# So You Want To Be A Physicist Discussion

Staff Emeritus
"So You Want To Be A Physicist" Discussion

Discussion on the article https://www.physicsforums.com/showthread.php?t=240792" by ZapperZ

The series has almost reached the end of its intended purpose. At this point, I'm looking over it to plug some holes into areas that I may have missed, or didn't emphasize enough. So any suggestions you have will definitely be welcomed. I've also started (although haven't gotten too far into it yet) a "prequel" to the series to include preparations for someone still in high school. Hopefully, that will be done soon to compliment what I've written already.

Zz.

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ZapperZ that is simply amazing work, well done!!

In case people missed it, the entire series on "So You Want To Be A Physicist" http://docs.google.com/Doc?docid=df5w5j9q_5gj6wmt" [Broken].

The series has almost reached the end of its intended purpose. At this point, I'm looking over it to plug some holes into areas that I may have missed, or didn't emphasize enough. So any suggestions you have will definitely be welcomed. I've also started (although haven't gotten too far into it yet) a "prequel" to the series to include preparations for someone still in high school. Hopefully, that will be done soon to compliment what I've written already.

Zz.

Great, I'm starting high school this year, and such a prequel would be really helpful.

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Staff Emeritus

In Chapter 10 of my "http://docs.google.com/Doc?docid=df5w5j9q_5gj6wmt" [Broken], especially if he/she is a well-known scientists with a lot of demand on his/her time.

Does your supervisor always seem to address the lab as a whole rather than each of you as individuals with different needs, skills, and abilities? Perhaps in your weekly group meeting, she scans the room, asks, “Everything going okay? Any problems? No? Great,” and then dashes back to her office or to another meeting. This kind of behavior doesn’t make your supervisor a bad person; it may mean she is busy and perhaps insensitive to cues from lab members about the need for regular contact.

Possibly, your supervisor talks to you individually, but he’s a "hit and run" artist, tossing out a query about your progress as he breezes through the lab and then hides behind a stack of journal articles on his desk.

I'd say that this is a very useful essay especially for someone either just about to start a graduate research program, or in the middle of one.

Zz.

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I just wanted to say thank you for this really nice essay. It helped quite a lot amidst all the discouraging "advices" I was getting from all sorts of people like: "physics! have you gone mad? How about engineering? you'll make heck of alot of money, and fast..."
yes, so this helped me alot more, and I finally got an opinion from someone who's been through it all.
Regards,
A.H.

great information, it doesnt directly correlate to me in all ways (being from the uk) but its really good for getting a general idea, thanks for the interesting read.

Staff Emeritus

great information, it doesnt directly correlate to me in all ways (being from the uk) but its really good for getting a general idea, thanks for the interesting read.

If you think that there are significant differences between what you have to go through in the UK versus what I've described, I'd appreciate it if you could post some comments/examples. While I know a bit about how the system works in the UK, I certainly do not have a good enough idea of it when compared to someone who had gone through it. I certainly intend to include how one becomes a physicist under the UK educational system. I just can't write about it with the same "authority" as I can with the US educational system.

Zz.

Staff Emeritus
Defending Your Ph.D Thesis With Flair

In addition to what I had written in my essay on the preparation leading up to one's thesis defense, there is a very http://sciencecareers.sciencemag.org/career_development/previous_issues/articles/2008_07_25/caredit_a0800111" [Broken] on how one should prepare and present one's thesis defense. There are quite a few recommendations there that one might find useful.

Zz.

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well id imagine alot of it is very similar, like making sure you stand out by a certain time, and how to go about your doctoral work etc, id have thought the main differences are on a lower educational level, i couldnt really give you more information than roughly what courses etc youd need to study until you have attained your Mphys degree, but if youd like to include it id be more than happy to help out with your understanding of the uk educational system, sorry if this post seems quick and rushed.. im in a rush! :p

Nice work, man. I am currently pursuing MSc. Eng. Physics at TU Munich, I have finished the course-work and I am planning to start working on my thesis in October. By the way, I did my BSc. Physics in Germany, too..So, will see if I could give you my experience if necessary, when I have time, of course. I just joined this forum today and honestly I have been really impressed.

