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Programs Questions about Physics PhD and Postdoc options/mechanisms

  1. Jun 2, 2010 #1
    Hi,

    I'm beginning Physics graduate school this Fall. I have an undergrad in EE, and I have interests in various areas. I intend to make up my mind about the exact field of Physics I would like to specialize in, by the end of my first year in grad school.

    I have a few questions about how the Physics grad school and postdoc system works in the US. Perhaps some of my questions are immature and/or ill-posed. I have some ideas of my own, but I don't know exactly how the system works, and I would appreciate replies from people who're experienced about it.

    1. Is research work in field X ever considered a deterrent if one switches to field Y during grad school (X, Y are two distinct sub-disciplines in Physics)?

    2. Is it common to switch areas after a PhD, i.e. when one is getting into a post doc?

    3. Is it possible to switch from theory to experiment or vice versa at the time of a post doc?

    I understand that there's a big theory-vs-experiment divide in academia/outside :smile:, but are there still opportunities for people who like both equally (the last time I raised this question in a different context on this forum, I was told that it is silly and unthinkable to 'like' both, but I'm sure there are people -- however small in number -- who would think like me?).

    I will probably have more questions, based on the responses I get. Thanks for your time!
     
  2. jcsd
  3. Jun 2, 2010 #2

    MathematicalPhysicist

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    Gold Member

    It's not silly to like both, it's impractical to specialize in both.
     
  4. Jun 2, 2010 #3
    Not really. It turns out that most of the physical principles between different fields are similar, and a lot of the cutting edge stuff involves things that are interdisciplinary.

    Switching as a post-doc and junior faculty is difficult, because the "brownie points" you get in one field doesn't carry over to another. Usually the switches happen when you work on something interdisciplinary or in a group that does both theory and observation.

    It's not hard to do as a graduate student. It's also not hard to do as senior faculty when having some experience in both theory and observation is actually a good thing. It's messy at the post-doc and junior faculty level because the jobs are scare so that they are looking for someone that fits exactly in the peg, and if you don't fit exactly then its tough.

    I think they the best approach would be for you to work in a research group that does both theory and observation (i.e. a research group that specializes in say gamma ray bursters). You'll end up heavier on one than the other, but you won't be totally outside of either.
     
  5. Jun 2, 2010 #4
    This depends a lot on the field. In HEP it's pretty much impossible to specialize in both theory and observation. In planetary science, geophysics, and biophysics, the gap between theorists and observers is much less wide.
     
  6. Jun 4, 2010 #5
    Thanks for the replies. On a somewhat unrelated note, whats the cutting edge research in nuclear physics these days? Am I correct in believing that the dividing line between nuclear and particle physics is very thin now?

    Also, at the graduate school level, is planetary science different from astrophysics and cosmology? And in your replies, do you make a conscious distinction between "experiment" and "observation"?
     
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