Guidance on Pursuing a Master's in Theoretical Particle Physics

  • #1
Florian Geyer
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17
Hello esteemed members,

I hope this message finds you well. I'm reaching out to get your insights and recommendations on my journey towards a master's degree in theoretical particle physics.

While I have successfully completed a Bachelor's degree in physics, I often feel that my foundational knowledge isn't as deep as I'd like. To give an example, foundational books like Sears and Zemansky's "University Physics" still pose significant challenges to me. My mathematical foundation is based on Larson's calculus. Furthermore, I have some understanding of ordinary and partial differential equations (ODEs and PDEs), vector analysis, and linear algebra.

Given this context, here are my queries:

  1. Feasibility: Is it realistic for me to aim for a master's in theoretical particle physics considering my current foundation? If not, which areas would you suggest I focus on to enhance my understanding?
  2. Further Study: I recognize the importance of strong mathematical methods in theoretical physics. Should I delve deeper into dedicated textbooks on mathematical methods tailored for physicists? Also, given my current level, how critical is it for me to delve into upper undergraduate subjects such as Electrodynamics, Classical and Quantum Mechanics, and Thermal and Statistical Mechanics?
  3. Resource Recommendations: If you endorse further studies in the aforementioned areas or other topics, could you suggest some comprehensive textbooks or resources that would be fitting for my level?
Your guidance means a lot to me. I'm genuinely passionate about physics and am committed to working diligently to bridge the gaps in my understanding. I'm hopeful that with your advice, I can chart a clear and effective path forward.

Thank you in advance for your invaluable advice and time.
 
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  • #2
You have a degree in physics and by your own admission can barely do freshman physics. Why do you think you can succeed with a theoretical masters? Why will your learning experience be different this time? Unless you are independently wealthy, I would suggest starting your post-college life.
 
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  • #3
OP: Your post is puzzling. Do you have a bachelor's in physics from a recognized university? Or some nebulous online scheme? GPA? You should list all your undergrad physics and math courses (and texts used). With that information, you will get better guidance.
 
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  • #4
CrysPhys said:
OP: Your post is puzzling. Do you have a bachelor's in physics from a recognized university? Or some nebulous online scheme? GPA? You should list all your undergrad physics and math courses (and texts used). With that information, you will get better guidance.

I don't know whether it's recognized or not. How can I determine this? I specifically studied at Sana'a University. As for my grades, I achieved an 87% in my Bachelor's degree. We used prevalent peer-reviewed textbooks, but this is somewhat misleading. In many cases, the professors didn't actually utilize them. They were merely listed in the syllabus of our university. On the infrequent occasions when the books were referenced, we typically memorized equations and their derivations without truly understanding them. We rarley did some if any of the problems, and I struggled with those we did address, even after consulting the solution manuals. This challenge arose, in part, because we never delved deeply into courses like vector analysis, complex analysis, and special functions at the university. We did touch on some ODEs and linear algebra. Given all this, I'm concerned about my ability to pursue a Master's degree and make up for my previous knowledge gaps.

By the way, I've taken courses on mathematical methods from Coursera, specifically on vector analysis and matrix algebra.

I also took the GRE as a mock exam and solved 37 problems. However, I should mention that I was unsure about my methodology for many of the questions, even if the answers turned out to be correct.
 
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  • #5
What was the GRE mock exam score?
 
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  • #6
Frabjous said:
What was the GRE mock exam score?
I have solved 37 problems... this means the score was 540 from 990
 
  • #7
That is 16th percentile which is not going to cut it. Given your description of your university, I think the easiest path for you is to try to get into an undergraduate program in a decent department. Self learning is possible, but it is hard. You could have done that while you were in your university, but you didn’t. Those upper level courses matter a lot. You will need a minimal level of competence in all that you listed, so instructor guided is probably preferable.
 
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  • #8
You are not ready for a masters. You will not make it through a master's program.

Self-study is harder than people think it is. I presume you would need someone else to pay for school if you were to return for more schooling. That is also hard.

There was a time when going to the West might have been a solution. It is also harder to do than it used to be, largely because of bad behavior from people from your part of the world. If this changes, expect it to change slowly.

Finally, a MS won't get you a job as a theoretical particle physicist. So what is your goal?
 
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  • #9
Vanadium 50 said:
You are not ready for a masters. You will not make it through a master's program.

Self-study is harder than people think it is. I presume you would need someone else to pay for school if you were to return for more schooling. That is also hard.

There was a time when going to the West might have been a solution. It is also harder to do than it used to be, largely because of bad behavior from people from your part of the world. If this changes, expect it to change slowly.

