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Grad school for foundational physics?

  1. Jul 9, 2013 #1

    I am currently beginning my Junior year of college, and the time is coming far too soon for me to choose grad schools to apply to.

    My goal in life is to study all kinds of foundational physics, such as quantum foundations, quantum gravity, and string theory in order to complete Einstein's revolution and formulate a theory that will unify General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics together.

    I know I probably sound like some kid who's read one too many Brian Greene books, but I am convinced that this and only this is what I want to do with my life.

    I was actually inspired by all of Lee Smolin's books. I think his approach is the one physics needs right now, and after I graduate grad school I really, really want to join him someday at the Perimeter Institute and continue his line of research.

    I am asking for advice on what University to apply to that already does research in these areas so that my enrollment could better suit my needs. I'm asking this specifically because at my current school all the professors are Experimentalists, and it is getting really tiring asking questions about foundational issues and them not having an answer because they don't work in that field.

    About me academically, I only have a 3.3 GPA at this point. I obviously intend to study more intensely this year and the next to make up for it.

    I have not done any research opportunities yet, but I plan to this school year and the summer after.

    So, the question is: What graduate schools would you recommend for getting a PHD in physics specializing in foundational issues?
    Last edited: Jul 9, 2013
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 15, 2013 #2
    I'd really like to know someone's opinion.
  4. Aug 15, 2013 #3
    Do you have a backup plan
  5. Aug 15, 2013 #4


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    Unfortunately, you sound like some kid who's read one too many Brian Greene books.
  6. Aug 16, 2013 #5
    No, I do not have a backup plan because this is the only career choice that I will be satisfied with.
  7. Aug 16, 2013 #6
  8. Aug 16, 2013 #7


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    Then you should seriously consider the strong possibility of unemployment.

  9. Aug 16, 2013 #8


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    I have met some folks who had this unfortunate outlook early on in undergrad and in grad school...
    then agonized when they had to face the realities of life... for example, few highly-competitive postdoc and faculty positions in that field.

    (I had similar aspirations for quantum gravity when I started college.
    Along the way various folks have said to me...
    ..."you have to eat too"
    ...[of their classmates at Harvard] "they disappeared into a black hole" [in the sense that they didn't find jobs, or maybe even finish]
    ...[from Harry Callahan] "A man's got to know his limitations"

    No one is saying that your can't dream and aspire for the top... but you have to have a backup plan or at least develop additional skills [and an attitude] for one.

    Probably the best approach to finding that grad school is looking at the current and past activity on arxiv (http://arxiv.org/list/gr-qc/recent and http://arxiv.org/list/hep-th/recent) and at PI (http://www.perimeterinstitute.ca/research/seminars/seminar-and-colloquia-series ).
    Where are those folks from... now, and where did graduate from and post-doc at? Who are their collaborators, and where are they and where have they been?
    You are basically looking for clusters.

    Another approach is to sit down and chat with some faculty members [maybe at a nearby institution?] who are aware of where this activity is.

    You probably are aware that U.Waterloo is close to Perimeter.
    Of the top of my head, some others to look into... Penn State, UC Santa Barbara, ...likely many others outside of the US.
  10. Aug 16, 2013 #9

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    You need a backup plan. You also need to talk to a counselor. If you will only be happy working on a single problem in a single subfield of a single field at a single institution working with a single person, you will almost certainly end up unhappy. You can't slice the salami that thin.

    You also need to focus on what's important. Today. Where you'll apply for grad school a year and a half from now is not what you need to be focusing on today. You need to be planing how you are going to get an A on every single class from this point onward. You need to be spending the summer plugging the holes in your education that led you to get a 3.3, not daydreaming about Princeton someday.
  11. Aug 17, 2013 #10

    Then I will formulate a backup plan. I would be willing to talk to any counselor that could connect me with people in this field, but I haven't found any. And certainly the career counselors at my school cant help much, I've tried going to them for help.

    I have spent my entire summer in the way you suggested. I have looked over all the textbooks for my classes for the next year, learned Complex Analysis and Linear Algebra and Probability theory for Quantum, and brushed up on my PHYS II knowledge for Electronics.

    About my extremely selective career choice:
    All my life I've been asked "What do you want to be when you grow up?", "What are you doing after graduation?" And after that, and after that. Even on this very forum, a common response is "So, what are you planning to do after such and such event?"

    Well, I've answered everyone's questions. I know exactly what I want to do with my life 10, 20, 50 and more years ahead.

    Am I supposed to settle for less now that I know what I really want? Am I supposed to be like everyone else, struggling through college having trouble to even choose a major?

    This is the future I want to have, and I'd prefer to spend my time making it happen rather than wandering through a vast myriad of carers that I don't want.

    Thanks to everyone whose given me their opinion
  12. Aug 17, 2013 #11

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    The fact that it is possible for a career choice to be too broad does not preclude one from being too narrow.
  13. Aug 17, 2013 #12
    There are also some math departments that do research in string theory etc. I have no idea how this would differ from the work done in physics depts on the same subjects, but if it is not significantly different then a math PhD is also an option (hypothetically). I know John Baez had an interest in quantum gravity, but I don't think he is working on that now (he's a mathematician). Being too rigid and narrow with regards to what one is willing to do will inevitably set one up for disappointment. There must always be a contingency plan, at least for the sake of your own sanity. Having only one plan puts a lot of pressure on you, what if things don't work out perfectly? That is a lot of stress.
  14. Aug 17, 2013 #13


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    If you ask little kids what they want to be when they grow up, a lot of them will want to be a policeman or a fireman, etc. Fortunately, as they grow up and experience more of life, they change their goals, otherwise, we would be knee-deep in surplus policemen and firemen.

