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How to Get Into Quantum Computing?

  1. Jul 18, 2011 #1
    Hello everyone,

    I'm from Toronto in CANADA and I am going into grade 12 this September. I figured that it's time to figure out what I want to do with my life and how to achieve it. So I've been debating between research/building a quantum computer, working on teleportation (far-fetched I know) or working in aerospace. I've ruled teleportation out because I think at this time, I won't even make a dent into the furtherance of the field. Aerospace is more plausible, especially with the US privatizing space shuttle development but it is making a quantum computer that I truly want.

    As a result, I am having trouble selecting a university program to apply for. Quantum computing is still very new and consequently, I am not having a great time finding information on how to get into the field. Please note that I am interested in hardware development. I understand that building a quantum computer would encompass work on hardware and software, but it is the hardware aspect that intrigues me.

    And this is where the problem arises. Due to the fact that quantum computing is still a new topic, research is required to further the field. To me, this means studying physics in university. However, mechanical knowledge is still important in order to actually build the machine. This seems more like an engineering task. So what really am I supposed to study in university? Physics or engineering?

    I am sorry if my questions seem vague; I am just completely lost and no one I know can help me.

    Thank you all so much,
  2. jcsd
  3. Jul 18, 2011 #2
    It goes something like this: at this point in your life you probably have no idea of what you would actually enjoy doing. Many people still find themselves with some type of post-secondary degree but still don't know what they want out of life.

    My advice to you: don't focus on popular science (teleportation :rolleyes:) and just read more literature. Pick up a physics textbook from the library and try to read it; does any of it seem interesting? Do you like programming? How do you do with math? Right now you should focus more on developing your ability to think rather than set your decision into stone.

    Good luck.
  4. Jul 18, 2011 #3
    I know what you mean, but I am hell bent on working on quantum computers. I don't want to work on current technology because its going to be obsolete sooner or later.

    I'd like to think that I'm fine with math. I did grade 12 physics with grade 10 math knowledge. Grade 12 physics taught me more math principles than grade 11 math did.

    Thank you for your advice. However, I am still looking for advice on how to get into quantum computing in university.
  5. Jul 19, 2011 #4
    I did a summer's worth of research in quantum computing, and I can tell from your impression of it that you probably haven't read too much beyond the popular science magazines. The idea that quantum computing will make older machines obsolete is frankly ridiculous. The class of problems that quantum computers are much faster than classical computers doesn't contain too many problems of practical importance. Prime factoring large numbers is about the most important thing that we know is faster on a quantum computer.

    Also, there are theoretical reasons to believe that quantum computing gets much more difficult as the number of qbits increases. 50 years from now, you'll still probably have a mostly classical computer. I'd also like to mention that huge advances have been made in biomolecular computing. If the field of quantum computing is young, biomolecular computing is in its infancy (it's only existed since the '90s). Theoretical computer science is a big field, and it's almost impossible to predict where it's going, especially if your information comes from reading popular science sources.

    If you're definitely set on quantum computing, you'll need to go to graduate school to do anything serious. You'll probably need either a physics, math, or computer science major to apply, and I'd venture to guess that most people interested in quantum computing have at least a minor in another of the three areas, if not a double major. Graduate schools are also pretty competitive in this area, so you'll need to make high grades in all your classes.

    The three different majors all have different focuses. If you want to actually work on building a computer, then some lab experience (particularly in AMO physics) is necessary. A physics major, together with some theoretical computer science classes, might prepare you for grad school. If you're more into designing algorithms for a quantum computer, you'll want to major in CS (focus heavily on algorithms and theory classes), and at least a minor in math, taking at least one semester of abstract linear algebra. A Quantum mechanics class would also be nice. If your school's CS program is more engineering than theory, you might drop all the non-theory classes, and do math and physics as majors with a few extra CS classes.

    To say the least, the requisite amount of knowledge is fairly large. If you took classes at the normal rate, it might take 5 or even 6 years as an undergraduate. If you go faster, you risk your grades dropping.

    After you graduate from college, you'll go to grad school for a Ph.D. Almost everyone in the field has a Ph.D. and you won't find a job unless you have one. This will take 4-6 years minimum, and I know at least a dozen people who spent 10 years or more on their Ph.Ds. I don't know any specifics related to quantum computing, but I do know that experimental projects tend to take longer.

