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Should I go for theoretical physics in college? please help

  1. Jan 5, 2013 #1
    I'm in the 10th grade and i am trying to decide what to study in college.
    I am really good in physics, math, and chemistry.
    The thing is that i am very much interested in astronomy and stuff like quantum mechanics and string theory. A lot of people keep telling to study something more "practical" such as engineering(to find a better job) but i don't want to. Should i go for theoretical physics? Any and all opinions are appreciated. Thank you :smile: .
  2. jcsd
  3. Jan 5, 2013 #2


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    You don't have to worry about getting so narrow in your studies right now.

    If you were to eventually work in theoretical physics, you would start in university taking the same science courses as the other physical science majors and probably with enough overlap that you could easily transfer into engineering. By second year you would likely have streamed into physics. And by your senior year, in addition to core physics courses you'll likely be taking some interesting electives on the theoretical side of physics and likely some higher level math courses as well.

    After that you go into graduate school where you really start to narrow your focus.

    While it can be tempting to choose a specific focus right away, the best strategy in my experience is to follow your interests and keep as many doors open as possible for as long as possible.
  4. Jan 5, 2013 #3
    Thank you for your answer.
    But if i were to indulge in concepts such as quantum mechanics and special theory of relativity, isn't theoretical physics the optimal major?
  5. Jan 5, 2013 #4
    Some questions pop up in my mind. For example: will you actually enjoy theoretical physics?? Many high school students read pop sci books and dream of becoming a theoretical physicist. They don't realize that physics research is nothing like it is in those books. It is not at all just thinking about worm holes and time travel. Rather, it is very hard work. You have to like a lot of pain and discomfort to enjoy this kind of work. It is certainly not for everybody.

    I'm not saying this to discourage you. But I'm trying to give you a somewhat more realistic view of research. How will you know you will like physics?? The answer is easy: get some math and physics books and start self-studying. If you enjoy books like Kleppner, then you will probably enjoy a physics education. Enjoying it means not only liking the theory, but also the intellectual struggle of finding solutions. It might be a bit extreme, but in my undergrad I occasionally spend nights awake in my bed because I couldn't sleep without finding the solution to some (very silly) problem. It is that desire to find a solution that is the characteristic of a scientist. If you don't really care about solving problems, then research is not for you.

    Another point is whether you are good enough for physics. You have to face reality: a lot of people attempt to become physicists, but only a few make it into grad schools, let alone professorships. Sometimes the students find out that physics is not for them. In other occasions, they are just not good enough. You should absolutely realize that you might not be as successful in physics as you would like. Having a plan B is always a good idea. This might consist of taking some engineering classes (or double majoring in engineering), or programming, or something else.
  6. Jan 5, 2013 #5
    Although i am a bit discouraged :P, i truly understand and thank you.
    I find self-studying to be boring as well i do not stay up until i find a certain solution.The reason i want to go through this difficult major to be honest is that i always daydream about physics as well as i am constantly trying to understand the hardest physics concepts since the 8th grade (i am very curious about physics and astronomy). Indulging in physics gives me a sort of self satisfaction. Honestly, i find myself in the future doing nothing but physics for i don't care about women, money, or anything other than my work.
  7. Jan 5, 2013 #6


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    Those are covered in any honours physics major.

    Usually the difference between a "physics" major or a "theoretical physics" major comes down to one or two courses. The "physics" major may be required to complete a senior lab. The theoretical physics major may be required to complete more senior level mathematics courses. Keeping a more general major doesn't exclude courses, it ususally just means you have more options for electives.
  8. Jan 5, 2013 #7
    So how does one decide on which major to study?
  9. Jan 5, 2013 #8


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    Keep in mind that universities in different countries tend to do things differently. In the USA, most universities don't offer a separate "theoretical physics" major for the bachelor's degree. There's just a generic physics major which includes the core subjects that graduate schools expect all incoming students to have taken. At the bachelor's level students can take elective courses that are slanted more towards one field or another. Most students don't start to specialize strongly until graduate school.

    There are exceptions, of course. The US system isn't centralized, so universities have a lot of freedom to do what they want in organizing their degree programs. Some offer bachelor's degrees in astrophysics, or mathematical physics, or medical physics, or engineering physics, or even (probably) theoretical physics. But these tend to be simply variations on the basic physics degree, and there's usually the opportunity to take elective courses in various areas.

    Some other countries have more rigid degree programs, and there might be more specialization at the undergraduate level.
    Last edited: Jan 5, 2013
  10. Jan 7, 2013 #9
    Keep your options open. It never hurts to take labs - many graduate programs require labs even more theoretical physicists! You will certainly take quantum mechanics. I was a traditional physics major and I had a good deal of it. You'll know what you want to study in physics once you hit grad school.
  11. Jan 8, 2013 #10
    And if i don't like is it possible to switch to majors like engineering and computer science etc. ?
    Another question: what might be the most despising aspect of theoretical physics / astrophysics?
  12. Jan 8, 2013 #11


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    You should stop using the term "theoretical physics" to mean "string..." etc.

    https://www.physicsforums.com/blog.php?b=3727 [Broken]

    I also think you are confining yourself waaaay too early at this stage. You haven't shopped around much to know what's out there at this stage, and yet, you already made up your mind what you will want to do. This is besides the fact that you have a very narrow idea of what "theoretical physics" really is.

    Last edited by a moderator: May 6, 2017
  13. Jan 8, 2013 #12
    Actually, it wasn't "yesterday" that i suddenly decided to go for physics(or theoretical for this matter). I have consulted a handful of people from the school guidance counselor to a friend of mine who is a graduate doing his PhD.
    You're probably right about the terminology but the idea is there, (theoretical physics/astrophysics/astronomy etc.) and it is why i created this thread: for opinion on the whole topic.
    And thank you for your straight forward opinion =P .
  14. Jan 8, 2013 #13
    I have read the thread you posted for me and i understand what you meant.
    And you are right, i have not decided which exact field i am going for but "this" i have time for because if i'm not mistaken, the undergraduate program is the same for almost all physical majors (i.e engineering, pure physics etc.). When i created this forum i was trying to get advice about whether it is wise to go for physics(since I've gotten a lot of "nah go for engineering") And honestly, i don't know the difficulties the physics major has, all i know is that i like this subject too much,as well i am very good at it, not to major in it.
  15. Jan 8, 2013 #14
    I think the main things you should take away from this thread are:

    1. You are too young to have had the life experience to make you certain about which path you want to take.

    2. So many doors are open to you, and will remain open to you in the next four to six years, that worrying about such a commitment in the present is a waste of your time and energy.

    3. I don't have any desire to persuade you that you ought to care about money, but I will say that your attitude towards women is truly a very young person's. Leave ALL of the doors open while you can :)
  16. Jan 9, 2013 #15
    I understand.
    But i think, looking at "3", that you got me the wrong way: I meant it as i am into physics a lot that's all. :P
    The rest you're probably right about.
    Thank you for your opinion.
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