Finally, a MS won't get you a job as a theoretical particle physicist. So what is your goal?
Yes, I initially thought that if I applied for a Master's degree and crammed, I might make it through. However, feedback suggests otherwise.

Regarding my plan, it's very hard to provide a clear path to achieve my goal which is becoming a physics researcher. My initial idea was to apply for a Master's degree and try to persevere. Afterward, I hope to apply for a bridging program from ICTP, which I'm aware is geared towards physics master's holders from less developed countries. This was my hope. But based on feedback, it seems this might not be the best approach. Perhaps the most prudent course of action is to start my "post-college life," make up for my knowledge gaps, and then consider returning to academia to pursue a Master's degree.

As for self-learning, I have strong faith in it, largely due to the significant time I've invested. Still, I admit there's awfully lot more I need to learn about this.
 
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  • #10
Florian Geyer said:
As for self-learning, I have strong faith in it, largely due to the significant time I've invested. Still, I admit there's awfully lot more I need to learn about this.
I have an MS in Particle Physics. I went to a small school and my Thesis advisor, who did have a degree in QFT, had been working with solar cells for a couple of decades. I never actually had the chance to take the University's QFT class and I have taught myself just about everything I know about QFT. I followed up at Purdue and had to drop out of my PhD program due to health reasons. I don't like giving up and I love Physics, so I have continued to self-study for the past 20+ years. However, there is no substitute for guided instruction: I do not have a PhD and though I have made great strides in those two decades, as good as I am, I do not match a PhD in my field of study, and it's doubtful that I ever will.

I'm not going to mince words. Going into a Master's program with only having memorized the basics and not really understood them is going to eat you alive. Eventually, you might be able to pick it all up, but the pace is going to be brutal for you and you will end up taking several semesters longer than the other students while you are trying to catch up. It will be expensive and it will be very stressful.

I am not saying that self-study is bad, but if you plan on a career in any branch of Physics, go to a good school, talk to an advisor, and see if you can audit or enroll in the Junior and Senior level classes and retake them. Only then see about a Master's.

And I fully agree with Vanadium 50's comment: An MS is not going to make you competitive. In order to get a job you will likely need the PhD, so why not brush up on your Bachelor's and then enroll directly in a PhD program? That's the usual plan now-a-days. (I think the estimate is that it will take some 6 years to go straight from a BS to a PhD. Or has that changed?)

Best of luck to you!

-Dan
 
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  • #11
topsquark said:
And I fully agree with Vanadium 50's comment: An MS is not going to make you competitive. In order to get a job you will likely need the PhD, so why not brush up on your Bachelor's and then enroll directly in a PhD program? That's the usual plan now-a-days. (I think the estimate is that it will take some 6 years to go straight from a BS to a PhD. Or has that changed?)
This is true for the US. But for many other countries, a completion of a master's is required before applying for a PhD. Given the OP's current situation, the OP first needs to determine in which countries they will be able to continue their education and then later seek employment. That adds a lot of complexity for making plans.

Given the small number of employment opportunities (anywhere) for theoretical high-energy physicists, the OP really needs to think hard about this decision.
 
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  • #12
topsquark said:
I have an MS in Particle Physics. I went to a small school and my Thesis advisor, who did have a degree in QFT, had been working with solar cells for a couple of decades. I never actually had the chance to take the University's QFT class and I have taught myself just about everything I know about QFT. I followed up at Purdue and had to drop out of my PhD program due to health reasons. I don't like giving up and I love Physics, so I have continued to self-study for the past 20+ years. However, there is no substitute for guided instruction: I do not have a PhD and though I have made great strides in those two decades, as good as I am, I do not match a PhD in my field of study, and it's doubtful that I ever will.

I'm not going to mince words. Going into a Master's program with only having memorized the basics and not really understood them is going to eat you alive. Eventually, you might be able to pick it all up, but the pace is going to be brutal for you and you will end up taking several semesters longer than the other students while you are trying to catch up. It will be expensive and it will be very stressful.

I am not saying that self-study is bad, but if you plan on a career in any branch of Physics, go to a good school, talk to an advisor, and see if you can audit or enroll in the Junior and Senior level classes and retake them. Only then see about a Master's.

And I fully agree with Vanadium 50's comment: An MS is not going to make you competitive. In order to get a job you will likely need the PhD, so why not brush up on your Bachelor's and then enroll directly in a PhD program? That's the usual plan now-a-days. (I think the estimate is that it will take some 6 years to go straight from a BS to a PhD. Or has that changed?)

