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Electrical/Computer Engineer wants to become a High Energy Physics Theorist

  1. Jan 2, 2009 #1
    I want to learn and contribute to things like quantum gravity, M-Theory, and other theories beyond the standard model.

    I would also like to be able to interpret the results of experiments done in the LHC when it finally works again. So some amount of experimental work is needed too.

    Here are my current qualifications:

    B.S. Computer Engineering
    Minors: Physics, Coumputer Science
    B.S. Applied Discrete Mathematics
    M.S. Electrical Engineering

    I love modern and linear algebra.

    I have decent circuit design skills, and programming skills.

    I have been reading about these subjects on my own recently, but am short on time to do this.

    My questions/concerns:

    1) I am itching to get started, but most graduate program deadlines for 2009 are passed or too close to meet. This means I cannot start till 2010. Do any of you know HEP programs that have spring or other semester/quarter admission/enrollment? I am already 29, and could be pushing 40 by the time I finish the education I am looking for.

    2) My background in physics is weak, but I am willing to take the physics undergraduate classes needed. I don't want to do all the "university core" stuff again for a B.S. I want to get a Ph.D. and be doing reseach while going to school. So are there many combined M.S.-Ph.D. programs that will allow students to take the B.S. prerequisites needed?

    3) It has been ages since I was in school, so geting teacher reccomendations will be hard. I believe with practice, I can do well on the physics GRE, but I don't know how well yet. My Math GRE is 800, Verbal 640, and writing 4.5. My Undergrad GPA was 3.67, My grad a litte over 3.2 (working full-time, while going to a "top 5" school). I have no idea if these are good enough. Could someone give some insight into the competitiveness of admission vs. quality of HEP program?

    4) What topics (think pre-requisite trees) should I know before learning the HEP theory directly? It seems like there is a lot of group representations, and linear algebra, but I don't knwo what specifically to learn and understand.
  2. jcsd
  3. Jan 2, 2009 #2

    Vanadium 50

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    Um...already this is not terribly realistic. If I interpret the second sentence as "I want to do phenomenology too", the number of people who have contributed to both things like quantum gravity and also phenomenology is very, very small. I can think of two - one was a string person who stopped doing that and moved to phenomenology, and the other was a string person who has been adapting calculational techniques used in stringery for multi-leg and multi-loop calculations.

    Now, two is a lower bound. Maybe there are four people who have done this. Perhaps even five or maybe even six. But that's the sort of number we are talking about.

    If instead I interpret the second sentence as "I want to participate in the experiments too", this is even less realistic. The number of people in that category is zero.

    There are no such programs. It can be possible to start on the off term by special arrangement with the department.

    You are correct in guessing 40 as the end date. A typical HEP PhD takes six or seven years, and you'll need to add something like two years to catch up.

    This is rare. Not non-existent, but rare. The attitude of most departments is, "if the student is unprepared for physics grad school, why should they catch up on the department's time and the department's dime? Let them catch up, and then we'll look at their application." In many of the cases where admission is offered, there is no financial support until the student has achieved the equivalent of the BS.

    I don't believe that "with practice, I can do well on the physics GRE". That's in contradiction to your earlier statement "My background in physics is weak". The GRE will pick this up. That's it's function.

    The lack of letters will be a problem. The undergrad grades are fine, but your graduate grades may pose a problem. 3.0 is considered a bare minimum for grad school, and 3.2 is not much above that. To give you an idea of how seriously this is taken, when I was in grad school, if you had two quarters with either a GPA below 3.0 or a cumulative GPA below 3.0, you were automatically dropped from the program. So if you got a 2.8 and then brought it up to a 3.1, you were history.

    I think that before jumping into HEP theory you need to start with the basics - classical mechanics, electricity and magnetism and quantum mechanics. All at the upper-division undergraduate level.
  4. Jan 2, 2009 #3
    As I understand it, HEP theory is one of the most underfunded research fields in physics, and it has a high draw on some of the otherwise brightest minds in the world. This makes it an extremely competitive field.
  5. Jan 2, 2009 #4
    Thanks for the input. Form your other answers there will be some time before I decide exactly which if therse fields I want to go into.

    Since you seem to be knowledgable in these things, what are the typical sub-fields that people go into, and what demarcates these areas of study? This way I can see if I actually like a particular sub-field.

    What you call phenomenology is most entriguing, and perhaps I will focus on that.

    I am, at this point, commited to following my fascination and curiosity. I already went down the "practical" career-path. I've been in the Integrated Circuits industry for almost 9 years, and earning 6 figures, but I'm miserable.

    Even if I will be near poverty and neophyte in the field, I think it'll be more life-affirming and enjoyable than what I am doing now.

    OK. Looks like 2010 is realistic, but I suppose I can start taking classes earlier on a non-degree basis if possible--an opportunity to get letters of recomndation as well.

    OK. That's what I expected. Would you know which program allow for this? The other option I was considering was going to a school that offers a "second" B.S. without the need for university core classes.

    Perhaps, I exagerated a bit. I looked at the GRE and most of the questions were straightforward. I did get a couple of engineering degrees with a minor in physics and a math degree, so "weak" is perhaps an exageration. I presumed someone who got a physics degree would get the 990 handily.

    Yeah, I was worried that my Grad school record would be a black mark. I was also wondering if they would take emlyer/co-worker Letter of Recomendation.

    I have E&M and Mechanics, a lot of it from an Engineering perspective. I have some basic QM and Thermal Physics from my minor. I would really like a Hamiltonian Mechanics course, and an electrodynamics course (with an empasis on the relativity aspects connecting the Electrical and Magnetic Fields). If you know of good sources, please let me know.

    The fact that I have a lot to learn is actually an appealing aspect of this pursuit.

    I was also under the preconception that the physics community was close knitt, and collegial (but I suppose any field wil have its cynics and misanthropes). This preconception lead me to believe that contacting professors would lead to a pleasant learning experience, and that I could find SOME way to do what I wanted (even if it takes me a decade).
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