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I'm completely lost (long post)

  1. Jan 24, 2016 #1
    Hi everyone,

    I apologize for the long post, and the fact that it may not be written with perfect grammar and spelling since I am not a native English speaker.

    I am an engineering student from France, and I am interested in pursuing a PhD in physics in the near future.

    It's been a week that I've been sending e-mails to a lot of universities regarding the research opportunities they have, but I haven't been getting a lot of helpful answers. Maybe it is because my questions are not clear enough, but anyway, I am hoping I can finally find what I want on this forum.

    My main interest lies in space exploration and I'd like to build a company with ambitious goals in this domain. But I don't want to follow the Musk-like entrepreneurial path : I'm passionate about science (really, I love it, be it mathematics, physics or anything else), and if I am to be at the head of a science company, I want to be an expert to understand what's going on and recruit the best people. Hence my desire to get a PhD in physics. There are two subjects that I would like to conduct graduate research in, but I can't find what I should do for neither of them.

    Please, note that I am not asking for help to decide between the two subjects. What I would like is to get more insight into the two of them.

    1) Controlled nuclear fusion

    I am really excited by the quest for man-made sustained nuclear fusion. I would really like to conduct graduate research on how to make compact nuclear fusion reactors, maybe create new plasma confinement methods, find new techniques to improve inertial confinement methods, find some new ways to initiate a fusion reaction and sustained it, etc. My problem is that I don't know what program I should apply to in order to conduct such research. Should it be the nuclear engineering department ? They are generally focused on fission reactors and the engineering aspect of them so I feel like this would not be the right choice. Should it be plasma physics ? Nuclear physics ? What do you think ?

    2) Einstein field equation and warp field experiments

    I am also curious about space-time physics. I have heard of the Alcubierre metric and what it would imply for space travel. I am also aware of the limitations of this mathematical model and that many physicists believe it will be proven infeasible (being aware doesn't mean I understand any of it). However, as far as I know, this is still a valid solution to Einstein field equation. What should I do to learn about this field of physics and do research in it ? I would like to conduct research on some similar models, suggest new ones, or imagine some lab experiments that would confirm or invalidate these model. To my understanding, there are not many scientists doing research in this field right now. I have only heard of Sonny White at NASA and he hasn't been bringing anything to the table yet. Should I apply for cosmology ? Something else ? Would I be better off studying mathematics since it's all about differential geometry ?

    And finally the common question : where ? Where in the US or in GB. Where can I find the best course material in these two domains, as well as the best advisors ? So far I have thought of Berkeley, Caltech, the MIT, Stanford, University of Chicago, University of Washington... But it is hard for an international student to sort things out.

    If you could answer any of these questions, this would be of great help to me. Indeed, you may have noticed that I am completely lost right now.

    Anything you could say will help me. Thank you in advance.
  2. jcsd
  3. Jan 24, 2016 #2
    Have you considered a business degree? You talk of forming a company to do research, have you considered who your clients will be? Have you ever run a company? It's not an easy task. Keeping smart people on task is like herding cats. Keeping clients happy is -- worse. (Most major universities will have a business school, so getting an MBA and a PhD is likely possible.)

    If someone developed FTL today, there still wouldn't be much of a market for it. Who would pay? (I'm not implying no one would, just that your business plan needs to take into account where the money is coming from.) If you can develop the funding, there are lots of physicists who want jobs in cutting edge development.
  4. Jan 24, 2016 #3
    Hi and thanks for your answer. Let's get this thing out of the way : no business degree.

    When I say I want to create a company to do research, I am not saying this is the first company I will build. I am patient, and my plans are for the next 30 to 40 years. The thing is : you can learn business on your own (example : every Silicon Valley entrepreneur ever). I love entrepreneurship, and it is likely that I will be an entrepreneur after completing my PhD. I may fail a couple of times but that's how I will learn. Learn theoretical plasma physics or general relativity at a PhD level on your own ? How in the world are you supposed to do that ? Since I love science and I want to learn some more science, I will take advantage of this my unique opportunity to become an expert. Business can wait, really.