Best of luck to you!

-Dan
I meant only self-studying undergraduate physics, not the master's degree content.

I'm deeply grateful for your consideration of my question. As for proceeding directly to a PhD, this is the first time I've heard of that option. I will definitely look into it further. Thank you so much, Mr. Dan, for taking the time to address this.
 
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  • #13
Florian Geyer said:
As for proceeding directly to a PhD, this is the first time I've heard of that option. I will definitely look into it further.
My understanding is that the two paths to a PhD are at least approximately equivalent in terms of entrance requirements, effort and time required. Both paths begin after completion of a decent bachelor's degree (which you apparently don't have yet), and both require 5-7 years: 2 years of coursework, and 3-5 years of research. These are approximate numbers, of course. One can fiddle with the numbers, but the basic principle is the same.

In the US, a PhD program combines the two stages, which are done at the same university. Elsewhere, the two stages are separated into MS and PhD, which can be done at different universities.
 
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  • #14
jtbell said:
My understanding is that the two paths to a PhD are at least approximately equivalent in terms of entrance requirements, effort and time required. Both paths begin after completion of a decent bachelor's degree (which you apparently don't have yet), and both require 5-7 years: 2 years of coursework, and 3-5 years of research. These are approximate numbers, of course. One can fiddle with the numbers, but the basic principle is the same.

In the US, a PhD program combines the two stages, which are done at the same university. Elsewhere, the two stages are separated into MS and PhD, which can be done at different universities.
Thank you for taking the time to read and consider my post, I am grateful for any insights or feedback
 
  • #15
jtbell said:
In the US, a PhD program combines the two stages,
That is correct. There is also a "terminal masters" which is not a part of a PhD program. They are seldom offered by the "big names", and are intended to serve people who need an MS for career advancement but are not so interested in a PhD. High school physics teachers are often attracted to these programs.

Florian Geyer said:
I meant only self-studying undergraduate physics
You should do a forum search. You will see many people who get the idea that they get can get into a graduate program this way, often much faster than it takes full-time undergraduates. I don't think any of them have been successful.
 
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  • #17
gwnorth said:
A potential option OP is if you could get admitted to a similar program to

https://www.physics.utah.edu/graduate-programs/gradadmission/post-bacc-fellowship/
Thank you a lot, this kind of programs is exactly what I am looking for.
I agree that the previous program is exactly what I need, please if you have any other programs like that tell me, I will also dedicate some time for searching on similar "post baccalaureate fellowships".
 
  • #19
Yes yes, I am doing an extensive search about these programs, I have found many... thanks for your help.
 
  • #21
gwnorth said:
Thanks a lot for taking time for helping me.
Recently I have searched a lot about these programs, and actually I was astonished about the number of possible opportunities, but the problem is almost all of them are dedicated for US citizens (or permanent residents exclusively). However, the existence of the previous programs made me sanguine.
 
  • #22
gwnorth said:
One more I just came accross
The problem with that program, and programs like it, is that it provides a year of research, not four years of classroom work (which is what the OP needs).
 
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  • #23
Vanadium 50 said:
The problem with that program, and programs like it, is that it provides a year of research, not four years of classroom work (which is what the OP needs).
Yes, but some of them also provide two years of upper level coursework, which I believe is exactly what I need.
 
  • #24
Florian Geyer said:
Yes, but some of them also provide two years of upper level coursework, which I believe is exactly what I need.
If by upper level, you mean junior and senior undergrad, you'll likely need more. Circling back to Post #2:
Frabjous said:
You have a degree in physics and by your own admission can barely do freshman physics. Why do you think you can succeed with a theoretical masters? Why will your learning experience be different this time? Unless you are independently wealthy, I would suggest starting your post-college life.
Also, again, I recommend that you hit pause, and think through what your ultimate goal is ... assuming you do complete a master's in theoretical particle physics, then what?
 
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  • #25
Regarding my ultimate goal, it has always been to become a proficient researcher in theoretical physics, which is why I majored in physics in the first place.

How can I achieve this? While I don't have a concrete blueprint, I do have some general sub-goals. The first is to elevate my qualifications to match those of my counterparts who had the fortune of attending top-tier universities.

Subsequently, I plan to pursue a master's degree. I want to postpone this until I've enhanced my scientific knowledge and skills. My aim isn't just to get through the master's program but to excel in it.

Financially, I won't be able to shoulder the fees of highly-ranked universities. For clear reasons, this means I must be exceptionally diligent in my graduate studies.

