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Programs PhD choice in theoretical physics, please help!

  1. Dec 15, 2009 #1
    Dear All,

    I'm in the process of looking for a PhD position in Theoretical Physics but I'm unclear about a few things.

    1) I still don't really know what I really want to do. The only thing I am sure of is that I want my research to help me in my understanding of ideas which I regard as crucial to working out my "view of the world", so to speak. I want to develop a deep understanding of QM and QFT and I am more interested in foundational issues. (with a future in string theory or other advanced field a definite option, but I feel that right now I need to strengthen this "basic knowledge" and would not enjoy jumping into 11 dimensions without properly seeing the present 4 :D )

    I enjoy, for instance, the work of Arnold on ODEs and Classical Mechanics, because the underlying mathematical structure makes the topics so much clearer! My undergraduate courses in QM, for instance, were all willy nilly: we were calculating relativistic corrections to molecules without having done a) any functional analysis courses at all and b) no serious course in relativity, a situation I really did not enjoy. Later courses in QFT and GR didn't fare much better. I only recently came to understand how a Fock space is constructed and a course in differential geometry cleared up what goes on in GR.

    Having said that, I would ideally like to work in a field where foundational questions (such as the nature of mappings between spaces, operator spectra etc..) can have a direct impact on applications. Is there such a beast? Here's the reason for my stance: My master thesis was a theoretical project to compute instanton transition probabilities in a solid state system. I now know that it would have benefitted immensely from a study of the underlying mathematics (overdefined systems) and would have, perhaps, yielded usable results...

    2) I'm aware of the application procedures at Dutch and UK universities and haven't yet found any positions that would truly strike my interest. However, I am not sure how to approach applications in other European countries as there are no "lists of open PhD positions". Should I just randomly contact researchers the work of whom I find interesting? Should I include the whole range of application materials on first contact or just a short resume of my interests and a request for more information? Are researchers in e.g. Germany entitled to creating PhD positions if they have an interesting candidate? Do departments across Europe have personnel that would be ready to help a struggling searcher such as myself to find a home?

    Thanks in advance for any and all replies,
  2. jcsd
  3. Dec 15, 2009 #2


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    Staff: Mentor

    Just to clarify: are you looking for a place to study for a PhD in theoretical physics, or do you already have a PhD and are looking for a suitable position?
  4. Dec 15, 2009 #3
    Sorry for not being clear, I don't have a PhD and want to study towards one.
  5. Dec 22, 2009 #4
    I would be very grateful for any tips, especially on #2, cheers!
  6. Dec 26, 2009 #5
    I think I know something about #2.

    While new graduate schools are emerging in Germany (where applicants are chosen by a committee), the traditional process is to find a professor who is willing to take you as a doctoral student. So, if you are looking for some kind of theoretical stuff, the best thing to do is to see the various options at Max Planck institutes (in Munich for example). But these are more competitive. An easier go around is to find a professor at a traditional university who is willing to supervise you.

    I am confused by what you mean when you say "Do departments across Europe have personnel that would be ready to help a struggling searcher such as myself to find a home?". However, if you are talking about housing, then the secretaries of the professors should help you do that. Of course, you are the one to play an active role. They will only be playing passive role (like providing information) normally.

    Hope this helps.o:)
  7. Dec 26, 2009 #6


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    That sounds like mathematical physics to a biologist like me. I would try asking John Baez for advice. He's interested in educational matters and writes beautiful columns for the general public. Not sure he will reply to individual queries, but no harm dropping him a line.
  8. Jan 3, 2010 #7
    Thank you very much for your reply.

    I'm finding it a bit difficult to find anyone doing things that really interest me. It seems that people either do numerical computations or string theory... Maybe I just haven't looked long and hard enough.

    Sorry for being so unclear. No I actually meant that academically. For some reason I'm finding myself unable to come up with a specific thesis topic to approach a supervisor. Hence I'm hesitant to just mass-contact people for the sake of contacting people. Or should I just do that and hope that they can help me with finding an appropriate topic?

    Thanks in advance again for any help :D
  9. Jan 3, 2010 #8

    Vanadium 50

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    2017 Award

    It sounds like you don't know what you want to be doing, other than that string theory and computational theory isn't it. Nothing wrong with that, but it's also not a problem other people can solve for you.

    Presumably you are reading the literature on what you are interested in? (If not, you should start!) That would be a good place to start - who is working on it? Who are the big names in the field? Where are they working?
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