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Math Mathematics PhD for job in academia and string theory research?

  1. Jul 29, 2011 #1
    I am currently an undergraduate majoring in honors physics and mathematics. I am also doing pre-med studies.

    If I don't make it into medical school, I am thinking about what field I should continue to study. The field of physics that I actually like is mathematical physics, including gauge field theories in non-abelian algebras and string theory, I would prefer to have a job in academia, so my question is should I pursue a PhD in Mathematics in Algebra or Algebraic Geometry, and do research in string theory, or go for a PhD in theoretical physics, (but this will probably require me to find work in non-academic setting.)

    If the answer to both is that it is hard to get a job in academia, then I will probably just try to get a PhD in computer sciences in numerical analysis and look for an industrial job, but then my question is: when I am in this setting, if I have contacts with old physics professors, is it practical for me to expect to be able to publish research (the work will be done in my spare time)?
  2. jcsd
  3. Jul 30, 2011 #2
    It is. Don't count on getting a job in academia.

    Actually that's not a good idea unless you like CS research. A Ph.D. in physics/mathematics is not less marketable than a Ph.D. in computer science. Also the main thing that will get you a job is computer programming skills, and there are lots of Ph.D.'s in physics and math that can program very well, and a surprising number of Ph.D.'s in computer science that can't program worth a darn.

    One thing that makes things messy is that the connection between dissertation topic and industrial relevance is not obvious. For example, if you get a Ph.D. in computer science, you'll likely find it easier to get a job with my group if you work on something like machine vision than if you work on numerical analysis.

    If you are going to do a Ph.D., do what you like. The most important thing is to finish the Ph.D., and if you try to make guesses as to what is "relevant" you are likely to guess wrong. What will help a lot is to get an internship before you finish your Ph.D.

    I haven't been able to do it, because I have no spare time.

    If you can find some job in which you have an eight hour day (like a clerk in the Swiss patent office), then it might be possible, but my days are 12 hours and afterwards I have to take care of the kids, and so I'm dead tired at the end of it. If I could find a part time job, then I would be able to do research, but I haven't found any such jobs.

    I've been trying to figure out why there are no part time jobs in high technology, and my hypothesis is that this has to do with nature of "thinking work." For example, if your job is to put boxes into other boxes, then you can punch a time clock and it's obvious when you are working and when you are not working. "Mental jobs" aren't like that. You see me looking at a piece of paper, and there is no way you can tell what I'm thinking and if I'm really working. So the way that mental jobs work is that they pay you money, and then they try to squeeze as much work as possible out of you.

    One other characteristic of "mental work" is that you can't shut down your brain. Sometimes I'm physically at work, but I'm thinking of something else. Other times, I'm at home, but I'm actually thinking of this math problem at the office, and I've had situations in which I know that my subconscious is working on a problem while I'm sleeping. Once they give you the paycheck, then the incentives are set up so that your employer tries to give you no spare time.

    I've been thinking of a few ways around this problem, but I haven't figured out something that works yet. The most promising thing is to work at something that makes a ton of $$$ and retire early.

    There are also some severe logistical issues. For example, you can't easily show up at a department seminar, etc. etc.

    As far as publishing papers go. There are a few big barriers. The big one is that any non-trivial paper requires co-authors and people don't have the mindset and social structures to make these sorts of things easy. The other one is that you shouldn't underestimate the amount of time and energy it takes to create a good paper. A lot of this ends up being for surprisingly mundane things.

    Also there is access to resources. The fact that I don't have access to a research library is a big problem. The fact that there seems to be no way that I can pay someone a set fee to get electronic access to a research library is something that I find amazing. I'd be willing to spend $100-$200/month for a library card, but there oddly don't seem to be any vendors that will do this.

    But one big mistake that I made was that after I got my Ph.D., I was annoyed and upset enough so that I let my research links go cold, and by the time I got over that, it was just too much work to restart all of the research networks again. Curiously, my adviser was really supportive, but because I felt as if I had "failed", I had this period in which I didn't want to do anything with astrophysics. It wasn't a long period (about two years), but it was enough to have everything get cold.