G01
Homework Helper
Gold Member

It is cool being able to read this essay as I go through the process myself. (Currently on parts V-VI )

In case I never said it before, this is a great essay and guide Zz. Wonderful job!

hey guys, i was just wondering if you knew of any helpful information for a physics degree in the U.K??
I am halfway through my A-levels and would really like to go on to do a physics degree next year and wondered if there was any info on a U.K degree?
Any help would be appreciated greatly :)

cristo
Staff Emeritus

hey guys, i was just wondering if you knew of any helpful information for a physics degree in the U.K??
I am halfway through my A-levels and would really like to go on to do a physics degree next year and wondered if there was any info on a U.K degree?
Any help would be appreciated greatly :)

I don't think anyone has written anything similar for the UK system, but then I don't think there are too many differences, especially at undergrad. What sort of advice are you after? Have you started looking at universities yet?

oh right ok fair enough. yeah ive been to a few universities so far which have been really good. i only recently took a keen interest in physics and decided to take it for A-level but im worried that i wont be smart enough to do a degree but i really want to do it. I took a 3 day course at a university last month which i enjoyed but all the other students seemed to have such a better understanding and a better physics background and wondered if it was too late to do a degree?

cristo
Staff Emeritus

oh right ok fair enough. yeah ive been to a few universities so far which have been really good. i only recently took a keen interest in physics and decided to take it for A-level but im worried that i wont be smart enough to do a degree but i really want to do it. I took a 3 day course at a university last month which i enjoyed but all the other students seemed to have such a better understanding and a better physics background and wondered if it was too late to do a degree?

What A levels are you taking? I would expect someone intending to do a physics degree (and succeed) to be taking at least Physics and Maths, with a view to obtaining an A in at least Physics. Which universities have you been looking at?

Im taking Maths Physics and Sport Science. Yeah thats what i thought, well from the internal tests ive been achieving B's and A's in both maths and physics. Ive been to Exeter, Southampton and Bristol so far.

cristo
Staff Emeritus

Im taking Maths Physics and Sport Science. Yeah thats what i thought, well from the internal tests ive been achieving B's and A's in both maths and physics.
Ok, well that's a good sign.
Ive been to Exeter, Southampton and Bristol so far.
I'm guessing you live somewhere in the south/southeast then. I'm not sure what the entrance requirements are for those universities, but I would say that you should apply to a range of universities. So, have one that you think will be a push to reach, have the bulk of universities that you would hope to get into, and then have one "insurance" which requires lower grades that you will definitely get into. These all depend on your predicted grades, so probably wait until you've got your AS results before deciding too much about these. Other advice: make sure you go and visit the universities and the departments you apply to. Try and ask the students and (if necessary) faculty questions if you are unsure about anything. Ask the students about practical things: what are the lecturers like, what is the accommodation like, how expensive is it to live in such and such a city, what sport cloubs/societies are good, etc, etc. Try and get to have a look around the accommodation if you can, although not all universities have the facilities for this.

Personally, I think it's more important that you pick a univeristy that you think you're going to enjoy spending your time attending, and a city that you will enjoy living in. So long as you pick a decent enough university, the departments will all be very similar quality-wise, and it will be difficult to pick somewhere solely based on this.

yes i live just south of bristol. well it differs, exeter requires BBC and Southampton requires AAB but not sure about Bristol. Yeah i get my AS results tomorrow so will have a better idea then i suppose. Yeah ive done open days for all of the ones ive mentioned so i have a good idea what they are about.

thank you thank you thank you!
AHHH I want to specialize in everything!!! But I can't :C

The times guide is essential reading:

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/life_and_style/education/good_university_guide/

Why mess about? Apply for Cambridge, Oxford and Imperial. If you fail to get in, then you can easily get in somewhere through clearing.

You will probably need straight As.

The sports science might be a plus for Oxbridge. Boat race, Roger Bannister, etc. They like their sporting traditions. If you're actually any good at a serious sport then it might help.

They also like to see you reading around, gives then something to talk about at interview (besides sport!). Recommendation -- read Feynman's lectures volume 1 and Tim Gowers Mathematics: A Very Short Introduction. That'll impress them. They are also great reads, and should help bolster your A level work.

If you're getting A/Bs then you can get As. Time to knuckle down.

cristo
Staff Emeritus

Why mess about? Apply for Cambridge, Oxford and Imperial. If you fail to get in, then you can easily get in somewhere through clearing.

But will that 'somewhere' be good enough? I would not advise people to only apply to those three universities, since if they don't get in then they will have to settle for a lower tier university. You should at least apply to other universities that have slightly lower requests, since then you will be confirmed a place (if you set it as your insurance) should you not meet the grades for whichever you put as your firm.

Also, note that not everyone wants to go to Oxford or Cambridge.

oh great thanks for the infomation, was really helpfull!
i didnt realise the Feynman lectures were so expensive!! i just bought that Tim Gowers book, that wasnt so expensive!
well i dont think i will be applying to oxbridge! is there any universities you would reccomend? i got A in maths and B in physics but im going to re-sit one of the physics modules to hopefully get an A.

