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Future of theoretical Physics

  1. May 1, 2013 #1
    Okay Hello Forum
    Im a student in high school atm
    and Im extremely passionate about Mathematics(pure and computational) and Theoretical Physics
    I may be young and ambitious and whatnot at this point of my life but I'd really love some feedback to guide me on a clearer path... so I wanted to go into Quantum Field theory and I was debating with my dad earlier ..according to him you need to take an engineering subject alongside so as to be on the safe side of things but to be honest Im more focussed on the theoretical side of Physics . Anyway so my questions are as follows and any correction in my notion of becoming a physicist would be appreciated.
    1) Does the theoretical side of Physics have any scope in today's day and age?
    2) Assuming that I wanted to go into Quantum field theory and whatnot , what would I be doing after my Masters ? or phD for that matter ... As in how would I go about making a living out of it?
    3)What is the future of Theoretical Physics?
    4) The job market and job opportunities? Do most people with a Physics degree end up teaching in highschools and whatnot?

    P.S. I apologise for the poor presentation of my questions , Im very young but I need to know and I'd love to correct any wrong notions I possess so please go easy on me :P

    Thank you !!
  2. jcsd
  3. May 1, 2013 #2
    Note that in the field of physics "theoretical" has a meaning that is different than it is to the public. What the public calls "theoretical physics" the physics community would call "hypothetical physics".

    Every field in physics has theorists working in it. Condensed matter, optics, biophysics, high energy, astronomy/cosmology - They all have theorists and experimentalist and the distinction between the two is often blurry. Also take care not to confuse a field of physics with a theory of physics. Quantum field theory is a theory, it is used in multiple fields of physics.

    The job market is tough for everyone and physics is no exception. You wont really have any job specific skills after studying physics, you will be educated in physics. The natural thing to do after a physics BS is to go to graduate school to get some marketable skills (or continue on the path to academia).
  4. May 1, 2013 #3
    My story is almost the same friend,
    about bachelor's in engineering, my physics proff told me that it is a kinda back up option to make up the living
    and ya, most of the physicist end up teaching in universities
  5. May 1, 2013 #4

    Yes i understand the distinction between theorists and experimentalists and that they exist in every field ... but the thing is Im not too fond of the engineering side and I want to be immersed in the theoretical part of it , Id like to do what the hotshots of physics have done , Feynmann , Einstein , Schrodinger , Heisenberg , Pauli etc... I'd like to discover and explore .. but the only thing that distresses me is making a living out of it all , how did these great physicists manage ?
  6. May 1, 2013 #5
    But say your not as fortunate as those who end up teaching in universities? End up teaching a highschool class then what? and I really dont want to deviate towards engineering :/ Im really passionate about the theoretical side of physics , thats where my interest deeply lies
  7. May 1, 2013 #6
    Alright let me add a few more points of information.
    Now considering that the job market for physicists isnt too great , lets assume Ive got a backup plan for making money or that i hail from a very rich family.. then should taking an engineering course be a necessity? I mean the only reason folks take an engineering course alongside is to have a way of making decent amount of money and maybe applying concepts learnt..
    but here's my question
    If I have sufficient funds to support me , is taking an engineering course even necessary?
    I originally want to major in Maths and Physics (Bachelors) but all this debating has really confused me...

    Please help !
  8. May 1, 2013 #7
    You generally only take engineering courses if your major is engineering. If you are majoring in math and physics then you probably wont have time to take engineering classes.
  9. May 1, 2013 #8

    Yes I agree but my parent says I should drop the math major and go for an engineering major alongside physics ? What should I do? I really want to major in math and physics , ive always wanted to be a mathematician/physicist and im well aware of how much time and work it asks for... so are you saying there's no point of co-majoring in engineering as long as you've got an alternative source of income ?

    Also note that I wasnt considering co-majoring in engineering because I wanted to..
  10. May 1, 2013 #9
    No, Im not saying anything of the sort. Your issue seems to be an interpersonal one between you and your family. Personally, I never asked my parents for permission on what I should major in. But then, I was not financially dependent on them so I was free to choose what I did.
  11. May 1, 2013 #10
    It was a different time back then my friend. If money is something you value greatly then I would suggest not going into science. You will be in school for 10+ years, get paid around 25 000/year +/- 10-20k depending what institution you are at for grad and post doc.