    Now whether it's possible for you, I don't know. I'm just telling you what worked and didn't work for me in the hopes that you might find something better. One thing about the barriers is that a lot of them seem to be trivial (i.e. you'd think that if you pay enough money *someone* will give you an online research library), but trivial barriers are enough to sink you.

    One other thing is that the world looks different once you leave graduate school. Most graduate students have a lot of time, but very little money. My situation is that I have all the money that I need but no time.
    Last edited: Jul 30, 2011
  4. Jul 30, 2011 #3


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    two - "Most graduate students have a lot of time, but very little money. My situation is that I have all the money that I need but no time."

    Obvisouly you can cut down on your internet time, and invest it in say research.
  5. Jul 30, 2011 #4
    Curiously that doesn't work. :-) :-)

    Something about internet posts is that they are "potato chip" time investments. I have five or six minutes, I post something. I'm done. Wikipedia is also like that. The problem with peer-reviewed papers, is that they aren't "potato chip" time investments. If I decide to write a paper, then that forces me to make an investment of time of several months, and if I end up going half way done, I get nothing.

    One other thing is that it's curiously possible to multitask conversations. One thing that happens pretty regularly is that I'm literally talking to three or four people at the same time, so while I'm typing something to this forum, I'm also in two or three IM simultanous chat conversations with people at work, at the same time writing an e-mail in a third window, and then reading a non-math memo in other window. One reason work is extremely exhausting is that after 12 hours of talking to two or three people at the same time, your mind freezes.

    The other interesting thing is that from the time I get to work to the time that I leave, I'm pretty much continuously connected to the corporate intranet. When I'm chatting via IM, invariably one of the people is going to be in a different continent. So you could be in NY, and one person you are talking with is in London, and the other is in Tokyo, and a third person some place else in the world that you don't know or care where.

    However, doing "heavy math" is something that I can't multitask. If I have to do an analytic calculation, then I have to put my entire brain at that for about an hour or two.

    If you structure things so that someone can spend two hours and then have done something useful, then that would change things, but peer reviewed papers aren't like that. Also one thing that I can do is to keep social networks fresh.

    One thing that will not work is if you lock yourself in a room and try to come up with ideas. That just won't work, and the reason that universities exist is so that people can easily talk to each other.

    One other thing that I wish I could to is to talk publicly about what I'm working on. For the last two weeks, I've been working on a very, very interesting mathematical problem, and a lot of my e-mails and IM discussions are talking with other Ph.D.'s in the company about that interesting mathematical problem. Unfortunately, the social structures are not set up so that I can safely talk about what I'm doing to someone outside of the company.
  6. Jul 31, 2011 #5


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    Well with the ways to contact people nowadays, I am not sure you actually need to be physically present at a university.

    With that saying, it's a good place to mingle with other like minded people, who are especially hard to find outside of academia.
  7. Jul 31, 2011 #6


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    At the moment I'm doing a course by distance on Bayesian Inference Methods.

    I think in terms of being physically present, I don't know if I would gamble on a freshman doing distance based courses if their education was solely through the standard education system.

    For senior undergraduates or post graduates then I have qualms, but even then it takes a lot of discipline and genuine motivation to go the distance route.

    Even with the distance component I see a tutor once a week at my campus to discuss things related to the content and assessment.

    But I do believe there are exceptions. Some people early on get education that is similar to a university style one in high school and combined with the right traits, they end up with the right set of characteristics to do this early on (at least a lot earlier than most).
  8. Jul 31, 2011 #7
    There are certain social interactions that you need in order to do science. I think it's *possible* to do most of that online with the occasional face-to-face meetings. The trouble is that the technology to do that hasn't been created yet. The problem isn't the "hardware". All that it is there. The problem is the "software."

