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How to become a theoretical physicist

  1. Jul 4, 2015 #1
    Hi , I'm currently a high school student and aiming to be a theoretical physicist but before I go any further I'd like to know what it takes to be a theoretical physicist based on some basic questions revolving around my head all this time.Eventhough I searched for any information pertaining to theoretical physicist I'll always feel like I had deviate or lost from getting to know about the clear information I had to know. First of all what qualifications I have to earn to become a theoretical physicist, starting from my highschool to Universities. How many years it would take and what I will learn throughout the whole course as well as abstract courses such as quantum mechanics and relativity. Second of all , after finishing my higher studies where I have to search for jobs and will I work under any companies and always be ordered to do studies (more like forced-to-do ). Will I get due dates to complete what I will be currently working on ? Just for simplicity I want to have my own laboratory and work place to think and work out procedures and work with my own theories based on what I've studied. That would be far enough. Lastly I am passionate about making my own theories and trying them out especially in the branch of physics into atomic levels. I do my works and learning for passion. That is all what i wanted to ask , thanks in advance !
    P.s. if you had read any sci-fic books pertaining to physics please state the title of the book as well , thanks !
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  3. Jul 4, 2015 #2
    Theoretical physicists don't usually have laboratories. Newton was a notable exception, but he did experimental work also.

    As for high school, work hard in math and science, trying as hard as you can to earn As in math through at least pre-calculus, chemistry, and physics. If your ACT scores in math and science are under 30, find supplementary material and work hard at it to bring those scores into the 30s.

    Look at the national rankings for physics programs, and scratch all the schools not in the top 100 off of your list. A BS degree in physics usually takes 4 years. From there you will apply to grad school. You will want a GPA > 3.5 and a GRE score above the 80th percentile to get into a good PhD program. That will take lots of solid undergraduate course work. Do not skimp on the math or science classes. I had over 100 hours of college credit in STEM courses when I graduated. You will want to be sure you have a strong undergraduate background in numerical analysis and programming to be attractive to potential research advisors.

    PhDs in theoretical physics typically take 4-7 years. If you land a job outside of academia after graduation, it will most likely be a computer modeling job in the Dept of Defense or a big company which has need of graduates with outstanding computer modeling skills. If you want to keep researching and publishing in more pure theoretical physics, you'll most likely need to retain an academic position (tenure track faculty usually). If you want to pursue your own theories outside of an academic position, you need a government or industry job to pay the bills and keep chasing your theories as a sideline (like Einstein in the Swiss Patent Office).
  4. Jul 4, 2015 #3


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    I suggest reading ZappeZ's excellent insight series, starting here. It contains more information than anyone will be able to give you in forum form.
  5. Jul 7, 2015 #4


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    Graduate school rankings in physics are directly related to how many students they graduate per year. Schools with smaller, targeted programs might be low ranked but very highly regarded in specific fields. So look for places where you can study with people doing the things you're interested in, and don't worry as much about rankings. I and many of my friends earned our PhDs at schools ranked over 100 for physics grad school, but we still got top postdocs and our dream jobs (NASA, Harvard, Stanford, national labs, colleges and universities, etc).
  6. Jul 7, 2015 #5
    I second this. I'm at a school where I'm free to study cosmology with a professor who is a leader in his sub-field but the school is very low in the rankings. However, I'm not competing with twelve other grad students for face time with this professor, and I have the freedom to study what I like and not worry about which professor has funding, and there is overall a lot less pressure to be a cutthroat competitive publishing machine, and more emphasis on learning to be a productive researcher. Also, most elite universities are in very expensive neighborhoods.
  7. Jul 8, 2015 #6


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    I'm going to add my two cents because I think most elite schools have very unfair reputations. For one thing, I completely disagree that funding is an issue at most elite schools. These schools, especially private schools have a lot of money. Funding is rarely an issue. You can always teach a reasonable course load in theory and many professors will give their students full RAs for many semesters. My friend never had to worry about an RA, he's gotten them whenever he needed it (you are required to teach on semester at my program). I also disagree about the environment. Things have changed a lot in the past fifteen years. All of my peers and the professors I have interacted with are very nice and down to earth. I have learned a tremendous amount just from talking to them.

    In my program, even though some advisors have a lot of students, they most definitely do not have 12 students and rarely more than 6 (I don't count postdocs since they are very independent over here as are most senior grad students). Even so, that doesn't mean the professor won't pay attention to you. Many are more hands off, but that's not a bad thing. It teaches you to be more independent and you should be motivated to reach out to the professor anyway. A hands off advisor will give you more freedom to study what you like. It's also incredibly useful to speak to other students and postdocs, there is always an expert on a topic in every group that likely will be happy to help you with questions.

    Regarding the original poster's questions if you want independence, you should work in academia or a national lab. As long as you get grants and publish, you can pretty much do anything you want. I know professors who even switched fields entirely. However, the job market in academia is incredibly competitive so you can most definitely not guarantee you will get a job.

    I would just focus on doing well in high school and undergrad. You still do not really have a clear idea of what theoretical physics is or what it entails. For one, I never set foot in a lab for research, everything is pen and paper or on the computer in my subfield. I don't even need to use a cluster to do the computational stuff although there are groups that are specifically computational in my subfield. You may find out you are actually interested in something else entirely. However, once you take physics courses in college that will become clearer.
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