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Quantum Mechanics Career Paths

  1. Mar 29, 2009 #1

    As some of you may have noticed, I am a youngster here trying to delve into the wonders of Physics, that sometimes may be more than I can handle :P, and especially Quantum Mechanics, despite my young age and somewhat not-very-academical mathematical knowledge. (Not in a Physics University yet)

    I am really interested in Quantum Mechanics, and after reading/watching a lot of Documentaries, articles and books about what Quantum Mechanics is about and what its Principles are (in a non mathematical PoV) , I started bying books about it and studied it just like College students do. Pushing my math into a whole new level, since I am very eager to study new things all the time, I have to say I am really interested in QM, its mathematical side and statistical analysis of events.

    Yet everytime I speak about Physics, and specifically QM, as a career path, my parents and close people mostly discourage me, saying its a long road and that there are no job opportunities, for someone that wants to do research (that's me) on QM subjects.

    I have come upon career paths like Condensed matter here in Physics forums, yet I am pretty blank when it comes to this. Could you please explain to me what kind of opportunities I have as a Quantum Mechanics Researcher?
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  3. Mar 29, 2009 #2
    I have bad news and good news.

    The bad news is that quantum mechanics is almost a century old (well, 80 years at the least) and has largely been fleshed out. We know what it describes well, what it doesn't describe well, and when it's best to use it. There's really not a lot of research studying quantum mechanics itself.

    On the other hand, there's a tremendous amount of research into physical phenomena that makes use of quantum mechanics. Almost every facet of physics has benefited from quantum mechanics, and its safe to say 95% of all modern technology (and I'm being conservative) wouldn't exist without QM. Condensed matter, for example, is where the majority of modern research in physics is done and has a great deal of practical application (ie, better employment opportunities) and an understanding of quantum mechanics is essential to studying it.

    You're on the right track doing this research, but you've missed the mark a bit. Keep working at it and you'll have a better chance of choosing the right career for you.
  4. Mar 29, 2009 #3


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    Yah it's definitely more of a tool then a research topic these days. Of course, don't let that discourage you from studying it one bit because you MUST know it as much as you need to know say, calculus (different levels of difficulty but its necessity is the same).

    It is also very easy to have other people discourage you because generally, people don't know what physicists CAN do. In industry, it's not as cut and dry as say, college majors (where physics is distinct from chemistry which is distinct from mathematics for example). You wont see jobs that say "requires physics degree!" all that much but you can be a prime candidate for many positions. However, it's not the best field when it comes to job opportunities. It's not like computer science or being an investment banker but as many people can tell you, fields like those can become grossly competitive or be very prone to economic downturns.

    Of course, even if every physics job in the country was taken, you can easily move into other fields for the time being. A good physicist is very mathematically inclined, good researcher, competent computer programmer, and so on and so forth and a lot of employers realize that.
  5. Mar 30, 2009 #4
    First of all thank you very much for your replies.

    I have to say I am a bit surprised, or should I say confused.
    I thought that subjects like String Theory, Quantum Gravity and the whole Unification theory was all about Quantum Mechanics. After reading what you previously wrote, I come to think that they're rather based on QM than QM itself. Am I right?

    Now, I should also note that I am interested in taking a professor spot in a foreign (non-Greek) University. Or are these opportunities scarce, too? I mean for someone good at what he's doing. Furthermore, could you tell me what's the thing with String Theory and other ongoing researches. That's what I am interested in the most!
  6. Mar 30, 2009 #5
    Keep doing what you were doing, reading and watching videos about your research interest to get a general idea what it is about.
    When you go through university your research interests change often.
  7. Apr 1, 2009 #6
    Hey! Quantum Mechanics is pretty cool. You're a bit too early on in your education to totally be up to date with the 'hot' research fields were professors are hired. By the time you finish your undergrad and start grad school it will change anyways.

    If you're interested in QM, there's a lot of work being done in atomic physics, condensed matter physics, quantum optics, and quantum computing.

    The prof job market is a tough one and its a long road though.

    http://subversiveguidetoeng.blogspot.com/2009/03/picking-majorfield.html [Broken]

    The Subversive Guide to Engineering
    Latest Post: Grades vs. Effort: The Engineering S-Curve
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  8. Apr 2, 2009 #7
    Well string theory, quantum gravity and unification are all going past quantum mechanics - or, more accurately, past quantum electrodynamics, which is its successor. At least, that's what they'd like us to believe. Those subjects can be acceptable career choices, so long as you expect to live in near poverty for the next 25 years and don't want superficial material things like vehicles, a house, a family, or good health care (the last applying mostly to the US). You must also thrive outside the confines of traditional job amenities, such as reaonable work hours and any expectation of good future job prospects.

