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Other I wanna become a theoretical physicist(questions and doubts)

  1. Sep 9, 2016 #1
    I wanna become a theoretical physicist and work on string theory and quantum mechanics and stuff like that but I don't know how. Should I go to a high rated school or just the oridinary? I don't need to get paid alot but I would like to get atleast the average(not sure what that is) but since i enjoy physics the paycheck doesn't matter(The question is how much does a theoretical physicist make). What does a theoretical physicist do daily compared to other physicist(s)? and I have a few more questions but i'll refrain from asking (right now).

    Im new to this forum and im not sure if I posted this right or anything so if im doing anything wrong just tell me. Anyways I put the prefix other because im not sure what to take since I talk about more than one subject here.
  2. jcsd
  3. Sep 9, 2016 #2
    OK, first of all, you never mentioned why you want to do string theory and QM and your experience with them. So I'll just assume the usual: you have read some popular science books on theoretical physics and are deeply touched by it. Good, but it is vital to know that whatever is portrayed in those books is highly misleading and even wrong. The world of theoretical physics is intensely competitive and difficult. It is NOT AT ALL what is described in the popular media. Only a very small subset of physicists deal with black holes and wormholes. An even smaller subset deals with time travel and other fun issues. Quantum mechanics is a very mathematical theory. In fact, one could say that it is only math. There is very little actual physics and philosophy involved (I know this is a very strong statement, and I'm sure people will disagree vehemently with this, but I stand by it).

    So you want to be a theoretical physicist? Well, you should know that nobody hires theoretical physicists, except universities. So you'll have to go for a professorship. Getting a professorship is INSANELY hard. In fact, less than 1 in 10 PhD's eventually land a professorship! Only a very small fraction of undergrads eventually get a PhD. So the numbers are really against you.

    Note also that if you end up with a bachelors in physics (that is: if you can't get into grad school (which happens a lot!), or if you don't want to go to grad school), then you have a useless degree. You'll find it very very difficult to get a job with this.

    Am I telling you all of this to make you feel bad? No. If you want to go into theoretical physics, fine. But you should do it for the right reasons, and while being aware of all the caveats.

    So what do I advise you? First, get actual math and physics books. Learn calculus, learn physics from those books. Do NOT learn them from watching videos, even if it is from MIT OCW or Khan Academy. The idea is to get a very realistic idea of what studying physics is like. And for that you need to go to actual dry books, read through them and work through all the problems. If you still enjoy physics this way, then you might want to think about doing a bachelors in physics. We can recommend you books if you want, but then you need to tell us your background in both math and physics.

    If you do end up doing a bachelors in physics, make sure that you're taking courses that make you employable. For example, this could be a dual major in computer science or engineering. Or this could be simply some programming courses. Anything that could give you an edge.

    Be sure to always have a plan B ready. Always. The chances of you dropping out for whatever reason are great. Make sure not to neglect a plan B in case you do drop out.
  4. Sep 9, 2016 #3

    Well I was interested in quantum mechanics/quantum physics and quantum theory and that stuff so I just searched youtube since i had no idea what quantum anything was since we have had barely any physics in school just a bit about energy and stuff and I loved it I couldn't stop thinking about physics all these weird questions about how the universe worked just started popping up in my head then I researched it a bit and found that einstein worked on stuff like that and then I searched a bit more and found that the occupation theoretical physicist existed and I really wanted to become someone who worked on that kind of stuff. I also had a really strong interest in time travel and that stuff but I quickly realized they don't do that stuff(usually I think) which is ok. Anyways i'm not sure if I want to become a professor I don't really want to teach I just want to study but if I can do both that would be fine. Working at CERN would also be really fun but I don't know. If you could fill me in about the world of physics or maybe show me something which could make me understand what im getting into I would greatly appreciate it.

    This is the first few videos I ever watched : , ,
  5. Sep 9, 2016 #4


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    None of the videos that worked are real science. You need to enroll in university if you want to work as a physicist. To learn real physics you need to do like micromass suggested, start by learning mechanics and calculus.