    Part of the reason I'm interesting in sociology, politics, and finance is that all of the "hardware" problems involved with doing science online have been removed. The barriers are sociological, political, and financial, and sometimes those are more difficult than the hardware.

    One particular problem is that right now universities basically have a monopoly on "monetizing" knowledge. I learn X, how do I convert my knowledge of X into cash? Right now, it's difficult without having a university involved, and like all institutions which are in the money stream, they have a vested interest in keeping this monopoly going.

    One of the problems is that there are too many ways of contacting people, and one thing that we sort of need to do is to limit the number of ways of contacting people.

    There's also the incentives problem. Right now there is this (IMHO wrong) idea that the world produces too many physics Ph.D.'s, and so there isn't any incentive to make it easier to produce more. That's one of the reasons it's "hard" to do science part time. If you make it easy then everyone will do it, and right now we have a "glut" of physicists.

    I think that the technology exists to produce hundreds of thousands of physics Ph.D.'s each year, but in order for that to happen, you have to fundamentally change the current economic and perhaps political system.

    It took me a while to figure this out, but once I figured it out, finance got a lot more interesting.
  9. Jul 31, 2011 #8
    One of the functions of the American university is to serve as "young adult daycare." It turns out that people aged 18-21 need somewhere "safe" that they can learn about sex, alcohol, relationships, and general life stuff. Something about universities is that you can royally mess up things, and still not destroy your life.

    For example, one of the most important things I learned at MIT was "eat your vegetables." When I was at home, my mother always made me eat my vegetables. One of the first things that I did when I got to MIT was that I got to eat whatever I wanted, and after a month or two, I was totally sick. There really is no way that you can have this particular lesson taught via distance learning. You can have a million web pages telling you to eat your vegetables, but in order to actually have that happen, in my case, something "bad" had to happen.

    The reason this becomes important is that people often think of education and universities as a list of classes. This is probably not a good thing, because classes are the easiest thing to put online. The harder bits are the things outside of classes.

    And then you have to think about how the university fits into the social system. You have to ask why we are trying to make it easier to learn stuff, if we have too many smart people and not enough jobs already. If you look at the places were distance education has been booming, it's been in areas where people think that they can make money if they take the course.

    And then you have to figure out "who teaches discipline." One reason that I liked teaching at University of Phoenix is that I didn't have to do very much "babysitting." However, part of the reason why is that a lot of the people there were ex-military, so some drill segarent took care of teaching babysitting. One time I stumbled on a internet conversation among drill seargents, and one thing that struck me is how much time they spend on "adult daycare" issues. For example, outside of every Army base, there are a bunch of car salesman and payday loans businesses that will legally rob soldiers blind with bad loans, and part of the job of the seargant is to try to protect the 19 year old private as much as they can.

    The interesting thing is that the role of universities as *general* young adult daycare is pretty recent. It started in the 1960's. There are also other changes in the labor force. For example in 1950, you could get a blue collar job at a factory or working on the docks, and then expect to work there for your life, and so that factory or those docks ended up being "family." That role ended in the 1980's.

    But then you have the "monetization" problem. How do you turn knowledge into cash?
  10. Aug 1, 2011 #9


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    That's just what happens in life, but I do agree with what you are saying. I had to screw up pretty badly in some instances to stop doing stupid things and if I could change those circumstances, I wouldn't.

    I think this changes for people as time goes on, and as people get into more depth and more intensity, this attitude can change. The difference can be between someone that just wants to retain their 4.0 to the person who is taking the GPA killer classes not for the fact that the GPA will be most likely killed, but purely because they want the challenge and really want to seriously learn something.

    I think people should take note about some of the things you have to say, especially with regards to a social context.

    There are smart people who get annoyed that "jocks" (for lack of a better term) end up being in positions which end up earning more money and "social respect/status" (again for lack of a better term) than people who have slaved away at university and other post graduate studies, purely with their faith that they would be in a better position than said jocks.

    In context of what you posted, sometimes "smart" is not enough. Intellectual "smarts" need to be complemented by "social" and "street" smarts, and part of being completely "smart" is being strong in all of these areas to either get a job, or create a job for yourself.

