
    Really? I think astro is fascinating, but I am still leaning towards plasma physics.
  17. Jun 21, 2010 #16
    Seriously, if you're interested in physics and math, and want a very handsome salary, pick an engineering discipline and have at it. Engineering applies physics and mathematics, and is very well paid. We engineers are also becoming less and less common, so there's more demand for your skills.
  18. Jun 21, 2010 #17
    Really? I was under the impression that engineering was booming.
  19. Jun 21, 2010 #18
  20. Jun 21, 2010 #19
    How are engineers becoming less common? Pretty sure there are more engineering students at OU then any other type of student. Literally hundreds of times more engineers than physicists. There's what, maybe 12 physics majors in my class?
  21. Jun 21, 2010 #20
    I think engineering is the current "liberal arts." Many people looking at starting salary charts and going for engineering majors. I think I'll just stick to physics and build a farm somewhere. :)
  22. Jun 22, 2010 #21
    Some universities also offer Engineering Physics, which is sort of a bastardization of the two and leaves you open to decide your future career path.
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