    You're probably never going to "work" on any of the above.
  6. Sep 9, 2016 #5
    Yes I know it's just that i would like to be prepared so I don't quit halfway. I would rather be informed on what it is that's real science and what im really gonna be doing if i choose to go this path. So please if someone could give me a reality check or something to make me realize what im getting myself into. give it to me straight and honest please.
  7. Sep 9, 2016 #6

    We already gave you a reality check. We already made suggestions at what you should do.
  8. Sep 9, 2016 #7


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    What is your math background?
  9. Sep 9, 2016 #8
    Nothing extraordinary really, im in 9th grade so i know everything a 9th grader should well I did find some old book where I learnt a bit of linear algebra(just a little bit really nothing of use) which was actually more fun than 9th grade math(when not doing algebra)
    Last edited: Sep 9, 2016
  10. Sep 9, 2016 #9
    I feel like I don't know what im gonna be doing I know you told me that it's not like in the books and videos but im curious to what they actually do I haven't found anything where they really explain it. If I become a professor would I be able to focus on studying while I teach?. If I choose to work at CERN what would I do then?. I honestly can't find anyone who explains it maybe im just stupid and suck at searching for this stuff.
  11. Sep 9, 2016 #10


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    Chances of employment vary greatly from country to country, also curricula will vary from school to school and professor to professor. There is no "one answer fits all".
  12. Sep 9, 2016 #11
    Ok thanks I will keep this in mind from now on.
  13. Sep 9, 2016 #12


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    Physicist don't just end up in professorships or at CERN, the majority don't. Like micromass said, if you want to do research on something completely esoteric, like string theory, though, you really only have one option - that is universities. For all research areas, not all professors teach, some are in research only roles.

    It's impossible to describe in general what physicist do, because there are so many different areas of research within physics. There is no one description fits all. Since you're so young, I'll try to explain it this way: they work following the scientific method, generally trying to explain how nature works when given certain initial conditions and assumptions, and develop mathematical models that fit experimental data and observation. Kind of a corny description, but hopefully you can understand.

    Okay. So what you should be doing now is taking as much math as possible, and when prerequisites are met take intro mechanics. You should be trying to get good grades, and have a good understanding of all the material taught.

    Your goal right now should be to have as strong an application package as possible for when you apply to universities.

    Talk to your parents about your desires to study physics, make your guidance counselor aware so they can help steer your class schedules for the rest of your time in highschool. Look for physics or astronomy clubs and think about joining.
  14. Sep 9, 2016 #13
    Yes I understand now I always though like string theory is just string theory you just have to explain that but I think I know now that it has so many areas of research that you just can't sum it up like it's just that. Thanks alot for this I will continue on with my life. Im sorry for being so stubborn I just couldn't get an answer I was satisfied with.
  15. Sep 9, 2016 #14
    Do you know trig? If not you could learn it. If you do, you can start with an algebra based physics book.
  16. Sep 9, 2016 #15


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    Why're you apologizing? The forum is here for these kinds of questions. We may have seemed harsh above, but we also didn't know your age, and you'd be surprised how many people who are much older who ask the same sort of questions, but who refuse to listen to advice given.

    We're not trying to turn you off to physics, it can be even more interesting than the pop science distortions when you put in the proper effort.
  17. Sep 9, 2016 #16
    I know I realized that it's just that I didn't want to seem stubborn since I had the thought in the back of my mind that it was like that I just probably didn't want it to be true because then im actually gonna have to do the work to get there but that's the fun part though :D. I would appreciate it if people ignored my age I can take whatever you can throw so don't worry about it. I know you didn't want to turn me away from physics and if that was enough for me to give up then I would never have made it. ^^ And once again thanks a lot for telling me everything up till now .
  18. Sep 9, 2016 #17
    Well I just tried it and trig seems actually easy but it is just the beginning. I do have problems though I understand what they mean but when they give me a triangle with sin 0 and 244(hypotenuse) and 80 (opposite) im not to sure what to do. From what I got it was just to divide them and bam there's your answer but it wanted me to give to 2 answers so I think im missing something im having alot of fun doing this tbh
  19. Sep 9, 2016 #18


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    You should get a textbook and work from the beginning. It isn't a quick cursory thing but takes a lot of time and practice.

    Micromass probably has some good suggestions, I would point out that of you haven't studied geometry yet, you'll probably want to start there.
  20. Sep 9, 2016 #19
    Do you have any recommendations? Micromass if you're reading this to then can you give me some recommendations? 2 birds with 1 stone ^^
  21. Sep 9, 2016 #20
    This thread was the little push I needed I loved physics before now I don't wanna do any other jobs. I was thinking about alchemy and that sounded kinda fun it didn't give me the same tingle when thinking about it though but now im 100% sure that I wanna do theoretical physics.
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