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Programs Phd in Condensed Matter or Particle Physics?

  1. Aug 10, 2009 #1
    I'm a final year BSc Maths & Physics student and need to start applying for MSc's this autumn. My problem is, I don't know whether to study for a particle physics MSc or a generalist physics/applied maths MSc. I am currently doing a research project in CMT and I'm liking it a lot, but I have no way of getting any exposure to particle physics before I graduate so I don't know if I'll like that better or not. I do a basic a module in elementary particle physics next year but that's it, any ideas on how to make this decision?

    One thing I am concerned about is the ability to actually do a good PhD in particle physics. It seems as if particle physics is a saturated field and there aren't many unsolved problems that are tractable for a PhD student, where as in CMT there is loads. Btw I'm interested in experimental HEP rather than theoretical - phenomenology would suit me best, in fact I am open to the idea of a theoretical HEP PhD except I'm not interested in string theory at all.

    Any advice much appreciated,

    thank you

  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 11, 2009 #2
    You could always do your masters in CMT (since you have the research experience) and ask your supervisor if you can take QFT and such on the side and re-evaluate come PhD time.
  4. Aug 12, 2009 #3

    Vanadium 50

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    First, if there are so few unsolved problems in HEP, why are the journals full?

    Secondly, Mr. Starstrider's answer shows a complete lack of understanding of condensed matter theory. Plasmons, magnons, polarons, etc. are all "quasiparticles" with behavior described by the exact same kinds of field theories that one sees in HEP, and indeed, the calculational techniques are often taught in the same class. If you take a piece of a paper and work out the Higgs mechanism on the left, and Landau-Ginzberg superconductivity on the right, you'll see that you've pretty much written down the same thing twice.
  5. Aug 12, 2009 #4
    If you are "liking it a lot" stick with it! There's a lot not to like in the world of academia, so stick like glue to something you actually like. I just read a post by someone hating his time in experimental particle physics, which may be down to him or the research group he is in. But at least it shows that it isn't all sweetness and light everywhere in HEP! If you have found sweetness and light in a CMP group then why not stay with it? Change and you might end up in a unhappy place...
  6. Aug 12, 2009 #5
    I'm well aware of what CMT is, I'm IN CMT!. However, he said he wanted to do EXPERIMENTAL HEP. There is not a strong cross-over between experimental HEP and experimental CM. You don't just go from acceleraters to cold fingers without bridging the gap. Even if he was interested in theory, pointing out that field theoretic approaches are used in both fields ABSOLUTELY does not mean it is an easy cross-over. You would still have to do all kinds of remedial courses and such. Furthermore, I don't know where you did grad school but at mine experimentalist in CM rarely take more than the two condensed matter courses at the Ashcroft and Mermin level (and not the condensed matter theory/many-body physics courses)
    Last edited: Aug 12, 2009
  7. Aug 12, 2009 #6
    Dear Vanadium, thank you for your reply, it was very helpful. As you mention, I am aware of the close links between areas of CMT and HEP, however the area I'm currently working in does not use field theoretic methods at all.

    To your first point, I would firstly like to reiterate that I am not a voice of authority on the matter, and I am simply stating my feelings as an outsider and from the limited amount I have seen on the field. I did not say there were few unsolved problems, I said there appeared to be few unsolved problems that were tractable for a PhD student. It seems that the field is so complicated and vast that you need years of experience before you can make fruitful contributions. In particular it seems that HEP PhD students are relegated to being code monkeys for their supervisors. It is clear you have a lot of knowledge on the subject, would you be so kind as to enlighten me perhaps? I assume you are someone who is very much enjoying your PhD in particle physics? Are you experimental or theoretical?
  8. Aug 12, 2009 #7

    Thank you for your reply maverick, I am personally reluctant to do this, because there is a big difference between doing research in an area and studying the area. I am certain I would enjoy studying QFT and particle physics, so I feel that doing this won't actually improve my comprehension of which area I would like to follow. I am specifically interested in trying to find ways of finding out whether I will find research in HEP enjoyable.

    Another option I was considering was to take an MSc in particle physics because I think this will leave more options open for me in terms of direction. It seems that an MSc in CMT would not be sufficient to undertake a PhD in particle physics, but an MSc in particle physics would be sufficient to take a PhD in CMT, since as has already been mentioned, there is a strong overlap in content.

    What do you think to this idea?
  9. Aug 12, 2009 #8

    I know a professor who did their masters in particle physics and switched to doing a phd in polymer physics. That may be comparable. I mean as long as you're honest with your supervisor about your interests i'm sure they'll let you explore as long as it doesn't significantly effect your thesis work
  10. Aug 12, 2009 #9
    I wouldn't say that HEP is saturated. In my department the non-HEP people often make fun of how everyone in HEP is obsessed with the Higgs, and as far as the big science questions go that might be true. But people are still publishing. However, I do have a couple of other recommendations for you.

    You might try high energy nuclear physics, especially the stuff they do at RHIC in New York. Then you could study stuff relating to the quark-gluon plasma, the strong force, etc. And the experimental techniques are very similar. Alternatively, you might try particle astrophysics (this is what I do). We use the same software and techniques, and even some of the same hardware as regular high energy people. But the collaboration sizes are smaller, and you can also answer astrophysical questions in addition to the particle research that we do. The downside here is that a lot of results have to be inferred indirectly, which can be annoying. It's worth looking at, though.