After completing my master's, I'm uncertain about what lies ahead. If possible, I'll explore scholarships for a PhD. Alternatively, I'm considering the ICTP, which offers programs to prepare students from particularly disadvantaged countries (like mine) for PhD studies. I'm hopeful this could pave the way for a PhD scholarship.

Ultimately, I wish to build a robust scientific portfolio and apply to universities worldwide that offer me the opportunity to contribute meaningfully.

This outlines the essence of my plan. However, I believe it might not be overly relevant to our previous discussion. From my experience, setting overly distant goals doesn't always prove beneficial. Often, these goals evolve, which is why I'm mainly focused on my immediate next step: bridging my knowledge gap and applying for a master's program.

Why haven't I considered applying directly for a PhD program? First, I wasn't aware of this option. I had understood that a master's degree was a prerequisite for a PhD until one of the members here highlighted that this isn't the case in all countries.

Second, I doubt I stand a chance. I'm not aware of any fully-funded scholarships for a PhD, especially in theoretical physics. I certainly can't afford one. To put things in perspective, the annual education cost in the US can be around $20,000. Including living expenses, this might amount to nearly $45,000, which is significantly more than my decade-long earnings.

All in all, I believe it's more pragmatic for me to focus on the immediate future instead of becoming lost in distant dreams.

I may not fully grasp the significance of planning too distantly into the future. If you feel I've missed the intent behind your mention of my ultimate goal, please clarify.
 
  • #26
Florian Geyer said:
Why haven't I considered applying directly for a PhD program? First, I wasn't aware of this option. I had understood that a master's degree was a prerequisite for a PhD until one of the members here highlighted that this isn't the case in all countries.

Second, I doubt I stand a chance. I'm not aware of any fully-funded scholarships for a PhD, especially in theoretical physics. I certainly can't afford one.
In the US, as discussed above, a student typically will start their PhD program after they receive their bachelor's degree. Any university that truly wants a student for their PhD program will offer them full funding that covers tuition, fees, and living expenses (living expenses sufficient to cover just the student, not for a family, should the student have a family). For entering students, the funding typically includes a tuition waiver and a teaching assistantship (i.e., the student works, teaching undergrads). In some schools, some entering students may receive research assistantships (i.e., the student works, doing research; but in many schools, research assistantships are available to students only after they have passed the qualifying exam). And, in some schools, an exceptional few entering students may receive fellowships (no teaching or research responsibilities).

After successful completion of specified courses and after successfully passing a qualifying exam, students typically then receive research assistantships while performing their thesis work. Typically these are funded through research grants received by the thesis advisors. In some instances, the department might provide some research funds; and in some instances, students might need to continue on teaching assistantships, should their advisors run out of research grant funds (students obviously want to avoid this scenario, since time spent teaching means less time doing research).
 
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  • #27
Florian Geyer said:
Regarding my ultimate goal, it has always been to become a proficient researcher in theoretical physics, which is why I majored in physics in the first place.

Florian Geyer said:
All in all, I believe it's more pragmatic for me to focus on the immediate future instead of becoming lost in distant dreams.

I may not fully grasp the significance of planning too distantly into the future. If you feel I've missed the intent behind your mention of my ultimate goal, please clarify.
You've understood my question correctly. So, your ultimate goal of becoming a proficient researcher in theoretical physics limits you to a few positions in universities and government institutions. It will entail completion of a PhD program (with or without a separate master's program) plus at least one postdoc.

Yes, you can't plan too far into the future. But if your next step requires substantial effort (which yours will), you need to evaluate whether that substantial effort is worthwhile ... and what your backup plans are at each step, should you need to change direction for whatever reason.
 
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  • #28
CrysPhys said:
In the US, as discussed above, a student typically will start their PhD program after they receive their bachelor's degree. Any university that truly wants a student for their PhD program will offer them full funding that covers tuition, fees, and living expenses (living expenses sufficient to cover just the student, not for a family, should the student have a family). For entering students, the funding typically includes a tuition waiver and a teaching assistantship (i.e., the student works, teaching undergrads). In some schools, some entering students may receive research assistantships (i.e., the student works, doing research; but in many schools, research assistantships are available to students only after they have passed the qualifying exam). And, in some schools, an exceptional few entering students may receive fellowships (no teaching or research responsibilities).

