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How to apply in US to study theoretical physics?

  1. Jul 17, 2015 #1
    Hello, everybody.
    I'm an undergraduate student interested in QFT (especially CFT, String theory, quantum gravity etc). I have already worked through several serious books in QFT and related topics of mathematics (including all problems from books). Of course I don't mean I'm an expert for now, but I want to become an expert.
    But for several reasons I don't rely on the future of theoretical physics in my city and country at all.
    Is it possible to apply in some good institution in US to study and work and what should I do to achieve that? (Of course, I don't have money. Anyway education in US is very expensive..). Maybe it would be useful to participate in any seminars&schools during the next school year, but how is to participate them ? Should I have publications? (The problem is that people in my city believe undergraduate students are too young to seriously work in science).
  2. jcsd
  3. Jul 17, 2015 #2
    P.S. I should add that I study at the experimental faculty and have average grades in practical (experimental) disciplines.
    Also I was not good in school. Unfortunately, interest in physics and mathematics came to me too late. I abruptly changed my mind while preparing to apply to philosophy faculty
    Last edited: Jul 17, 2015
  4. Jul 17, 2015 #3


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    I think you should finish your undergraduate degree where you are, and then apply for graduate (Ph.D.) study in the US. Ph.D. students normally receive funding if they are accepted, unlike undergraduate students.

    (Note that in the US, unlike in most other countries, physics Ph.D. students do not usually do a master's degree separately. Ph.D. programs in the US are effectively equivalent to master's plus Ph.D. elsewhere.)
  5. Jul 17, 2015 #4
    Thank you for your answer! Of course I will finish my undergraduate degree. But what should I do to be accepted ? They might think I'm just an ordinary but too ambitious student.
  6. Jul 17, 2015 #5


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    Basically you need to do well in difficult courses, have significant research experience, have outstanding recommendation letters, and do well on the PGRE. The most important things which make you stand out are research and letters of recommendation. This is because they want to estimate your potential as a great researcher, not just how well you do in courses.

    You technically don't need research experience in HET to be admitted to HET for grad school (very few professors will work with undergrads) but you need to have done extensive research in another field. A lot of people who want to do theoretical physics do computational research during their undergrad.

    You don't need to have publications but if you have one in which you are one of the top authors that gives you a huge advantage. As I've observed, having a first author publication as an undergrad is actually pretty rare, so if you do have one people will be impressed.

    Also, HET theory in general is incredibly competitive. I think the specific fields of string theory/quantum gravity/fields with few or no experiments are even worse since there is really no funding. You have to be really good to get into a good school.
  7. Jul 17, 2015 #6
    I see. How do you think is it usefull for my purposes to start work with different theoretical groups? There are several good groups in astrophysics and condensed matter physics in my city. Some of their researches seem to me too boring but I have no other choice (according to your words)
  8. Jul 17, 2015 #7


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    It's fine, there are a lot of similarities in the methods used in different fields of theoretical physics. It is in general a bit easier to find an interesting problem for an undergrads in areas like CMT or cosmology, although still very difficult. The reason it can be a bit easier is because you can identify some interesting things that do not involve quantum field theoretic techniques. A lot of the problems in CMT might have more to do with interesting manifestations of geometry.

    However, this in no way means that the fields you mentioned are less involved than string theory in any way. In general, modern research topics in CMT use just as much QFT/CFT/advanced math as they do in a lot of HET. In fact many things (or some variant) in HET were actually first scene in condensed matter systems. The Higgs mechanism is actually the Anderson-Higgs mechanism because Anderson was technically the first one to discover it in BCS theory. The Kondo model also displays a confinement transition which is what causes quarks in QCD to only appear in bound states. It's a big thing in spin models, you can see deconfined phases with fractionalized excitations that can be separated from each other.
  9. Jul 17, 2015 #8
    Thank you. I know about these relationships between CMT and QFT and I find them very beautiful as you do.
    Unfortunately, our cosmologists don't use GR in their researchers, and condensed matter theorists don't know modern QFT. They make interesting researchers, but they are old-fashioned and weakly interesting for me.
    I don't mean I live in a remote village: there are just for example several great QF theorists in my city. Unfortunately, they are old men and don't even work with PhD students now.
    The problem is too many young people went abroad (usually not USA)
  10. Jul 18, 2015 #9


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    Sometimes you need to start with a topic you are less interested in to grow as a researcher. I was not as interested in computational work as analytical theory (I still enjoyed it) but working in that field helped me grow tremendously as a researcher and led me to do a summer project in analytical theory. I got to sit in on group meetings with collaborators and learned a ton from just listening to what they have to say.

    By the way I am actually in CMT. People in my group work on all kinds of things involving general topics like quantum phase transitions, lattice gauge theories, and holography.
  11. Jul 18, 2015 #10
    Your advices are wise, thank you. I think I really should reconcile and start to work with our groups despite I'm not very interested in their works.
    Maybe you can advice me some literature on CMT (or general quantum theory of many body) which emphases connections with modern QFT, CFT and something like topological methods (I learned from Nicahara about uses of homotopy for orders and defects in liquids and I would like to learn more about such methods).
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