    You yourself have said quite a number of times about PhD graduates you have to change their ways if they want a decent chance to get something outside of the academic circle.

    That's what entrepreneurs do best!

    In terms of economics, I don't believe that wealth is something that is finite. The models of economics that deal with resources that are treated purely as finite and hence valuable is, at least in my mind, not a true indicator.

    It's not I think nothing is finite, but rather that technology and innovation has a habit of bending pre-existing notions and limits of the "finite-ness" of the resources available. Things that are created today help create better things for tomorrow.

    In your question, if you are referring "turning knowledge into cash" in regards to the university model of education, then that's just like finance: it's a confidence game. We think earning so and so degree at so and so place means high probability of success and return on investment. Without confidence, things would collapse.

    But if you're talking about the "entrepreneurial" way of turning knowledge to cash, then that takes a certain kind of person: or more correctly the right mix of people.

    The thing is though, a lot of people are not entrepreneurial. The kind of blind optimism is so contrary to everything that people are taught, that most people are automatically filtered out on this ground alone.

    If someone has enough blind optimism, then the perseverance needed to battle failure after failure, stressful situation after situation, and ability to really put everything of yourself on the line, is just too much for most people. Most people strive for security, and entrepreneurial people give this up almost completely.

    My personal thought is that entrepreneurs become more able to deal with bad times, like economic cycles, purely because that is a natural thing for an entrepreneur to deal with.
  11. Aug 1, 2011 #10
    What books do you suggest reading about finance? WHat books give a greater knowledge of politics and finance?

    What are my chances of getting an entry level statistician job with a computer science and statistics degree in the government?
  12. Aug 1, 2011 #11
    Go to a research library or bookstore, close your eyes, and pick a few books at random, and then buy/borrow the ones that look interesting.

    One reason I try not to answer "what books you should read" questions is that if I give you a reading list, I'll tend to give you books that fit my own philosophy and interests and that would bias things. Also, if you pick a book at random, you might find some book that I don't know about.

    Wikipedia is also cool for this sort of thing. Pick some article at random and then see where that gets you.

    The other thing about finance and politics is that it's something that you *do* rather than something you read about. Get involved in student council and try to get something done.

    I don't think it works that way. You read a diverse set of books and then try to make up your own stuff. Also it's important to actually do stuff, and to actively interact with the book rather than just passively absorb knowledge.

    Depends on funding levels.

    One thing that I've found useful here is to "question the question." The question of "what are my chances" is interesting. What do you *mean* when you ask that question? Suppose, I answer 50%, what does that *mean*. Seriously, think about it........
  13. Aug 1, 2011 #12
    And there is a reason for that. Getting money and power is all about convincing people to do certain things for you and to work with other people to get those things. These are
    "jock" skills that you learn playing American football or trying to get a date.

    Since I like learning new stuff, I don't mind learning "jock" skills.

    It's not so much changing that's the problem. Unless you want to starve, you really don't have that much choice. What I think needs to change is the "culture of academia" that discourages Ph.D.'s from learning outside skills.

    Wealth is finite. You have to distinguish between what is *possible* and what *is*.

    There's no physical law that prevents me from having a bowl of spaghetti in front of me, but as a point of fact, there isn't a bowl of spaghetti in front of me. If you give me about an hour, I can get a bowl of spaghetti. If you give me five seconds, I can't.

    Similarly, wealth is finite since right now I can't go out and buy the Brooklyn Bridge. You can imagine a world in which this is possible, but that's not the one that we are in. Now you could argue that we are limiting the wealth available because of silly sociological rules.

    Yeah... And?

    But that requires a pretty sophisticated social infrastructure. One thing that seriously concerns me is that I think that current government policies in the United States are destroying technology infrastructure. One thing that I happen to believe is that technology requires massive government funding.

    Silicon Valley came into existence because of massive defense spending and education spending in the 1950's and 1960's.