    The opportunities vary some by country, but not too much. It's a tough road. However, if you're the best of the best and your expectations are low, you can succeed. As for string theory, unless they've come up with something radically new and interesting in the past 2 years, then they're still in the running as the least productive use of academia in physics ever.

    I realize that there are lots of exciting books about certain subjects, string theory being one of them, but you have to understand that almost nobody works in that field and almost no research dollars are spent there. The fact that they've had to wage this huge public campaign to stay noticed says a great deal about them. Mostly, it says they don't have anything actually useful to show for their work.

    Over the past 25 years high energy physics has produced essentially nothing of scientific value, while other areas, such as condensed matter and materials science, have changed the world we've lived in and produced new science and deep philosophical questions. I realize that discussing job opportunities and money is often frowned on around here, but I promise you that doing something you enjoy and getting paid well for it is a lot more fun than doing something you enjoy and getting paid less than local factory workers. Are you sure you wouldn't enjoy some of these other areas just as much, if not more?

    I'd strongly urge you to wipe the slate clean and rethink what it is about physics you like and why you want to work in it. It will do you a great deal of good, even if you don't change your plans.
  9. Apr 2, 2009 #8
    First of all, thank you Locrian for such a detailed reply.

    I have to say that your thoughts surprised me, and put me into some thinking myself. What you say about String Theory sounds really true, especially the campaign part, which I'd 've never thought about, but unfortunately, seems like it.

    I am not pretty sure about what Condensed Matter Physics is, but I have some e-books and I will definitely check it out. It seems, as you're all saying, that possibly (in a margin of the 5-6 years to come) it is a promising career aspect.

    Finally, I feel like I HAVE to answer your last question. Physics means a lot to me, however strange this may sound to most of the older ones in PF, and I feel like I have to take Physics one step forward (this sounds selfish, but I think it's pure in my case) ,or at least work with passion and strive for the potential best. Of course, I have to consider that I'll probably have to live from Physics, meaning that it'll be my income source, so considering money is essential. So if I had to pick one right now, I think it would be Condensed Matter over String Theory. For sure.
  10. Apr 3, 2009 #9
    i'm in my fourth year in physics, i've asked this question a lot, i live in Jordan in the middle east where the only job for physics is teaching physics!!! everyone here tells me from people i don't know to friends and family that it's stupid to study physics ur gonna be teaching kids,,physics professors told me im just a teenager i dont know wut im doing,but i didnt listen to anybody and continued,, i'm attracted to the more theoretical and philosophical matters, and i want to be the father of physics and mathematics wutever that is :D i dont know where i will end up,, but u should be aware of ur choices for example i've already prepared myself to have no money or family maybe.
  11. Apr 4, 2009 #10


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    This is very very wrong. Also your remarks about string theory are misleading.
  12. Apr 4, 2009 #11
    I would focus on channelling all of your enthusiasm into whatever physics your university courses happen to be. I'm at the end of a 5 year undergraduate masters in physics just now, and I can say that degrees in physics definitely offer plenty of surprises along the way - for one, my courses this year all have 'introductary' in the title. It's a long path ahead to decide what you may do as a potential career, and personally, i'd recommend shying away from any bias at this point as it will likely turn out that most subjects won't be what you think they are.
  13. Apr 4, 2009 #12


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    That's a faulty statement regarding high energy physics.

    The establishment of CP violation, neutrino oscillation, B-physics, etc etc... are all very high "scientific value" by ANY measure that one wants to use. And with particle astrophysics becoming a more established field of study, astronomy and astrophysics are benefiting a great deal from high energy physics and certainly will a lot more in the near future.

  14. Apr 6, 2009 #13
    You are both right - the correct statement would have been high energy physics has produced almost nothing new and unexpected of value, the big exception being neutrino mass. I personally don't place much value on the other experimental confirmations, but others do and that's fine.

    No one should let my miswording get in the way of the central message - HEP has been, for intents and purposes, a dead field for a quarter century, gradually canabalizing on interesting research done the fifty years before that. You'd be better off almost anywhere else.
    Last edited: Apr 6, 2009
  15. Apr 6, 2009 #14
    No they aren't.
  16. Apr 6, 2009 #15
    If you are interested in fields along the lines of quantum mechanics (QM), then you should look into quantum field theory (QFT). QFT is an active area of research these days and requires both mathematical and physical skills. Both QM and QFT require a very thorough understanding of and comfortability with mathematics, so you should try to take as much math as possible. In particular you should try and become an expert in calculus and algebra (I mean abstract and linear algebra, not high school algebra). If you have a solid basis in math, coupled with such a strong interest in physics as you have implied, then you will be well on your way.