    Just one last thing. Given the current state of the economy, I should mention that my observation has been that experimental CMP people have the easiest time finding physics jobs. The problem with an HEP degree or even a degree in particle astro is that the "industry" jobs have nothing to do with physics. Sure, we're employable, but we might end up doing statistical analysis for a bank or something. If you take your CMP degree and go work for a company, they just might put you to work doing actual physics. Just my observation, maybe people in other departments see the situation differently.
  11. Aug 12, 2009 #10

    Thank you maverick, I think we may be looking at this from two different viewpoints since it sounds as if you're basing your advice on the US system, where as I am thinking in terms of the UK system. In the UK, it isn't really possible to just "dip your toe" into a completely different area - you have to make a choice and devote to it. This is why the decision is such a hard one for me, because I have to make a sacrifice.
  12. Aug 12, 2009 #11
    That is very interesting arunma, I had never considered those areas before. Could you perhaps tell me a little more about what you do please? Are you mostly doing data analysis and coding, or developing theoretical models, or perhaps a bit of both?

    Your last point is a poignant one, I think it's quite often the case for people, certainly me, that they don't think about the long term consequences of their actions when it comes to what to study in Physics. I have always endevoured to study what I enjoy and am interested in, paying little attention to the career options it may provide. I would like to point out that I have no desire to study experimental CMT, since I am a theoretical physics student. I am debating between theoretical CMT or experimental HEP. I have no clue what I'd like to do post-PhD but I am almost certainly it won't be academia related, since I have heard the competition and bureaucracy are brutal.
  13. Aug 12, 2009 #12
    If this is the case, why are you so set on getting a PhD? I think the only way you will be doing particle physics post-phd is in an academic setting. I would really urge you to consider your thoughts on how difficult it may be to get a job in the private sector after you have PhD in particle physics. You really should have a thorough read of ZapperZ's "So you want to be a physicist" series of articles: https://www.physicsforums.com/showthread.php?t=240792
  14. Aug 12, 2009 #13
    I want to do a PhD for my own personal satisfaction, not for career purposes. As for private sector employment, well I happen to be a part-qualified CPA so I don't think I'll have any problem getting *a* job in the private sector if I had to. It's not what I want, but it's always there as a back-up plan.
  15. Aug 12, 2009 #14
    Actually I'm basing it on the canadian system.
  16. Aug 12, 2009 #15
    I stand corrected, but do you see my dilemma?
  17. Aug 13, 2009 #16
    That's not true. I've spent a decades in the UK system. My researches started in non-computational theoretical cosmology. I then moved into experimental plasma physics, meteorology, computational magnetohydrodynamics, expert system design, interface design, then ... several other totally different things.

    The particle physics -> polymer physics move seems a definite possibility to me in the UK system. There has to be somewhere for all the bright young things doing particle physics (and cosmology!) to go when they realise there are no jobs in these areas because of the high levels of competition.

    So you could probably do particle physics and move into condensed matter physics, but the reverse would be impossible! There would be some pain involved in the transition and you would take longer to become a professor(or like me, if you transition too much, never get to even be a professor!)

    Guess it all depends how politically ambitious you are -- if you *really* want to be Dean someday, get into a non-sexy, low-competition, well-funded area of physics. If you like to "live for the moment" then follow your "current bent", do what you want, but don't expect to be dean (or even prof!), and expect to be forced to relinquish your "current bent" for another "current bent" when the money runs out...
  18. Aug 13, 2009 #17
    Thank you mal, that is great advice. Out of interest, what area have you settled upon now? And what are the fabled "non-sexy, low-competition, well-funded" areas of physics right now?
  19. Aug 13, 2009 #18
    I'd be happy to elaborate on what I do. I'm part of the http://veritas.sao.arizona.edu/" [Broken]. VERITAS is a set of four air Cherenkov telescopes (i.e. they detect gamma rays via the Cherenkov radiation from their decay products in the atmosphere) in southern Arizona. We observe sources such as active galactic nuclei, supernova remnants, pulsars, and other astronomical objects in the gamma ray regime. For the most part, I do coding, and I'll be doing data analysis of VERITAS data in the near future. I'll also be doing analysis of data from the Fermi Gamma Ray Telescope. Once in awhile, I even get to do hardware. The cool thing about gamma ray astrophysics is that there's a lot of fancy electronics and stuff attached to the detectors, so there's plenty of opportunity to have a heavy technical component to one's thesis. It's similar to HEP in that we basically count the number of photons we receive from various sources, try to distinguish it from the background, and perform cuts on our data.

    Being an experientalist, I don't do any theoretical modeling myself. But I have to think about theory and talk to theorists fairly regularly, in order to interpret the meaning of my data. For example, different shapes of spectra from gamma ray sources can indicate different acceleration mechanisms. Cosmology theory can also be used to take spectra from high-redshift objects, and extrapolate things about stellar evolution. So theory is pretty important to what I do.

    If you're fine with having a non-physics related job, then I'd say that HEP is a perfectly fine area to study. There's nothing wrong with doing a PhD just so that you can spend five years doing physics. There aren't that many unemployed physics PhDs out there, you'll definitely get some sort of job.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 4, 2017
  20. Aug 14, 2009 #19
    I moved out of physics into computing because that had far more funding and far less competition. I'm now in web design/advertising 'cause it's good money & you don't have to work hard & can work part-time. (I use my spare time to do what I want!) If I wanted to find out the current "non-sexy, low-competition, well-funded" areas of physics I'd look at www.jobs.ac.uk and see what was hot.
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