Staff Emeritus

In Chapter XIII of my "http://docs.google.com/Doc?id=df5w5j9q_5gj6wmt&hl=en"", I briefly described what you need to do after you receive either a reply from a journal editor, and/or the referee reports of the manuscript you submitted. I described a bit what happened if your initial submission does not get accepted outright.

Science's career guidance section has http://sciencecareers.sciencemag.org/career_magazine/previous_issues/articles/2008_08_15/caredit.a0800123" [Broken], especially if your paper got rejected. At one point or another, everyone who has done a lot of submission to various journals, especially prestigious ones, will be faced with something similar to this. So scientists starting out might as well learn a bit more on how to deal with it and what to do.

A very good article to read.

Zz.

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Brilliant guide, Zapper!

I'm in Year 10 in Australia, and your guide has cleared up a few of my questions. It was interesting to read about the life of a physics major, and then reading about research in physics and postdoc positions.

I have a question for you though: What made you choose experimental over theoretical physics?

I am very, very passionate about physics (and particularly theoretical physics). I have looked at a few topics in mathematical physics like string theory and quantum field theory, and these seem to hit the nail on the head for what I would love to do. My curiosity really, *truly* is there for these subjects (I have always wondered about the universe, it's makeup and various questions regarding time, space, energy, matter, existance etc), but I always wonder about the mathematics. Does a theorist employ mostly applied or pure mathematics? Would you advise a double major in maths and physics to do theory?

In my top-course year 10 maths class, I am doing very well (with marks like B+ [for geometry], an A for financial maths etc) but I also do extended maths (pure maths just one step down from pre-tertiary level), and I am not doing as well in this (I got C+'s for the work on cubic functions, although currently, I am doing really well with logarithms and logarithmic functions).

How much mathematics did you do yourself? At this stage, I am planning to do a combined degree (Bachelor of Computing and Bachelor of Science) from the University of Tasmania (in Australia) as I have strong interests in both areas, but my true passion is for theoretical physics. The computer science also would give me a "safety net" as I understand, and keep my options even more open.

At the moment, I find I'm doing a lot better in physics than I am in mathematics (just got 90% on a kinematics test at school, for my advanced science course).

I just hope that my passion for mathematics increases considerably, as I find that I do enjoy the mathematics when I am able to do it, but is not too easy (or boring, like statistics - meh), but I have found occasionally that when it is sometimes out of my reach, I lose interest in it fast and lose motivation. I do NOT want to lose motivation for physics because of the mathematics, because I really, really am passionate about the physics concepts.

My favourite branch of maths is geometry (and I truly like this branch too), and I understand that certain types of geometry are very important tools in theoretical physics (like differential and algebraic geometry). Are these types of "geometries" similar to the geometry I would be thinking of?

Has anyone had any turning points for them where mathematics has leaped upon them and surprised them? Mathwonk told me that he found once he hit university, he was impressed with how deep mathematics is. I have always been impressed that mathematics allows us to explain so many things in the universe. The power of mathematics is truly immense, but when does one typically feel this "power" or awe?

By the way, I love to think about various concepts and difficult questions. I often try and grapple with ideas in my head before I go to sleep (I find this the most productive time to think) and believe I can often get these ideas at an intuitive level - never the mathematics though!

I like to ponder about scientific and philosophical ideas and spend a great amount of time doing this, so I really think that I have enough passion for the theory physics. I'm more interested in science than philosophy, however, and I wouldn't study philosophy (except perhaps a unit on logic) at University (college for the American readers, with all due respect).

You can probably sense that I love grappling with abstractedness. String theory particularly grabs me, as I love th abstract concepts, like Calabi-Yau spaces (tiny, curled up dimensions) and love the idea of strings as strands of energy, resonating, with wavefunctions of tension and length (and in loop/strand form). I love the presentation of this theory as "strings resonating through space to create a grand symphony of music", and I would love to be able to work with such beautiful and elegant concepts (perhaps even if they turn out to be incorrect or incomplete models of the universe).

I took particular interest in the LHC, but haven't heard whether the machine has started to collide atoms yet. Does anyone know?

To even have the desire to be a theoretical physicist, should I (at this stage) be able to understand the mathematics I am taught, intuitively? Or is higher mathematics non-intuitive even for the best of physicists? What about for the mathematicians out there?

Perhaps in another post, I can link the courses I plan to do, for suitability, and for comment. If anyone would be happy to look over what I have proposed, I would be very happy to hear!

I suppose in the end of this, I ask about the mentality of a theoretical physicist, and their intuition, particularly pertaining to understanding higher mathematics.

