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Physics or Geophysics?

  1. Jun 7, 2010 #1
    Before I start, I know that no one other than myself can provide me with an ultimate answer. The reasons for this posts are to find any advice and recommendations, and also just to vent some of my worries.

    In a couple of weeks I will be registering for my second year courses as an undergrad. I just finished my freshman year in physics that I enjoyed a lot; however, at the start of the fall term i found out about this program in geophysics that I had never heard of before.

    Growing up in a quite seismic area as Italy, I had always been interested in reading or watching documentaries about earthquakes, volcanic activity, formation of mountains and geology in general. Since I moved to Canada a few years ago, this interest died down a bit, also because geology is never taught and barely mentioned in high school. Still, I ended up taking an intro course in geology during the fall that I really loved. So, after "inviting myself" to a couple of lectures in the 2nd year Exploration Geophysics course, I figured this would the perfect combination of my two favourite areas of science.

    After a few months spent going up and down to the offices of the departments of physics and geoscience to fix some mainly bureaucratic issues (the physics courses I took were not the ones required in 1st year of the geophysics program, and were also anti-requisites to the physics courses required in 2nd year of geophysics), here I am ready almost ready to pick my courses. And of course, it's now that I start doubting my decision. "Is this REALLY the right program for me? What if I don't like it? What if it really isn't what I imagined it would be?" and similar questions keep popping up in my head. Also, "What about all the things I will miss out from not pursuing a physics major?" One of the major reasons why I chose physics is because of my fascination for nuclear physics, relativity and quantum mechanics, but then I rationalize that this fascination is not due to any real interest in these subjects, but rather because i know almost nothing about them. Ugh!

    As well, I can't ignore the more practical and financial side of things. The economy of my province, Alberta, is largely based on the oil and gas industry. According to the Alberta Learning Information Services, 93% of "Geologists, Geochemists and Geophysicists" work in the Mining and Oil and Gas Extraction or Professional, Scientific and Technical Services industries. Needless to say, the pay is very good. Also, by talking to some students finishing their degree, geophysicists are quite in demand and companies will often finance grad students taking a master program, provided they will work for them after. While this may sound all great, my worry is that this may be a gift and a curse type of thing. Having an entire profession stand on a single industry is not ideal to say the least, especially when it's as unstable as the oil and gas one.

    On another hand, it seems that the only way to hope to find a job as a professional physicist is to have at least a M.Sc. in physics or similar. I am aware that a degree in physics can get you a job in the most disparate fields, but if I really wanted to work at a bank or a law firm, I would probably study something else.

    So, what's your advice?

    By the way, I wanted to thank everyone that contributes to this website, especially for the academic and career guidance sections. I just spent a few hours reading and learning info I otherwise would have never found out about or known when it was too late.
  2. jcsd
  3. Jun 7, 2010 #2


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    Is there any way to adjust your schedule to allow an "escape route," if you want to go back into pure physics? Something like, major in geophysics but also take upper division E&M and QM. It would be a pretty full schedule, though.

    Or, perhaps a double major?

    I appreciate your concerns about cyclic industries. The industry I work in is always feast or famine, I wish I had given more thought to that ~20 years ago.
  4. Jun 7, 2010 #3
    It was actually a little miracle that I was able to move to geophysics without having to start from the first year again. The most annoying thing is that unlike programs like astrophysics, space physics or even medical physics, at my school the geophysics program is run by the department of geoscience, so not even the math courses are the same!

    I just compared the second year programs of the two and basically there is no way to integrate them, not even the core courses. Either way, if I pick one program I would lose one year from the other one. So I might as well go for broke and stick to one, hoping I don't regret it, rather than seriously overloading my year for really no reason. Now the problem is.. which one? I've gotten to the point where I want to flip a coin and go along.
  5. Jun 7, 2010 #4


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    Wow, too bad. I guess you really are at a crossroads.

    Maybe you could track down a geophysicist (shouldn't be too hard to find one in Alberta) and ask if you could chat about what the work entails, or even job shadow for a half a day or so. Then you'd at least have some information to base your decision on.
  6. Jun 8, 2010 #5
    I did geophysics and I don't regret it. I had no trouble walking into a job. However I would not discourage you from doing physics if that's what you want, you will undoubtedly get a better mathematics education in physics -- and with a physics degree it is stil entirely possible for you to side-step into a geophysics job (whereas the reverse would be more difficult). (However geophysics would give you a better chance to side-step into a geology job.)

    There is scope for using quantum mechanics in geophysics incidentally, for example there is research ongoing in ab initio modelling of minerals at extreme p-t conditions to learn about the deep earth. There's not much money in that though.

    The most money is in seismic exploration. Research in this field is developing rapidly, particularly with regards to waveform inversion type technologies. There is a movement in modern exploration geology away from the old "anomaly detection" type approach, to a full scale inversion of the anomalies so that potentially fruitful subsurface heterogeneities (anomalies) may be understood in detail for attributes such as their precise location, and their rock properties. This is an interesting challenge which invokes a wide range of mathematics and engineering, from the wave equation and inversion theory to signal processing and building high-tech acquisition systems.
  7. Jun 9, 2010 #6
    Very interesting, and thanks for the feedback from both. Yes, crossroads indeed. Anyway, I've decided to follow geophysics for at least on year, and see where it takes me. I rather live with the idea of losing a year than regretting it for the rest of my life.

    Well, I know a parent of a friend of mine that works at a mining company. Though he's not a geophysicist, he works with plenty of them and was able to provide me with useful insight. Hopefully someday I can feel happy discovering and researching the new detection techniques.
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