    After you finish your Ph.D., you'll be ready to start real research on quantum computing. In case you weren't counting, at best you'll be in college 9 years, and at worst you could be there 15+ years. Also, if you want to be a professor at a university, plan on doing a few more years as a postdoc.

    The above is a bit harsh. You could potentially get a 4-year degree in something like electrical engineering, and end up working on a quantum computer. But you'd be doing electrical engineering, not quantum computing. Even if you managed to become an expert in quantum computing while working there, you'd have a lot of trouble not having the same background and language as the other researchers.

    By comparison, Aerospace engineering is a fairly standard 4-year degree. You don't need any kind of graduate work to get a job. You should read the stickied thread about engineering to see if you're interested in that kind of work.
  6. Jul 19, 2011 #5


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    Hey thor75 and welcome to the forums.

    One thing you should take note of with quantum computing is the issue of decoherence. The error propagation is something you should get to understand if you want to work in this area because it is a huge bottleneck.

    I recommend that if you want to get into this you get a B.Sci in physics and take as many math and computer science courses as possible. You need to understand the theoretical framework for deterministic computing before you extend that to models with random properties.

    But yeah if you are interested, I strongly suggest you get some kind of layman's guide to the decoherence problem. Maybe someone with some expertise can point you in the right direction.
  7. Jul 19, 2011 #6
    This is a bit of a rough description in some respects. Yes there is a great emphasis on multidisciplinary learning, but sometimes it's not all that necessary. There are people who work in solid state experiments that don't really need to be able to do research in algorithms to do a good job in contributing to quantum computing by doing their normal jobs as solid state experimentalists. That being said, the things said about getting the actual education isn't atypical of physics or math degrees; if you're getting a physics Ph.D you'll probably spend 4 undergrad + 6 grad years anyway, during which you'll have to be an expert in your field and have a thorough understanding of anything relevant regardless of what you're going to be doing.

    I think quantum computing is at the stage where you can come at it, like the above poster mentioned, from many different angles. You don't have to decide right away, and you can probably change it up somewhat down the line (like when you're going to graduate school). For instance, I'm working in condensed matter theory and quantum optics, but with some further understanding of algorithm theory I could probably get into the more theoretical aspects of quantum information theory. The key is just to be flexible, but I don't think it would be harder than anything else you might think about doing.

    One last thing to be wary of: if you decide to go the CS route, make sure you check with the school curriculum. Many 'computer science' degrees are really software engineering degrees. Computer science is highly theoretical, though really just a branch of mathematics. If you don't see lots of math classes, you should think about getting a math degree instead (or physics).

    Also, I'm reading a book called 'Quantum Computing for Computer Scientists' (by Yanofsky and Mannucci), which gives an interesting introduction to basic quantum theory and quantum computing at an introductory level. It has an intro section on some of the simple aspects of complex numbers and it has a pretty quick crash-course on linear algebra. Maybe this could be a good place to start, as it's meant for undergraduates. Don't be disappointed if you can't get through it at first, it makes more sense once you have a better grasp of the mathematics behind it (that is, elementary linear algebra). It might be smart to start with some linear algebra first.
  8. Jul 21, 2011 #7
    Well I've read all the replies and I just wanted you guys to know how much I appreciate your input. I just wanted you guys to know (if you care) that I think I'm dropping the quantum computing idea. I mean, I still WANT to pursue the goal, but at this time and age, I don't think I can achieve it and be successful financially (yes I do care about that).

    So now, I'm looking more at aerospace engineering or nanotechnology (suggested by friend). Any opinions on those fields? All I know is that I don't necessarily NEED grad studies to hack my way into those fields (aerospace at least).

    But I will your book a try, hadsed. Nothings set in stone.
  9. Jul 21, 2011 #8
    If you're into nanotech, you know you could probably still do quantum physics. You could look into solid state physics or condensed matter, both incorporate quantum physics (in fact that's basically what it is). There's lots to do in those fields so if your'e still interested I think you should go for it. That QC book I recommended can still be useful.
  10. Jul 22, 2011 #9
    Interesting... I'll keep that in mind.

    So I'm really confused about aerospace engineering. I've heard that if you're into astronautical engineering, you'd better be an American citizen. Surely a Canadian can work for an American company and there are Canadian companies that work on astronautical products right?

    In terms of programs, nanotechnology would be taken at Waterloo for sure right? Aerospace I'm less sure. The engineering science program at University of Toronto can specialize into aerospace but engsci is supposedly really really really really really hard. Any other options for aerospace?

    Thanks guys for everything
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