    So what I'm saying is that if you are not ready to be under paid for the amount of labour you will endure, if you think you can buy a house by the time your in your early 30s(not to mention the chances of getting a position in physics after all that is slim to none and even worse getting a teaching position), you should definitely go into something else. This is the reality
  12. May 1, 2013 #11
    Nononono Money is not something Im after at all , its all about the science I would never even consider science if it was for the money... Im passionate about learning and exploring ... but my problem is that my guardians are worried about the job market I try my best to convince them that I wont end up homeless but they dont seem to understand and Ive got an idea to make money to PAY FOR MY TUITION Fees and other needs but my parents suggested that I take an engineering course as a way of generating income (which I dont really care about , 25k is enough for me )
    but my question is ... How do I convince my parents that physicists have a future and engineering isnt a requisite course to survive in the so called "real world" :/ I know this is a personal problem but I really need help !! Im not worried about the income that Ill generate at this point all I need is a convincing argument to present to my parents and If you will , please outline what options are present for a person after completion of Masters (physics) and ofcourse after PhD... at what point does research start? where professors take you under their wing?
    Once again excuse me for my informality.
  13. May 1, 2013 #12
    Would you elaborate on the "not being financially dependent on your parents" , how did you pay for tuition fees and other expenses?
  14. May 1, 2013 #13
    Most people get a job :)
  15. May 1, 2013 #14
    Well first off you will not be generating income outside of grad school, it will be impossible to work full time, study, research, TA etc. Grad school usually keeps people very busy(from what I've heard its not impossible, just very unlikely).

    After getting your bachelors in physics you have many options. Medical physics, Geophysics, engineering grad school, physics grad school etc.

    What is more important than the major itself is what skills you have developed. Programming, electronics etc. Which are marketable.
  16. May 1, 2013 #15
    I worked, took out loans and govt. grants. I started college at 19 after I was living on my own, my parents had nothing to do with it. (Maybe if they did I would have a more useful engineering degree... but probably not :wink:)

    Just tell them the truth. You dont care about money and want to do physics regardless of what it may or may not offer you.

    If you are serious about doing physics for a career, you start doing research as an undergrad. Usually in your 3rd year, but the earlier the better.

    In the end, it probably wont matter that much. Most people do not get a career doing what they envision and many get one that is not related to their degree at all.
    Last edited: May 1, 2013
  17. May 1, 2013 #16
    The American Physical Society has some statistical data on physics careers.


    I'm a PhD student studying theoretical plasma physics/nuclear fusion. I can tell you that all of my friends who have graduated within the last few years have had no problem finding well paying jobs.

    Many graduate physics programs offer teaching assistantships or research assistantships for their graduate students. Theses assistantships usually wave tuition and provide a small stipend to cover rent and food.

    Finally I encourage you to keep an open mind. There are many unsolved frontiers is theoretical physics, so don't limit yourself to the ones that get the most popularization.
  18. May 1, 2013 #17
    Nicce :D alright so I have gist of what I am to do and what not to do but once again I shall ask you whether or not I should major in a certain engineering field alongside physics? but that would mean not majoring math (which Im averse to ) and Yes I shouldnt localize myself to a certain part of physics.. Thank you all for your help !!
  19. May 1, 2013 #18
    One thing to keep in mind regarding money is simply that saying you don't care about money is an extremely idealistic and unrealistic point of view. I once shared this same point of view but as the years roll on, it slowly dawns on you that money is very important. I don't mean being greedy and trying to make millions, thats a whole 'nother story. I mean earning a decent living to support yourself and your family. As time goes by you will have responsibilities to many other people besides yourself.

    I was once idealistic and kept saying that I don't care about money. Well, you know what? I'm married now, and we are thinking about kids. Trying doing that on 30k/year, working 12-14+ hour days and moving to a new city every year or two when the PI loses his grant money or some such thing.

    Being idealistic and making yourself believe that money isn't important is nice when you are young. Don't forget that you have, and will have in the future, a responsibility to others around you. I would listen to your father and have a fall back option. The more I get into Academia the more I realize its almost the same as moving to Hollywood, waiting tables and hoping to be an actor. And if you believe that Academia is somehow a safe haven, free from biases and other personal agendas, you have a rough road ahead...it is not always that the better/smarter/whatever guy becomes more successful. Science and Academia is riddled with, much like any other profession, political agendas and other such nonsense.

    Also keep in mind that people like Feynman, Einstein, Pauli et al were very special people. They were successful for any number of reasons, hard work, natural intelligence/curiosity and even a bit of luck. For every Feynman there were 100 others who you may never hear about who spent a good portion of their lives' bouncing around trying to make things happen. You should prepare for the possibility that you will be one of the 100.

