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How much time to spend on background theory?

  1. Sep 29, 2011 #1
    I am a materials science graduate student so I have not taken the full set of courses that a physics or applied physics graduate student would. It is very important to me to have a strong understanding of all applicable areas of physics - classical E&M, quantum mechanics, statistical physics, solid state physics primarily. If I find a textbook that I like, I really enjoy reading it, and I would often rather do that than read current literature.

    I have a belief that with a good enough understanding of these areas, I will be able to readily grasp most arguments made in the experimental literature, and more quickly pick up much of the theory for specific subfields (like ferroelectricity, which I am currently working on). So in that sense it is certainly beneficial for me to read background texts.

    However, my current research doesn't have any immediate need for much of this theory (although I could argue that it is impossible for me to see how a certain formalism might be applicable if I haven't mastered it). There is effectively no limit to how much time I could spend reading current literature and trying to enhance my knowledge of the state of my field. When I am reading background physics which I enjoy, at what point should I guilt myself into reading more of the literature instead?

    Of course one doesn't need a full mastery of everything that has come before in order to make incremental progress in a field. Is it the job of the graduate student to focus on the forefront of their field and only bulk up on background when the research demands it? Or is it common practice to continually devote a chunk of time to this in the hope of being a more fully realized scientist a few years down the road?
  2. jcsd
  3. Sep 29, 2011 #2

    Vanadium 50

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    "Eenie, meanie, jelly beanie....the spirits are about to speak...how much background will johng23 need in the future?"


    Sorry. Crystal ball must not be working today.

    I am not sure there's a good answer for this. I've picked up on background that I have never used, and there's been time I wish I learned more. There was no way at the time I could possibly have guessed which category a given fact would fall in.
  4. Sep 29, 2011 #3


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    Of course you need some knowledge of all areas of physics. However, as long as you you have a decent "undergraduate level" understanding of ALL areas of physics (optics, acoustics, solid state physics etc) plus a good "graduate level" understanding of the major field that are relevant to your field (which in materials science might be for example QM, statistical physics, computational physics and solid state physics) you should be ok.
    The rest of the time you are probably better off just going back to the textbooks when you need to. The reason is that physics is such a huge field that it is impossible to read and understand everything, and it is almost impossible to predict exactly WHAT you will need.
    I work on superconducting devices (and have ever since I was a PhD student, so about 12 years in total now); over the past 3-4 years I've read graduate level and post-graduate level textbooks on for example quantum optics, acoustics, microwave engineering, open quantum systems and time metrology. Note that I was working on superconducting devices the whole time, meaning none of the fields have any 'obvious' connection to my work; but it just happened to be the case that I discovered that some results/elements from those fields were relevant to my research and in order to understand those I had to go back to the textbooks.
    Of course I am also reading papers and shorter "engineering type" books relevant to my work (since I am an experimentalist I have a bookshelf full of books on things like vacuum systems. electronics etc)
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