    But we digress, if you would like to discuss this with me, send me a private message :smile:

    For now, I'd appreciate if we could focus on the science issues what I mentioned in my first post :wink:
  5. Jan 24, 2016 #4
    What's your GPA?
  6. Jan 24, 2016 #5
    I don't know, we don't have GPA in France. But I'm in one of the best schools in my country. Not sure it is relevant to the question though.
  7. Jan 24, 2016 #6
    GPA matters a lot because it will determine your chances of getting into grad school for physics. What was your class rank?
  8. Jan 24, 2016 #7
    You know, the system here in France is really different from that of the US, and I even come from something special in France (Classe Préparatoires aux Grandes Ecoles [CPGE]). I consider myself pretty strong. In case you don't know what CPGE is, we basiclly do 10 hours of physics, 10 hours of math, 6 hours of chemistry a week at school (+ French, English, and 2 hours of oral exam a week), we sometimes have 20 problems to work on from one day to the next, and I worked ~45-50 hours a week in total. Now I am in one of the best engineering schools in France, and they do make their own conversion from our grades to their GPA equivalent. We didn't have any exam result yet though. But any student in my school virtually has at least 3/4 GPA, unless they do nothing. So let's say I have 3.5/4 GPA for the sake of the discussion.

    I thought it wasn't relevant, because I will apply no matter what. I think it's better if we just pretend there is no grade system and I am just interested pursuing a science education. Really, leave this admission concern to me, let's discuss plasma physics and general relativity :smile:
  9. Jan 24, 2016 #8


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    Staff: Mentor

    What are you working on as engineering student?

    Fusion is plasma physics (magnetohydrodynamics + other things), material science, superconductors, a lot of engineering, and a bit of nuclear physics. Laser physics, accelerator physics and various other things for more unconventional approaches. Everything in that range can be useful for fusion research.

    Alcubierre metric: well... mathematically it is a solution. But so is an alien passing by and shooting you into space via a giant hook a solution to the equations. And I'm not sure which one is more likely. The metric needs sources with negative energy density, packed into incredibly tiny space. It is completely unclear if that can exist at all, and if yes, how to produce it.
    I wouldn't base a career on that. There are other applications of general relativity, as some side project it might work.

    GPA is mainly a US thing.
    Why do you look for UK+US only? France is building the largest fusion reactor right now. Japan has a large one, Germany is commissioning one now and has an older one, ...
  10. Jan 24, 2016 #9
    The first year in my school is a broad year where we explore the basics of material science, thermodynamics, fluid mechanics, and systems. I'll only specialize next year. It's still unclear what I will work on. I might take applied mathematics, thermodynamics or material science.

    I am looking for UK+US because I want to perfect my english, it's high time I became bilingual. Japan is an option though, I started studying japanese this year, but I'm not sure I'll have what it takes to go there for advanced physics course only one year from now.

    Based on what you said about fusion, it looks like applying for a physics department will open a lot of doors and delay the moment I'll have to choose. Also, I think it would be the best path to satisfy my curiosity and my love for fundamental science. The problem with and engineering path is that I don't see any M.S. in nuclear engineering focusing on fusion and the challenges we face with it. But maybe I missed something.

    About the Alcubierre metric, I know that no one would base a career on that and that it needs "negative energy density", but I don't know what it means, and I'd still like to learn about it, be it at a theoretical or experimental level, and I don't know where to go in order to do that.

    Thanks for the answer.
  11. Jan 24, 2016 #10
    In the UK the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy (CCFE) is the home of the Joint European Torus, the world's largest magnetic fusion experiment. They have PhD and MSc positions available in collaboration with various UK universities (PhD and MSc opportunities). The University of York has an MSc in Fusion Energy.
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