Moving from experimental to theoretical

  • #1
Hi all,

I'm currently a fourth year physics student, working on my honours degree. The school that I'm at has almost no research happening in theoretical physics, but I've always been more interested in theoretical than experimental physics. For my honours project, I'll be working on something completely experimental (leaning slightly towards biophysics) and I'm wondering if by doing this, I'll be completely eliminating any chance of getting into a grad school for theoretical work. I'm taking courses on quantum mechanics and general relativity, but my school doesn't offer anything such as string theory or quantum field theory. If I can keep my marks high in the courses that I am taking, is it possible that a supervisor will still consider me for a master's degree in a field that I have no experience in?

Thanks!
 

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  • #2
George Jones
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Hi all,

I'm currently a fourth year physics student, working on my honours degree. The school that I'm at has almost no research happening in theoretical physics, but I've always been more interested in theoretical than experimental physics. For my honours project, I'll be working on something completely experimental (leaning slightly towards biophysics) and I'm wondering if by doing this, I'll be completely eliminating any chance of getting into a grad school for theoretical work. I'm taking courses on quantum mechanics and general relativity, but my school doesn't offer anything such as string theory or quantum field theory. If I can keep my marks high in the courses that I am taking, is it possible that a supervisor will still consider me for a master's degree in a field that I have no experience in?

Thanks!
I don't think that there should be a problem getting into grad school for theoretical physics if you have good marks and good recommendations.

Where are you?

In North America, although there are some undergrad courses in quantum field theory and string theory, I think it more typical that someone would not take courses in these subjects during the course of their bachelor's degree.
 
  • #3
I'm at Memorial University of Newfoundland. I suppose it is true that the type of courses I had mentioned are usually offered at a graduate level, so it won't be unusual that I haven't taken them.
Thanks for the advice! I'm also looking for opinions on what it's like to do a coursework master's as opposed to purely research. From my understanding, many schools require that you do research while taking a certain number of graduate-level courses. Is there anything I should know if I'm given the choice to do one or the other?
 
  • #4
George Jones
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Are you planning to stay in Canada for grad school?

In Canada, doing a thesis Master's looks better than doing a purely course work Master's if you plan to go on to a Ph.D. If you plan on doing your Master's and Ph.D at the same school, than it might be OK to do a coursework Master's. At some Canadian schools, you can start in a Master's programme and transfer into the Ph.D. programme without first getting a Ph.D. You might even be able to start in Ph.D. programme, but I've been out of school a long time, so I'm not sure.

If you do grad school in the U.S., I think it is typical to get a Master's if one does not want to finish the Ph.D., but this should be confirmed by people more familiar with the U.S. system than am I.
 
  • #5
Choppy
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Generally you start with coursework and progress into research - although some schools allow you to start concurrently. I agree with the advice above. An undergraduate degree is about establishing a foundation. You won't be expected to have significant research experience coming into an M.Sc. program (that's not to say that it won't help).
 
  • #6
Staying in Canada is likely, but I'm applying to a few schools in the U.S. as well. I do plan on continuing to a Ph.D., so I'll keep that in mind while sorting out my programme. Thanks so much for the advice!
 
  • #7
George Jones
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At some Canadian schools, you can start in a Master's programme and transfer into the Ph.D. programme without first getting a Ph.D.
This should read

"At some Canadian schools, you can start in a Master's programme and transfer into the Ph.D. programme without first getting a Master's."

What did you think of Hartle as a text?

Good luck!
 
  • #8
I'm starting GR in the winter... I've got the text now so that I can pre-read and hopefully get ahead on the material... it seems to be reasonably well put together, but I've got little basis for comparison, haha
 
  • #9
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How are your programming skills? Having a computer on your swiss army knife would help to make you attractive for some theory positions.

Having a background in experiment won't harm your chances of doing graduate work in theory. I used to share an office with a guy who made exactly the switch that you are contemplating.

The coursework you do for your MSc (and when in your program you take it) will largely be up to you and your supervisor to decide on.
 
  • #10
I've taken 3 or 4 university-level programming courses, two of which were specifically for programming to solve physics problems. I also do a fair bit of programming in the lab that I work in now. Glad to know this will come in handy!
 
  • #11
George Jones
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I have been a little reluctant to use this example, because it happened some time ago.

My supervisor, now "retired", did an experimental Master's, and then switched to theory for his Ph.D. He's an elected Fellow of the American Physical Society and a Past Chair of the Theoretical Division of the Canadian Association of Physicists.

I'm not advocating that you do a Master's in experimental physics, do theory from the start if that's what you want, but this example shows that the transition from experiment to theory (and probably the other way, too), at least in the past, could be made successfully at a fairly late stage.
 
  • #12
Dr Transport
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I did a Bachelors in physics and a Masters in theoretical physics then another Masters in experimental optics before getting a PhD in theoretical condensed matter.

Going back and forth is not out of the realm of possibilities.

Right now I work in both areas, theory and experiment.
 
  • #13
I appreciate all the posts! I've been somewhat distraught in deciding on an honours project, because I was worried that I might be laying the first stone in a path that I really didn't want to go down.. haha... not that I don't enjoy experiment, but I'm really interested in a lot of the newer theoretical physics happening in the world right now, and I'd love to be involved in it.
 

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