    One problem with cutting government funding to education and technology is that the "lights don't go out immediately." It's pretty easy to "cut waste" because if you zero out technology funding, nothing bad happens immediately. But if you wait ten to twenty years, things fall apart.

    Then you get into the brass tacks issues with running a company. You need risk capital. And health insurance is a royal pain.

    Everyone will work out if issuing degrees you generate enough new wealth to pay for the investments, at that point you have a good cycle. Degrees -> more education -> more wealth -> more money for education

    The trouble is that I don't think that cycle is working. The fact that the best job that ParticleGrrl can find right now is working as a bartender suggests that something is very, very broken.

    Also, I was thinking in terms of my own experience with the University of Phoenix. I taught algebra there. I make $1000 a month doing that. Now there are 15 students each paying UoP $1000/month. That is $15000 coming in. Now you'd think that I could charge 15 students half the price, make a lot more money and cut UoP out of the loop, but I can't because I can't issue degrees. Now where does that massive amount of money go? It turns out that about 10% goes to teachers and 35% goes to marketing.

    Things work differently in East Asia. The thing about East Asia is that everything is test based, so you "win" if you pass the National Entrance Exams. As a result there is a huge industry of cram schools for doing that, and those cram schools tend to be massive money makers.

    Since I'm something of a "big thinker" if it involves creating a new industry to get something done, I'll create a new industry. The trouble is that this takes about a decade, and in the meantime, I have to eat.

    There is an article by Malcolm Gladwell that argues that entrepreneurs are not optimists. In fact he argues that entrepreneurs tend to be massive pessimists that just see things that other people don't.

    That makes sense to me. The "blind optimists" are people that think that they can get a job in academia. If I was a blind optimist, I never would have started thinking "creatively" to deal with the fact that I was just not going to get a job in academia with the standard route. I think of it this way. Someone that jumps out of an airplane with a parachute isn't an optimist if he realizes that the plane is going to crash.

    One thing that helped me a lot is that I went to entrepreneur school (i.e. MIT). It doesn't take that much courage to start your own company if you know a dozen people that have also done the same thing.

    I don't think that's true. Google for the "Stockdale paradox."

    Also don't think of it as a battle against failure. You will fail. You will fail badly. You just need to make sure that you don't fail in any fatal ways. You should never put everything on the line because if the coin flip goes bad, you are dead. Instead gamble what you can afford to lose. That way you can keep flipping the coin and make Kolmorgorov's zero-one law work to your advantage.

    This involves "jock skills." One reason that jocks tend to get dates is that they try to get a date, and if it doesn't work, the head over to the next possible target, and they keep trying until someone says yes. Something that you quickly learn when you do sales is not to take someone saying no personally. Just smile, shake hands, and then move to the next lead.

    I don't think that's true. Entrepreneurial people in my experience crave security. They just realize that what most people think is secure..... isn't.....

    Also the idoltry of entrepreneurs is taken a really nasty turn. One justification for letting people make huge amounts of money is that if you let some people make massive amounts of money, it grows the pie and that the gravy trickles down. That's not what is happening.

    The problem is that massive economic cycles just destroy small companies. If you have a big company, you can survive the business cycle with capital and if you run out of capital, you could be too big to fail. SME's get creamed by economic cycles.

    One thing that scares me about looking at the University of Phoenix and academia in general is that you look at the problems that you see in universities and then realize that those problems are making it into general society. The problem is that that entrepreneurs need consumers, and if you are selling products to the government or to middle class consumers then there is no need for you to exist.

    The one bit of optimism is that the United States has been through worse, and it might take a few years but people will react. My guess is that if my view of what happens next is correct that in 2020, when China and India announces that they are going to be sending people to the Moon, that the United States will wake up and fix what needs to be fixed.
    Last edited: Aug 1, 2011
  14. Aug 1, 2011 #13


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    This is a 'potato chip'? o.o
  15. Aug 2, 2011 #14
    who cares ;)

    two-fish is awesome.
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