After successful completion of specified courses and after successfully passing a qualifying exam, students typically then receive research assistantships while performing their thesis work. Typically these are funded through research grants received by the thesis advisors. In some instances, the department might provide some research funds; and in some instances, students might need to continue on teaching assistantships, should their advisors run out of research grant funds (students obviously want to avoid this scenario, since time spent teaching means less time doing research).
Thank you, Mr. CrysPhys. I now grasp the broader perspective of what you were conveying, largely thanks to your patient guidance. Before our conversation, I had little knowledge about studying in the US. Now, it all makes sense to me. I'll explore options for fully funded scholarships when I'm prepared to make the move. Furthermore, I'll investigate whether these programs accommodate non-US citizens or non-permanent residents. Thanks to your insights, I now have a clear direction to pursue.
 
  • #29
Florian Geyer said:
Yes, but some of them also provide two years of upper level coursework, which I believe is exactly what I need.
Um...no.

You need the entirety of a physics BS.

Right now, you are below where the very strongest physics students are when they enter college, not where they are when they graduate. (Yes, someone will chime in with 'Not all the successful students started out at the top" which is true, but does nor alter where you are with respect to the competition)

I appreciate that paying for four years of high quality education is expensive, and that there are very few opportunities to get someone to pay for this. But the fact remains that you are way behind where you need to be to succeed. The people who run these programs, a) have a focus on URMs, and b) would much rather support four students who need one year of support than one student who needs four years of support.

Your plan seems to be "I will be the lucky one". Well, OK, but things may not work out that way.
 
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  • #30
Vanadium 50 said:
Um...no.

You need the entirety of a physics BS.

Right now, you are below where the very strongest physics students are when they enter college, not where they are when they graduate. (Yes, someone will chime in with 'Not all the successful students started out at the top" which is true, but does nor alter where you are with respect to the competition)

I appreciate that paying for four years of high quality education is expensive, and that there are very few opportunities to get someone to pay for this. But the fact remains that you are way behind where you need to be to succeed. The people who run these programs, a) have a focus on URMs, and b) would much rather support four students who need one year of support than one student who needs four years of support.

Your plan seems to be "I will be the lucky one". Well, OK, but things may not work out that way.
Yes, esteemed member, thank you for taking the time to consider my posts. My previous post was just an attempt on my part, but even this approach seems unworkable based on the fact that I am not eligible to apply for many of these programs, even the ones I mistakenly thought were open to international students.
I might add that I actually agree with most of your previous points:
• Firstly, I don't disagree with you about my disastrous level based on my previous experience, and right now, I cannot compare myself to accomplished students in other parts of the world.
• Secondly, I agree with you about the fact that I have an awfully lot of work to do to improve my current level.
• Thirdly, I am aware of the "thick" textbooks I need to master before I can proceed to graduate programs, such as the two Griffiths, Thornton Marion, Schroeder, and Arfken, following Freshman-level math and physics textbooks.
I accept the aforementioned and am not contesting it. My primary focus right now is figuring out how to move forward. I haven't yet formed any strong opinions regarding this aspect. The only belief I firmly hold is summarized in the words of Shakespeare: "Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take up arms against a sea of troubles and, by opposing, end them."
Again, I appreciate taking time and providing me with your insights.
 
  • #31
Florian Geyer said:
I accept the aforementioned and am not contesting it. My primary focus right now is figuring out how to move forward. I haven't yet formed any strong opinions regarding this aspect. The only belief I firmly hold is summarized in the words of Shakespeare: "Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take up arms against a sea of troubles and, by opposing, end them."
As long as the methods you are contemplating to end them do NOT include the method that Hamlet was contemplating to end them, then OK.
 
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  • #32
CrysPhys said:
As long as the methods you are contemplating to end them do NOT include the method that Hamlet was contemplating to end them, then OK.
Do not worry, I will aim my arms on the hardships only
😅
 
  • #33
Florian Geyer said:
Do not worry, I will aim my arms on the hardships only View attachment 331558
OK. I hope you are one of the lucky ones.
 
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  • #34
You should adopt this as your theme song (Click "Watch on YouTube"):



:biggrin:
 
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  • #35
I'm afraid she wasn't so lucky - she died early. And the song's production sure screams 1980's.

At this point, I think there is no point in focusing on graduate education. The OP is not ready. However, the idea of getting someone else to pay for 4 years of Western-level education depends heavily on luck. Lots of luck.

The obvious next step. move to a country with generous education benefits for its citizenry has its own obstacles. If it were easy, everyone would do it. This is compounded by some bad behavior from people in his part of the world which makes immigration policy makers nervous.

In ths US, a year of college costs someone about $50,000. This is supported by some mix of tuition, gifts, indirect charges, endowments, etc. Once someone says "I need a $200,000 education! Who wants to pay for it?" demand seriously outstrips supply.
 

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