    It is wise to retain a certain amount of flexibility in the choice of one's goals and careers, if, for no other reason, to avoid disappointment later in life when your options are more severely constrained.
  15. Aug 17, 2013 #14


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    This is good advice.

    I don't think anyone here is telling you "Don't even try to do this." I think most of us acknowledge that a PhD or similar work in physics is rewarding in and of itself, not simply as a means to an end (i.e. if you get a PhD, and do maybe a postdoc or two before leaving academia, that's still rewarding. It's not as through you've failed.)

    We're just suggesting some realism on your part. If a kid came up to you and told you "I will not be happy unless I'm president of the USA", you would probably smile, nod your head, and know that he will be very disappointed in life.

    So by all means, work to find and attend a university where you can start to study these things. But I, and likely others here, strongly suspect you will realize there are a lot of interesting problems out there which aren't just confined to the 'big sexy questions' authors like Greene and Smolin write about.
  16. Aug 17, 2013 #15
    The thing is there is no guarantee you will find work in that field and to narrow it down to I won't be happy unless I'm working on this subject with this person makes you sound immature and its almost certainly a road to being miserable. What if you get in the field and find out its not how you thought it would be, but you never thought of a contingency plan. It's always good to have backups, there's just to many variables that are completely out of your control
  17. Aug 17, 2013 #16
    OP, IMO you shouldn't be focusing on the quest to find/work on a "unified" theory as you probably have a long way to go in terms of knowledge before you can even start learning what efforts have already been made in this direction (though it's a nice goal to have because even a modest attempt at this will require you to learn a lot). Right now what you should be spending your time on is learning the foundational physics and mathematics, while keeping an open mind about what you want to work on. Learning QM, QFT, GR, Stat Mech, CFT, E&M, Classical Dynamics, not to mention all the topology and differential geometry should keep you busy for quite some time. As you get further in your studies, you will have a much better idea of what research is like and what it is that you would like to be involved in.

    Even if you do work on something related to string theory or loops, know that these are all incredibly vast subjects and it won't be anything like a situation where you or anyone else, unlike Einstein, will single-handedly develop a unified theory. Say you look into string theory and ask a string theorist about their research. You will probably never hear an answer along the lines of "I spend my efforts trying to unify all the fundamental forces of nature through strings". One person may be working on aspects of the AdS/CFT correspondence. Another person might be toying around with topological strings. Yet, a third person could be working on related math such as mirror symmetry. All contribute piecemeal to what may be a unified theory, but the effort is collective and the leaps are small.

    To answer your question, there are few schools that focus specifically on fundamental physics, but two that come to mind are the Perimeter Institute, and the "Quantum Fields and Fundamental Forces" at Imperial College London. Other than that, most departments in the US will have a couple of people working in string theory and some may have people working on other approaches. Your best bet would be to find an area of interest and look at people working in said area and look at what university they belong to.
  18. Aug 18, 2013 #17
    I completely understand how it must sound like that. And you're right, I do find many other problems in physics fascinating and worthy of intensive study as well. Just this year in Mechanics, I was entranced by the Double Pendulum and its generalization to a arbitrary number of pendulums and spent a great deal of time calculating the equations of motion for an "N Pendulum"

    That's very true, I know I have a vast amount of material to master before I can even consider fundamental physics. To that end, I set myself the goal of learning General Relativity and Differential Geometry this summer, and I have succeeded.
  19. Aug 18, 2013 #18
    Sometimes I can get pretty disappointed in this forum. The OP is simply asking for some grad school advice, he is not asking everyone to question his motives...

    Anyway, I thought it might be useful to mention that since you were inspired by Smolin and want to go the Perimeter Institute one day, note that they actually have a graduate program within the Perimeter building ( http://perimeterscholars.org/ ), which is a one year program in theoretical physics whose emphasis is on breadth rather than depth (although it of course tries). You can even continue to do your PhD at PI (and even take courses at affiliated institutes: UWaterloo, ICQ, and there are even courses given within Perimeter Institute separate from this master's program). I actually just finished a year there myself and I thoroughly enjoyed all the physics they throw at you, but as one of the clips say "it's a bit like drinking from a water hose", and you should be sure that you are okay with it. But anyway, definitely check out the site, it's a great opportunity (and they even offer FULL scholarships). You even have to do a end year project in that year under guidance of one of the Perimeter researchers (you might consider asking Smolin as an advisor, considering your OP).
  20. Aug 18, 2013 #19
    He would have been done a disservice if he wasn't informed of the infamous career prospects in such a field.

    Also, OP something else to consider (perhaps you haven't) is the Cambridge Tripos Part III. A great opportunity to take a wide variety of classes. Here's more info.. http://www.maths.cam.ac.uk/postgrad/mathiii/
  21. Aug 18, 2013 #20


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    I did offer grad school advice (above)...both places and planning, as someone who as an undergraduate aspired to do quantum gravity in grad school and beyond.

    While I did do my dissertation in quantum gravity, the reality of the job market as a full-time quantum gravity researcher prompted me to consider a backup plan early in graduate school.
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