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Research required for grad school admission in theoretical physics

  1. Aug 12, 2014 #1

    I have heard from multiple sources that you need good research record to be admitted to any top grad school and most of them want recommendations from research groups, on other hand, most professors who do theory consider undergrads not to be qualified enough to help them in any manner. Isn't that a contradiction? How do you go about getting research experience in theory as an undergrad?
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 12, 2014 #2


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    Hi Lukasz!

    This is true. But I suspect you have a misconception of what "theoretical physics" actually means.

    This isn't necessarily true. It depends on what you mean by "theory" and exactly what kind of research you're interested in. What area of physics are you wanting to do "theory" based research on? Let's hope it isn't HEPT ;)
  4. Aug 12, 2014 #3
    haha high energy is my ultimate goal but for now I would be interested in any kind of work in mathematical physics because that is what theory is about right? I have done a semester of experimental work but I found out it's not really my thing just like engineering wasn't and I would enjoy some work in more mathematical than hands-on kind of physics. Are there any fields where undergrads can contribute anything to theory-based research? I guess condensed matter might be one?
  5. Aug 12, 2014 #4


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    I would have to say no. Mathematical physics and theoretical physics couldn't be more different from one another.

    Yes you can definitely work in theoretical condensed matter so see what your university has to offer undergrads in that regard. Most of my friends do research in theoretical condensed matter. I myself do research in general relativity and primordial gravitational waves.

    So you can definitely do theory as an undergrad but you have to know the natural limitations of being an undergrad. HEPT will almost always be out of the question unless you're in say your final year which defeats the purpose since grad apps are due by then. When doing theory research a lot of what you'll be doing is various forms of coding. You can't necessarily be expecting to do hardcore pencil and paper calculations all the time, you may only get to partake in that kind of fun once in a while or at the least less frequently than coding. So if what you're expecting is the latter then you will most likely be disappointed.
  6. Aug 12, 2014 #5
    Yeah, it's tricky. It does seem that it's remote chance indeed to any top 15 school in HEPT unless you've already manage to catch some attention. It makes getting into a top tier college/university like a walk in the park.

    If you pick your major as physics early and get a good start and appear promising you should be able to find some professor who'd work on a senior honors thesis or project or the like at least.

    If you don't manage that, keep in mind that there are some lower tier graduate schools where you can still end up doing HEPT. Although it's true that it's easier to make something out of that if you are working with the top people and that there are a lot more of those at the top tier HEPT grad schools and it's a bit harder to make it not end up a dead end after grad school otherwise (although that still may be OK, at least you did your work on what you were most interested in), but there still are plenty of great people to work with in some other departments (just make sure you chose the right overall mid and lower tier schools, all it takes is one person at the school, regardless of the overall so-called tier who works on the sort of stuff that interests you a lot and is someone reasonably easy to work with; there are some choices in schools ranked overall in the low 20s and 30s and even 70s where you can find yourself situated in a very good environment for such work and with perhaps a bit less overwhelming level of competition all fighting for it all).

    Try to really dig around and see what schools are also located near some HEPT hotbeds and who are on the faculty and what work they are doing and then contact grad students there and ask how it goes. Don't be afraid to really put a lot of work into that, it can be easy to be not quite know enough and chose something that you realize after a year wasn't nearly as ideal as another potential choice.

    Anyway, yeah it's crazy competitive to get into the top few biggest name programs in HEPT but if you are careful and touch lucky you can still make out just about as well and at the very least end up doing something very satisfying and it's not even impossible that it might turn out to be for the best (perhaps you'd have gotten eaten alive at the top HEPT school and pushed off into some side group or some other sub-field, etc.).
  7. Aug 12, 2014 #6
    What about cosmology? Although it helps if you manage to fit in a GR course first.
  8. Aug 13, 2014 #7


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    From what I have seen you do need a lot of research experience and great letters to get into a top school. However, if you want to do high energy theory, that experience could easily be in high energy experiment. I know someone in my entering class who is applied for theory (or at least indicated interest on his application) but did his undergrad work in experiment.

    Doing computational work is also a great way to transition into analytical theory in hard condensed matter. This is what I did. My computational work helped me get an REU working on a pen and paper theory project. I also got a first author paper from it (will also get one when we finish the paper from last summer). I got into 5 top ten grad schools and chose between Harvard and Stanford.
  9. Aug 13, 2014 #8
    Why do you want to go to a top school? I thought your main priority is to do research.. You don't need a top school to do research.
  10. Aug 13, 2014 #9
    Some things that might help without doing that would be if you happen to have a professor who is super well known in the field and did super well in his class and get a top of the top recommendation. I'd guess that getting a really high physics subject GRE score might help them think you are in the more likely pool to not get tricked up by qualifying exams and might improve your chances. As someone else mentioned, you could do experimental research and that would certainly count for a lot too, especially with top of the top recommendations. You can work on something a bit more towards the theory/math side if you pick more reasonable topics than advanced string theory or the like.

    HETP admissions do appear to be far and away the trickiest to pull off.
  11. Aug 14, 2014 #10
    This is an excellent question. There really doesn't appear to be anything but circumstantial evidence that a top university has any positive effect on your career as a particle theorist. Of course if you look at a top ten university and its faculty the overwhelming majority went to top graduate schools. But considering how few graduates of these universities in HEPT actually become faculty anywhere (the same is true of everywhere else) I'm skeptical that the truth is anything other than that you are screwed no matter where you graduate from.
  12. Aug 14, 2014 #11
    The big difference is this:

    If you go to a top 15 HEPT school you are have zero chance of getting professorship with a research focus on HEPT at a major research university. But if you go to lower tier HEPT school then you have a less than zero chance of " ". So, you, see the difference is between having a 0% chance and less than a 0% chance.
  13. Aug 14, 2014 #12
    Haha, fair enough.

    Put it this way, the real problem isn't that somebody on a hiring committee will be retarded enough to throw out your application because you went to Mickey Mouse State University (my alma mater), the problem will be either a). Joe from Fancy Pants University will get the job because his well connected boss had an in (nothing really wrong with this), b). you aren't high enough caliber to get into FPU and your research at MMSU reflects this unfortunate reality or c). you're as good as anybody at FPU and well connected but the dice did not roll in your favor because let's face it, at the level of HPT it's pretty difficult to read papers and evaluate whether or not a candidate is actually any good so to some extent their just making an educated guess*.

    *This is technically true of all academic disciplines but especially true of a discipline like HEPT where its most esoteric reaches involve no quality feedback whatsoever apart from the subjective opinions of colleagues/enemies in the field, that is, there's not experimental feedback as to who is actually good at theorizing about physics.
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