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Future confusion

  1. Aug 20, 2014 #1
    Hello, I just got an interesting offer and I'm not sure quite what to do.

    I've always been interesting in theoretical physics, but I've been doing some cosmological simulation research this summer and my advisor was impressed with my work enough to offer me a position as a grad student at my current UG university.

    The timing is right so to speak with him insofar as he has a position available next year after I graduate, he needs someone to fill the role of his leaving postdoc, and him and I get along great. He is a distinguished professor at my school, which is probably ranked top 200 in the world (I guess that's good?) and this would be a great way to springboard into a future of doing these types of astrophysical simulations. He basically guarantees 7 or 8 papers by the time I get my Master's degree, which would then let me do a PhD much faster (in about 4 years post UG).

    The only problem I see with this is the content of the research, I still think I'm much more interested in doing the theoretical side of things than the experimental.

    The opportunity is fantastic which would let me get into an interesting, competitive field in an area not yet quite explored.

    My only question for your opinions is whether or not the theoretical route would be worth pursuing as opposed to this. In this case I'm basically being handed a PhD and publications, whereas theoretical would require a lot more work and dedication. My graduating GPA will be enough to get into a good school I think (definitely 3.5+ I'm not sure the exact number), but I don't know if that's even good enough for theoretical and what the job prospects are like there. Maybe theoretical physics is more of a hobby for me? I just know one day I want to study QFT no matter what I do, even if it is on my own.

    Any advice or questions I'd love to hear!
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 20, 2014 #2


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    You might have to be a little more specific in what you mean by "theoretical physics." Most people regard cosmological simulations as theoretical work.
  4. Aug 20, 2014 #3
    Staying and working with him might be the much easier path to potential becoming a professor at research university one day. But yeah I do understand your pull towards QFT and high energy particle physics theory. In that field, it's mad, mad, mad hard to ever end up with a position at a research university and it's super competitive to get into grad school, etc. but if that is what you love and you are ok with realizing that you may just spend those years learning and doing what you love most even if might not directly lead to a position it might be worth it to leave. I guess it's a heart vs. practicality call. The tricky thing is that even if you go to school for high energy particle theory or string theory or whatnot, there are many paths where if just one thing goes wrong you could end up doing cosmology or cosmological modeling and such anyway (which isn't that bad, since it tends to be what the QFT/string types at least are most satisfied with as a secondary option, although a few prefer the QFT theory side of condenses matter theory).

    One path is likely a lot safer and more practical and not all that bad, the other is trickier and has a lot more potholes along the way but might be more 100% thrilling (and if you are going to devote tons of time over 4-6 years maybe it should be towards what is most thrilling or simply forget it, it's such a tough kind of call).

    I can say that none of the people I personally know who have tried theory have so far ended up as professors at major state universities or other major research universities or working for major national labs. OTOH a modest number of those who did pure experimental research (much more so even than the sort of opportunity you have at your undergrad which sounds almost more theoretical than experimental) have already landed spots at national labs and tenure track positions at major state universities.
  5. Aug 21, 2014 #4
    Sorry Choppy, I guess it is theoretical physics, but not the math oriented kind I was thinking about. Maybe I just have a romanticized idea of what theoretical physics is supposed to be. My idea of a future in theoretical physics which I would like is doing math physics, I love math and I love applying it to physical problems, in my spare time I do mathematical physics and read textbooks on mathematical physics. Like I said, in the future I'll be learning theoretical physics as a hobby nonetheless, as it is a great interest of mine.

    Thanks porcupine137 for your input, I appreciate your thoughts and it definitely has clarified a bit.
  6. Aug 21, 2014 #5


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    If it is the mathy stuff you like, you could also apply it to the dynamic and/or numerical theory behind your simulations. These *are* non-linear dynamic systems, after all. If you get serious about the mathematical side of the numerical and analytic properties of those, you will see that it is not trivial.

    And, btw: Everything which does not deal with actual physical objects *is* theoretical physics. You will earn lots of confused looks if you call simulation "experimental side" of things. And it is not to be looked down upon. There people who consider computer work to be "grunt work". These people are wrong, and most of them would be in serious trouble if you would force them to try to make a correct prediction about any real physical system. (of course, on the other side there are also many people who would disregard all what you would call "theoretical physics" or even "mathematical physics" as completely pointless).
  7. Aug 21, 2014 #6
    I’d second this.

    IMO the fact that have a great relationship with him already and that he thinks well of you are very important. If your goal is stay in academia and you believe after your PhD he’d work his connections to help you (also while you’re doing your PhD for that matter) that could be critical.

    You mentioned speed of finishing, if you stayed with him you’d hit the ground running right away, in my experience most grad students spend a one or two years just taking classes before they find an advisor. Also, if you went somewhere else, you may not be able to find an advisor doing what you want that has an opening. When I was in grad school, there were more people wanting to do high-energy theory than there were openings, some did other things, while others left the school completely.

    I guess you need to weigh these considerations against how much you want your PhD to be about the area of physics you really like (I’m also not sure what that is, theory and QFT are pretty broad, I’ll just call it QFT). You can certainly learn QFT from course work, but it isn’t quite the same as doing research and publishing papers. As you say, the research he’s doing does sound pretty interesting. Only you can weight the trade-offs.

    (Side note: I was in a roughly similar position at one time, so I know it’s a tough decision)
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