    You should shoot for learning as much matheamtics and physics in university as possible, and then in graduate school focus your efforts on learning and researching QFT.

    I can give you a list of math books if you want, but some physics books are (in order of difficulty):
    https://www.amazon.com/QED-Strange-...sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1239040104&sr=1-1" by Richard Feynman
    https://www.amazon.com/Introduction...sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1239040133&sr=1-2" by David Griffiths
    https://www.amazon.com/Quantum-Field-Theory-Nutshell-Zee/dp/0691010196" by A. Zee
    https://www.amazon.com/Introduction...sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1239040267&sr=1-1" by Peskin and Schroeder

    These may be too advanced right now (except for QED maybe), but they are some of the best books out there on the subject.

    Check out this guy's http://fliptomato.wordpress.com/2006/12/30/from-griffiths-to-peskin-a-lit-review-for-beginners/" article.

    Also, don't worry about finding a job. Study what you want to study and learn. Things will fall into place.

    These statements are very misleading. While I am myself not a fan of string theory, they have accomplished a great deal of mathematical machinery, whether that machinery is physically meaningful yet is the big debate. Also, there are thousands of string theorists, and may be one of the biggest fields in physics out there (from what I've read and understand). It is actually easy to get a job in string theory because it is cheap to employee a string theorist since they do no experimentations. Even so, I would discourage the original poster from doing string theory.
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  17. Apr 6, 2009 #16
    Thank you for another long reply, which I read thoroughly.

    First of all, I have to say I was pleased that you called books like David Griffith's or Peskin and Schroeders advanced for me (the latter is, kinda) but I have to say that so far I have been studying through a Griffith's like University Tome on Quantum Mechanics, the one that Physicist students are taught. I have to say I reached one-dimensional wells with minimal difficulty, only on some of Hermitian Matrix operators and stuff. Yet I am still understanding these, hope I'll sort them out soon.

    About QFT, well it is really appealing and it's glad to know that there's still movement in that field. It really looks promising to me, along with Condensed Matter physics. I think I'll have to look these 2 up when I am about to set on Physics for Univ.

    Thanks very much for the information and the links, be sure I'll check them out!
  18. Apr 6, 2009 #17


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    Er.. again, this is not correct. In fact, I would say the neutrino mass WAS expected. That's why one could formulate the mixing angle right out of the Standard Model!

    The CP violation was not expected. In fact, if you read Harry Lipkin's "http://scitation.aip.org/getpdf/servlet/GetPDFServlet?filetype=pdf&id=PHTOAD000053000007000015000001&idtype=cvips&prog=normal" [Broken]", there were clearly several unexpected discovery simply from experiments alone that proved later on to be quite significant in our understanding of elementary particles. We can also add to that the B-physics that I've mentioned, done at SLAC and at KEK.

    We should never fall into the same trap that got Gell-Mann when he denigrated solid state physics as "squalid state physics". His ignorance of how the field proceed and the kind of systematic discoveries that, as a whole, produce a revolutionary and significant physics, is not something that one can dismiss like that. I am not that strong of a supporter of high energy physics, but I definitely would never make the same statement as yours. And considering how the particle physics is being sought after to address the dark matter and dark energy problem, its importance is not to be trivialized.

    If you want to address the fact that employability is difficult for someone who specialized in this field, then address that. If you want to address that doing high energy physics is tedious, then address that. One can dig up statistics to either back up, or counter such arguments. However, making such statements that simply not only have no bearing on this thread, and something that clearly can't be backed up, has no place in this forum.

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  19. Apr 8, 2009 #18
    It wasn't expected in the 60's. It was most certainly expected in the 90's! My time frame was specific. And I've read that Who Ordered Theorists article enough times to digitally wear the corners down. It's a great argument for why students should be avoiding HEP theory like the plague.

    Also, there's a good reason physicists have been moving from particle physics to astrophysics topics (though I usually hear more about those moving from theory to cosmology). It's because while HEP has essentially been a wasteland for a quarter century, there is a solid list of really interesting developments in astrophysics. Schmidt/Reiss/Perlmutter in the late 90's is the most obvious example (and most attractive to HEP theorists), but hardly the only one.

    You're right that I'm moving off the subject here though. This discussion of new and interesting discoveries in HEP is one I've already had here a couple of years ago (though then I was baiting, rather than arguing). If anyone cares enough, I'll go ressurect it.
  20. Apr 9, 2009 #19


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    Then next time there is a P5 "town hall" meeting, I expect you to attend it and put your money where your mouth is.

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