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Is there a point to being a theoretical physicist?

  1. Oct 2, 2014 #1


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    When I started undergrad I was speaking with my lab professor, a theoretical physicist, and he asked what I wanted to do when I am done with school. I said I planned on being a theoretical physicist and he told me that about 3/4 of the students in his graduate program at Stanford wanted to be theoretical physicists, and 1/4 wanted to be experimental. That number was flipped at the end of the program.

    At the time I thought nothing of it, I said to myself "Well I am pretty set in stone right now". That was until just recently, I was told the last Nobel Prize has been won by a theorist, and that the field is pretty much dead- all the good stuff is in experiment.

    While I am not particularly dreaming of a Nobel Prize, that struck me as odd. To me, there is no way we've thought of all the possible things to think of. If that's true, why should I even want to be a theorist anymore? Is getting a doctorate just to have one and then never contribute to the world worth it?
  2. jcsd
  3. Oct 2, 2014 #2


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    Somebody ALWAYS thinks we've exhausted physics and we have always been far from it and I'm confident we are far from it now. You should do what you WANT to do.
  4. Oct 2, 2014 #3
    I don't think theoretical physics is dead, although theoretical particle physics hasn't been that productive for a while. But academia, in general, is pretty messed up, in my opinion. I think the thing you left out there is that most physics students will contribute to the world because they are not going to beat the odds and become a professor, and will therefore have to work in more practical fields, like software development or finance.

    One way to put it is like this. Suppose you have a 1/10 chance of being a professor. That means that being a professor should be 10 times better than the next best choice, in order for it to be a rational decision to pursue it.

    I ended up getting a doctorate in math, just to have one. That wasn't the original intent, but towards the end, that's what it became. I lost interest, but finished my thesis because I didn't want to have spent 6 years in grad school and not have a PhD to show for it. I was burnt out, but it wasn't just that. I didn't find the work to be meaningful. Stuff like that can happen. Or not passing quals or otherwise not finishing, which happened to like 50% of the people in my program.

    I would say it's not worth it. It's a massive amount of work and a huge opportunity cost to go to grad school. However, I will use my math education to contribute to the world. It's just that I won't do it in the conventional way, and I will probably get paid little or nothing for the actual mathematical work that I will do. I plan to make really cool math websites and software/games/animations to teach people higher level math eventually. Grad school is a lemon. Don't go. But if you do make the mistake of going, remember, you can always use it to make lemonade.
  5. Oct 2, 2014 #4

    Dr Transport

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    How can anyone say that theoretical physics is dead, as long as there are experiments being done, there will have to be a theoretical explanation for anomalies that cannot be explained away by experimental uncertainties.

    As my adviser said to me many, many years ago, there are two types of theorists, the brilliant ones who come up with the groundbreaking things like QED, Quantum Theory of Solids etc.... then there are the guys, like most of us, who do the pick and shovel work of pushing the general theory into the nooks and crannies of application and figuring out the limitations.
  6. Oct 2, 2014 #5
    Rather than distinguishing between theory and experiment, shouldn't you think about what field of physics you want to be in?

    It doesn't make sense that theoretical biophysics and theoretical optics are each on the table while experimental biophysics and experimental optics are both off the table.
  7. Oct 3, 2014 #6
    It does make sense, I know undergrads who did experimental/computational research but had their hearts set on theoretical studies in grad school. They knew experiments were important but what lit their fires so to speak was theory, so they pursued that.
  8. Oct 3, 2014 #7


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    First of all, the "flip" in the percentage of students doing things by the time they graduate is what I have seen. This is because the "fantasy" of many students when they first enter physics is not the reality, and they finally see that physics is a huge field with a lot of things to study and do.

    Secondly, whenever I see anyone want to do "theoretical physics", I always want to point out what I wrote earlier to make sure this person has a clear understanding on why wanting to do "theoretical physics" is actually rather vague:


    If this fits you, then you need to ask yourself if you have all the sufficient "data" and information to make an informed choice at this moment.

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