I look forward to hearing some responses, and once again, to Zapper, thanks for writing a great guide! Perhaps you could include some of these ideas I have mentioned?

Cheers,
-Davin

Staff Emeritus

Brilliant guide, Zapper!

I'm in Year 10 in Australia, and your guide has cleared up a few of my questions. It was interesting to read about the life of a physics major, and then reading about research in physics and postdoc positions.

Glad it is of some use to you.

I have a question for you though: What made you choose experimental over theoretical physics?

It's a rather long story, and in fact, I've written about it in an article called "http://physicsandphysicists.blogspot.com/2006/11/my-physics-journey.html" [Broken]" a while back. Maybe that might answer some of your curiosity.

I think I see many of the same thing in the young students nowadays, even the ones we get on here. I see some "grandiose" ambition to "understand the universe", etc., the very same thing that I foolishly thought I want to do when I started out. I think it is OK to have such high ambition, but it must also be temper down a bit with reality. It is a FACT that the largest percentage of practicing physicists are working in condensed matter/material science. This is the largest division in the American Physical Society, the Institute of Physics, and the European Physical Society. Yet, I would estimate that 3/4 of the incoming students just starting out in college have high ambition to do particle/string/solve-the-universe/etc. It is obvious that somewhere along the line, reality sets in and one realize that (i) there is no such thing as "understanding the universe", at least, not THAT simple, (ii) not everyone is capable of doing what they want to do (iii) money, money, money (iv) there are actually plenty of areas of physics that one never knew and that they are equally mesmerizing, important, and fascinating.

I was hoping that, in writing the "So You Want To Be A Physicist" essay, and also relating my own personal journey, that students open their eyes to a wider view and to keep their options open to the possibility that there are plenty of area that they haven't even encounter, and that these could be as rewarding as the few superficial pictures that they got of some of the "glamor" fields of physics that they have been seduced to.

Zz.

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I see some "grandiose" ambition to "understand the universe", etc., the very same thing that I foolishly thought I wanted to do when I started out. I think it is OK to have such high ambition, but it must also be tempered down a bit with reality.

Hmm, just the other day, I saw some statistics on employment in academia regarding areas such as cosmology/strings/high-energy particle physics and this alone scared me. I was aware that there are not many jobs in these areas, but for it to be so low numbers indicates huge competition, or few people going into these fields. I'm guessing it's fierce competition though. And if this is the case, I would strongly doubt I would even have the slightest chance, as I am no Einstein, Newton, or Witten.

Can people with these skills (with little, if no application) ever make a smooth transition to industry, in perhaps an experimental field (or a more theoretical, yet applied field)?

I hope to do a Bachelor's degree in Computer Science (mainly focussed on software engineering and computer science theory) on the side, so what about the merge of computer science with theoretical/experimental physics? How useful would this skill set be (with double majors in [applied or pure] mathematics and physics)?

As far as money is concerned, I know it is often shunned in these forums, with people giving advice such as "pursue what you love, rather than what will give you the most money", but isn't it the case that physics professors get anywhere from about $80,000 to$200,000 (whether it be USD or AUD, there is almost parity between the currencies)? Is it only people that are world-renowned that would recieve the "higher eschelons of financial reward"?

Because this amount is not in itself, an amount that can easily be shaken off. $100k is more than several managers make, for example (although they would get their pay for likely a larger portion of their life). How close is my image to reality? I don't want to be invasive on privacy or anything, but in your own field, what is the typical range for salary, per annum? I am purely interested in knowing, because even though money is only a small amount in the equation, it does have importance, as it does allow for more freedom in life. Hopefully I find a field that grabs me as much as this perhaps naive idea of mine. If it doesn't turn out to be practical, then so be it, but perhaps it would be a big shame (again, depends on what I find I enjoy most while at college/university). I read your blog post by the way. Again, quite informative. I see that you chose experiment over theory purely because of your own ability to have application and usefulness? I'm interested as to why you found that you didn't like high energy physics - what put you off? A question here: if I was interested in doing something like physics simulation for example (or perhaps game engine development, considering computer science background), would it be at all likely that one could find themselves in this position, and perhaps, with sponsorship (likely part-time??) do a PhD in theoretical physics? Is this at all tied to reality? Would a PhD enhance earning potential? I suppose they have more developed skills, so I would be willing to guess that they would, but I'm not dead certain. What's the field like for people who leave physics after doing a PhD (say for example, people who go into finance and become quants)? Are the skills developed from studying theoretical physics (over experimental physics) more useful there? The absolute ideal situation I think for me, would be doing some software development on the side (perhaps as a business - consulting work?) to earn some more money, and having that PhD in theoretical physics, perhaps doing research if I found that I was good enough to do so. I read a few days ago about a theoretical physicist (a professor) at some university had delved into internet security, made presentations for the CIA (c'mon, how many people do this? I don't think it'd be as cool as it sounds though!), and eventually sold his business to Symantec for something like$28m US! This is just one scenario I know of though, and this certainly is far from the reality for most people.

