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Quantum computing: major & job prospects?

  1. Feb 29, 2012 #1
    I'm having a hard time assessing the reality of job prospects in quantum computing research. The research seems mostly limited to schools I wouldn't dream of getting into and the companies pursing the technology seem limited as well.

    I'm currently undeclared and taking the basic math, physics and CS courses and really enjoying and doing well in all of them. I was considering doing a physics/CS double major, but I'm increasingly paranoid that I'm going to be swallowed up in their difficulty eventually. I've also been tossed recommendations of E.E. and math as gateways to quantum computing and I'm truly willing to take up any major.

    With all the news around quantum computing I feel a bit faddy wading into right when all the mainstream news is latching unto it, but it's one of the few things that genuinely interested in at the moment, so ehh... thought I'd ask anyway.
  2. jcsd
  3. Feb 29, 2012 #2
    I was in your position. I started with plans to specialize in quantum computation by the time I got to grad school, and declared physics, mathematics and electrical engineering as my majors, and entertained thoughts of CS. I think it's a wonderful field, I still follow it - in fact there will be some pretty nice lectures by IBM this Friday at the March APS meeting (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/28/technology/ibm-inch-closer-on-quantum-computer.html).

    However, the feeling I got from grad classes is that you're more likely to be doing research or studying quantum information science in physics, and maybe mathematics, than EE/CS.

    And after toying with the idea of EE, I couldn't put up with doing the vast amount of actual hands-on work - think lots of wires, soldering, Labview, MATLAB crunching DEs, Fourier analysis and signal processing etc. So I moved out of EE.

    I think you're really asking us what you should declare your major on, and that you're doubting your first choice (of career). I solved that problem by figuring out what was my second choice: I realized I didn't mind possibly doing a combination of econometrics, derivative pricing, risk management etc., and realized that the courses that I had didn't prevent me from getting into these, so I just chose what made the best use of the course credits I already had: in the end, I declared physics and mathematics, with minors in CS and economics.

    You should also try your hand at research as soon as possible. It doesn't have to be on quantum computation. I did, some modeling for a medical research, and by the end of freshman year I was published and cited, and I loved research, but I absolutely hated the procedure, its credit structure, bureaucratic flow and penny-pinching. Even though I was at probably the best facility in the country. The skills that I acquired still stay with me, so I don't regret it, but it certainly helped push me to my choice of majors.
  4. Feb 29, 2012 #3
    First, here is an extremely useful link with a listing of all (probably most, actually) institutions that work in quantum computation, information theory, and the actual physical device physics. Note that these include EE, CS, physics, and mathematics departments.


    So I've had a lot of interest in this field as well. In fact, reading llstelle's post above brings up a few questions, but I will ask in a bit. So I knew how to program before coming to college, and I started doing astrophysics and quantum gases (Bose-Einstein condensation) research very early. They're all highly numerically based, and I think that is a good thing. Two of my interests are numerically solving problems in physics and engineering, and the other is working in some field related to quantum computing. I see the former as a very practical way to ensure that I have good employment and career prospects in the future. Even if I cannot do Wall St., defense, oil, biochem., semiconductor, or other things that can utilize my numerical skills, I could always work in software (and of course, probably most of the mentioned fields will be closer to software than numerical research, but it all depends really).

    Now my plan was to get into a CS department to do this numerical stuff, probably in some sort of field that applies to physics or engineering. What I also found out is that there are a lot of CS departments that are actually EECS, and this makes a lot of sense. There are computational electromagnetics and other related things in EE that are also pretty close to CS things too. Quantum computing is a very obvious field for an EECS department to partake in, and I was wanting to get into a department like that because it coincided with two of my top interests. It also has the perks of being able to get into top schools more easily, having more available funding, and industry options (and of course, physics may give you these options as well, but they are nontrivial to obtain).

    I'd like to ask llstelle specifically why he/she didn't like getting into EE (not trying to hijack thread, I think it will be useful for OP as well). As an undergraduate major, I can see all of these being reasons to not do it, but I wonder what going to graduate school at an EECS department would be like. I imagine you wouldn't be forced to take irrelevant classes, as a grad degree isn't meant to give you so much breadth. Regardless, it seems like EE is certainly a good choice if one doesn't mind these other things, and will give you some financial safety net as well. Anyway, I think if one considers graduate school, the problem becomes much different. If you want to work in such a field that is still in its first stages of growth, it is imperative to get a Ph.D.

    As a future technology, I think quantum computing will be a very active field by the time I (in my 2nd year now) get to finishing my Ph.D. The company D-Wave has built an adiabatic quantum computer, which it has sold to Google and Lockheed-Martin recently, and IBM just yesterday announced their progress on a quantum computer based on SQUID technology as well. In ten years, there should be more players, and it ought to be of huge interest to the United States government, particularly the NSA. I think if there is any field in physics that is worth putting your bets in for, this would be it. As for how to get there, I know of several people who have made very good careers in quantum computing by roundabout ways. I've recently gotten an internship offer from Oak Ridge National Lab, where my advisor got his undergrad degree in chemistry, a Ph.D in molecular dynamics, but now works on a collaborative effort to simulate an adiabatic quantum computer based on SQUIDs and Josephson junctions (seems to be the most popular attempt other than entangled ions in magnetic trap). I know of others that come from math backgrounds, and still others that come from EE. In such a new and interdisciplinary field, it seems one has the luxury of jumping in from a variety of backgrounds.

    I'll leave you with one last link that might be a good reference to see what is happening these days in QC. Also, if you read the wikipedia article on 'quantum computing', you'll see there is a section where it shows all the conceptual models as well as all physical attempts.


    I think having done physics for my undergraduate degree helps me tremendously for being prepared for this field. If you know for sure that you want to go to graduate school, this ought to be your best option. I'll be mainly applying to EECS and CS graduate schools, since they lean more towards my own interests and have practical benefits as well, but physics wouldn't be a bad choice at all either (it's just that you're a little more pidgeon-holed with the latter, which works for some people and they do fine).

    Anyway, as long as you keep thinking about it and reading material on it, you will be alright. Oh, and make sure you learn to program a lot, that will help you regardless of what you do. Some CS classes couldn't hurt either, particularly algorithms and complexity/computation theory. You'll know more about what to do as you go further in your career. It might also help to pick up a book and start learning some quantum mechanics (from a modern physics book), or a quantum computing book made for computer scientists (yanofsky is an author of this exact title, and it is a good book as long as you do the exercises). Find some research to do in some sort of physics, as it'll look good for graduate school and will help you understand what research really is.

    Good luck.
  5. Mar 2, 2012 #4
    Extreme thanks to both of you for your posts, they're both insightful and extremely helpful.
  6. Mar 3, 2012 #5
    I am a Physics major/math minor and have been thinking about quantum computation. If thats what I end up wanting to do, my university offers a Ph.D in Physics/MS in CS or EE joint program, so I will probably go that route regardless. I am only a sophomore undergrad so it will be awhile, and hopefully QC jobs will be booming by then. Now after boring you, my question is, Michio Kaku said he thinks that we are 20-30+ years behind an actual working QC of any practical use at all, and its really sure if that's even possible. Does this seem to be the general consensus? Or does the majority have more optimism about it?
  7. Dec 6, 2013 #6
    I know this is an old thread, but I'm wondering about the current prospects too, and what kind of jobs Phds can pursue if they need to go outside the field.
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