    I guess my take-away is that you need to hope for the best but be prepared for the worst. My advice is to listen to those older than you, they may seem like they don't know anything but, trust me, they have been through a lot that you have yet to face.
  20. May 1, 2013 #19
    Yanick Thanks for long and very inclusive reply , It shed light on a lot of things and clarified a lot of doubts , at the moment a friend of mine and I are making money from a our website through google adsense and I know this wont last for long but Im trying to find an easy way out , maybe what Im doing is ridiculous but if it works and im able to make this a stable income source then great , keep note that Im not trying to be a millionaire or whatnot but Ive thought things through and hence decided to make money (solely to pay for tuition fees and other expenses) ... I will take your reply into consideration but I was slightly averse to the fact that I should take a engineering course alongside solely to act as a fallback plan. I know im young and ambitious and quite unrealistic at times but If I am able to find an alternative stable source , would taking an engineering course be necessary? and is it solely recommended incase things dont work out the way I want them to be? and when I say I dont care about money , what I mean is , Im not solely going to make a decision based on how much income I generate from doing a certain thing , but that I will give my interest and passion more priority. By the way this website I own generates quite a bit of income (7000$ per month) Through ad revenues ... But lets hope I find a way out.. I was simply averse to the idea of having to become an engineer to make money! Please respond to this as I await for your lenghty and inclusive feedback.
  21. May 1, 2013 #20
    From the above discussion, does that mean an engineering degree is of no use for a theoretical physicist? And people just do it for money earning purpose? Please tell the truth
  22. May 2, 2013 #21
    Is that right? Well, the answer, then, my friend is simple. Buy a plot of land and build your own perimeter institute. Then you can live in your own quantum theoretical daydream because obviously money is not a concern. Why is this discussion even happening?

    Just for fun, though, let's pretend you're not actually pulling in 7K a month from one of your high school hobbies and then analyze your queries...

    From what I gather, this is the real question the OP seems to ask over and over and is getting no response on. My first thought is, why would you think for a second that, by double majoring in physics and engineering, you are not by necessity going to be taking a large load of mathematics classes. Do you really need more? Second of all, there are more benefits to taking engineering other than the financial fallback option. Paul Dirac started out in engineering for very much the same reason you find yourself in. He attributed the skills he learned as an engineer to helping him formulate his groudbreaking work in quantum mechanics. I suggest you read "the strangest man" by Farmelo. You may find that engineering provides a different perspective on your theorizing, a sense of grounding of those concepts. Who knows?
  23. May 2, 2013 #22


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    Most of the students go for Engineering for the money, at least that's what I have seen.
  24. May 2, 2013 #23
    Hmmm Ill definitely check it out.. Thank you all so much you have clarified my misconceptions and beaten me back on track
  25. May 17, 2013 #24

    1. Of course it has...e.g. Experiments cannot be done without theorists behind (results need to be explained by theorists). Basically it can be but what I mean is that results need a sound theory/model to back on to...(Base from personal experience, experimentalists need the help of theorists especially when there are phenomena observed that cannot be explained from existing theories)

    2. The answer lies in you, whether you want to go to academe or industry or other fields... Learning the rigors (mathematics and physics) of QFT provides you an excellent training in analysis and problem-solving needless to say the practical applications it has for us (Quantum information, ultra-cold regimes and others)...

    3. Who knows... What's exciting right now is that theoretical physics is not exclusive for physics alone.. It has "invaded" other fields such as finance, economics, neuroscience, biology and an infinite list of other fields (caution: infinite used here is exaggerated).

    4. the_wolfman has provided you the link...

    We shared the "same" experience, I, wanting to study physics and being interested to the theoretical side (QFT, GR, LQG, string theories and the like) and then here comes my family who wanted me to take non-physics programs (Philippines, the majority, isn't into Physics, ergo, they don't have any idea what Physics can offer you)... Currently I am in my undergraduate senior year, things changed, and I am working in CFD right now... My advise is this, your dad is right...get engineering...

    Reality is hard... You need to feed yourself and in case, your family. Like QM, the future has possibilities. You don't know what it holds for you...

    Don't worry, mathematics can be learned by yourself (if you're good and besides, you can always approach any professors in the field). Engineering, too but you cannot always work on sophisticated and expensive tools used in engineering labs... and you get a gist of what is happening in the real world, no, real nature... Furthermore, engineering training provides you a different perspective.. I know a lot of physicists who were trained as engineers before they became theorists... Trust me, if you're really passionate about Science (in general), you'll do engineering just fine...
  26. May 25, 2013 #25


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    You could also do computer science, which has great employment prospects but can also be studied in a theoretical context. A rapidly expanding field in theoretical physics is quantum computing and information theory. There is a lot of funding in this area, in fact there is a lot of research being done at places like Microsoft station Q and IBM.
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