My initial direction would be to do an honours year in theoretical physics (this is an extra year, after the 3 year Bachelor's degree, where you can then work in a more specialised area, as obviously, undergraduate physics encompasses both theoretical and experimental aspects). Doing well enough here can lead to doing a PhD in the field, but this, as far as I'm aware would come a while afterwards. Perhaps then I have a real taste of both the computer science industry and the exciting field of physics (whether it be experimental or theoretical).

Hopefully during the technicalities and overcoming hurdles throughout the journey, I do not lose my great passion for physics, and find something that I really enjoy, and is perhaps, more practical, as I honestly don't believe I am capable enough to do cutting-edge research in theory. Maybe I am wrong though!

Next month, I will be going to my university for a "work experience programme" where I'll have a chance to meet the theoretical physics professor I have been corresponding with for a while, and ask him about the theory side, and what it's actually like in academia! I can come here to ask Zapper and any others in industry for a balanced viewpoint then, so I have a better idea about it all!

Cheers,
-Davin

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G01
Homework Helper
Gold Member

I feel I should back up Zapperz's point above with my own experience, which is much less expansive than his, but may still be of use to you.

When I started out as a freshman in university, I was really interested in general relativity, cosmology, and all that jazz. It was not until ~2.5 years into my degree that I realized that:

1) I really liked working with my hands and designing experiments, almost as much as I liked math. I would never want to do just math.

2)I found quantum mechanics MUCH more interesting than GR or any of the stuff I was initially interested in.

After I realized this, I applied for an REU and got placed in an Exp. Condensed Matter lab and that was that. I would be able to learn much more about quantum mechanics in that field. Also, I would be able to measure quantum mechanical effects, work with my hands and electronics, and do work that had more direct applications in real world technology. After this, I was set on condensed matter experiment. Currently, I'm applying to grad schools for PhD programs in this field.

My point is, you have yet to be exposed to a lot of very interesting fields in physics. You may indeed end up being most interested in strings or QFT, but you may not. Don't close any doors before you see what's behind them.

This is a really great guide - I too am considering a career in physics and am currently year 12 in New Zealand. I've got a good grasp of mathematics (coming top in 13Calc and went to last years maths olympiad training camp) and I love physics - even when my class goes horrifically slowly, like that lesson we spent learning how to crossmultiply fractions.

Although, like your essay said I think (sorry, skim reading), there aren't that many jobs for someone with a physics degree. I really don't want to be an engineer, or go into med paticularly, so what would I be able to do? Working at the LHC would be a total dream come true but I realize this isn't paticularly realistic...

Last I heard, the LHC had been shut down temporarily though because it was overheating in some parts.

Another sticking point for me is the male dominance in physics - I'm not sure but I think it would make me disadvantaged when it comes to jobs... maybe?

I don't plan to solve the universe, just play with the bits of matter it shoots out at us.

Oh and other jobs my dad has mentioned to me include numerical analysers (sorry if this has been mentioned - again, skim reading) - he's a Town planner and apparently these people model stuff like traffic flow and water drainage systems, which sounds quite fun as well.

I've looked at other career paths but most of them are not nearly as perfect for me - my latest interest was Neuroscience but I continue to get better marks in Physics than in Bio and Chem, even when I'm trying in the latter two and not in the former.

And of course the permanent back-up is music, so it doesn't really matter if I don't get a job after my degree - I'll be able to teach piano and make \$40 an hour!

S

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Hi Goon,

This is great! Good luck to you.

I wasn't informed of this overheat in the LHC.

Heh, "solve the universe" - even in say, string theory and cosmology, I don't think they physically or even conceptually solve it! Just get a better idea of it, and try to understand black holes/big bang(s)/dark matter and energy etc.

To do numerical analysis, as far as I know, you use partial differential equations (a branch of calculus). I can't claim that it's a fun subject or not, as I am yet to study calculus myself (perhaps in a few weeks I'll start!).

As for G01, I think I'm more interested in quantum mech. than general relativity, but then again string theory is a theory of quantum gravity. I suppose it harbours interest for people in either of these fields. Also, I wouldn't want to do just maths. If I wanted to do that, I'd become a mathematician! Much more interested in physics though (at least, at this stage!).

Cheers,
-Davin