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How do Physics specialties work?

  1. Sep 28, 2010 #1
    I am a college freshmen who is interested in studying Physics, but I do not understand how someone specializes after or during graduate school. I am assuming that your specialty is just what courses you end up taking in graduate school, what field you write your thesis in, and/or the type of research being done at your university. Is this right? Is it possible to specialize in one field, but also have some type of sub-specialty in another?

    I was also wondering what type of specialties there are (I only know of Astrophysics, Condensed Matter, String Theory(Don't know if this counts), Optics, and Cosmology)? Any input would be great, thanks.
  2. jcsd
  3. Sep 28, 2010 #2
    Well primarily people specialize in their interests. Typically people pick grad schools all ready knowing what type of research they would like to do. Then once they get to grad school they pick an adviser working in the field while getting a PhD.
  4. Sep 28, 2010 #3


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    You pick a specialty and tailor your graduate school choices to that specialty.

    It depends. To some extent all "specialties" have some dependence on other "subspecialties." Your expertise, at least in my experience, tends to be more of a Gaussian distribution than a delta function.

    Too many to list. Check out a standard university research page and you can get an idea.
  5. Sep 29, 2010 #4
    Generally undergrads don't specialize. Specialization typically doesn't happen until grad school, grad schools are usually picked according to what you want to specialize in.

    It is possible to be involved with more than one field, I know a professor who is involved with both condensed matter and biological physics. The common link is the mathematical methods he uses.
  6. Sep 29, 2010 #5
    What ends up happening is that you start writing your dissertation and papers on a particular topic, and since you know a lot about that topic, it's more likely that you'll be working on that topic. What tends to happen is that you start making a name for yourself as the world's expert on say mass loss in B class supergiants.

    Some people have half jokingly called it, knowing more and more about less and less until you know everything about nothing.

    What usually ends up happening is that people work on something even more specific than that, and you usually have a small group of people that you have networks with that talk about a specific problem. Also, a lot of specialities end up being cross disciplinary. For example, if you are the world expert in B-class supergiants mass loss, you'll end up communicating with the world expert on stellar magnetic fields or the world expert on atomic opacity tables.
  7. Sep 29, 2010 #6


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    Staff: Mentor

    In the USA, it's fairly common for students to enter graduate school without knowing what they're going to specialize in. The first two years of a Ph.D. program consists of "core" coursework in general subjects such as quantum mechanics and electromagnetism. That gives time to sample various research fields before making a final decision on which area you're going to do your dissertation in, and choosing your dissertation advisor and committee.

    When I entered grad school about 35 years ago, I originally thought I might go into low-temperature physics. During my first summer there, I worked for the university's low-temperature group. I and the professor I worked with both realized that I would really prefer something more computer-intensive. He mentioned me to one of his friends who worked in a high-energy particle physics group, who invited me to try them out during the following year. I got interested in HEP, and ended up doing my dissertation in connection with a neutrino experiment.

    For this process to work out well, of course it helps to go to a university that does research in a wide variety of fields.
  8. Sep 29, 2010 #7
    I think I understand now. So if I do not know what area I want to specialize in when I am applying to grad school, I should go to schools with a wide variety of research so I can be exposed to different areas?

    It sounds like it is possible to specialize in two different fields as long as they are connected in some way. Is that right? Is there a way that you can study Cosmology and something else in Physics that is more employable? For instance, Cosmology or Astrophysics with something else in Physics?

    I am asking this because I heard it is difficult to get a research job in Astrophysics, but even more so for Cosmology. So it would be better if I can study Cosmology/Astrophysics with something that is more employable in Physics. I do understand I will probably end up changing my mind in the future, but I would like to have more of an idea of how this works. Any more input would be greatly appreciated. Thanks for the help.
  9. Sep 29, 2010 #8


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    Essentially, yes.

    The term "specialize" is somewhat nebulous. Most would probably consider ones "specialty" the area in which you would be considered an expert. These areas tend to be narrow in scope, but you have to know other, related areas to an advanced level in order to do work in your chosen specialty.

    Cosmology and Astrophysics are very broad terms. What do you mean by "study" and "more employable" ? You're only going to have time for one specialty if that's what you plan to get your PhD in.

    Most (basically all) PhD programs require a dissertation and defense. If you "change your mind" you essentially have to start over, and if you're too far in you might not even be allowed to.
  10. Sep 29, 2010 #9
    I see, so if I chose to study Astrophysics I would be researching something specific within that field. I thought that Astrophysics and Cosmology were very similar, but I had no idea how broad they actually were.

    At the university I am attending this spring, the majority of graduate students are studying something specific like you said, but there are still some who study multiple disciplines. Here are some examples of what they are studying:

    Person X: Astrophysics, cosmology, CMD polarization

    Person y: astroparticle physics, cosmology, cryogenics

    Those are just two examples. I also noticed that the professors have even more specialties. For instance, one guy is researching Astroparticle physics, Inflation, Cosmology of extra-dimensions, Physics beyond the Standard Model.


    So does that mean after graduate school, I would have the option of broadening what I study if I want to? Or did those professors choose to study those topics during graduate school? Sorry if I am asking too many questions. Thanks again for the help.
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