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Soft matter vs. cosmology/particle physics

  1. Jan 14, 2015 #1
    Hello everybody!

    I'm currently in the third semester of my Masters' and still haven't decided which direction to specialize in.
    So far, I have been doing almost exclusively theoretical courses (particle physics and QFT, GR, advanced stat. mech) with a computational physics lab class being the only exception.
    Of course, I have already talked to some professors and have been offered two topics, the one being in the area soft condensed matter and the other in cosmology.

    I have considered going into soft matter, because I like stat. mech. a lot and wouldn't mind doing some programming. On the other hand, there seems to be very little theoretical (by that I mean pen and paper) work involved. The mathematical tools employed in the field seem rather simple compared to other areas of theoretical physics - but maybe I'm wrong. That being said and without meaning to offend anyone, going into the field feels a little bit like choosing the quick and easy path - in the sense that I won't be dealing with mathematical problems most of the time.
    Furthermore, I feel that if I go into soft matter, all the work i have invested in trying to understand the most fundamental theories describing nature has been mostly in vain. Also, I will probably forget about the the little I have learned about QFT and GR if I don't need it.
    I have heard that soft condensed matter is a very active and growing field. There seems to be much that hasn't been done. This, on the other hand, might just be a consequence of the ever increasing computing power. Nevertheless it is an exciting prospect to enter a field in which not all of the low (or at least, not so high) hanging fruits have been picked.

    As for cosmology: I think it would be a good opportunity to deepen my (as of now, very limited) knowledge of the most fundamental aspects of physics. Also, I like cracking theoretical problems analytically, although I'm probably not very good at it.

    In any case, I don't see myself becoming a cosmologist though. I still haven't completely given up on becoming a scientist and getting a phd position in cosmology is probably a lot more difficult.

    My plan was to start working on my thesis at the beginning of my second master's year - which is almost half over by now and I'm getting desperate. I'm scared of making a choice because no matter which topic I choose, I will have to give something up. It feels like as if as soon as I step through one door the other one will close.

    How did you physics people cope with the fact that you had to specialize in a particular field eventually?

    I would really appreciate some comments on my considerations, as hopelessly naive they may seem to the more experienced.
  2. jcsd
  3. Jan 14, 2015 #2

    Quantum Defect

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    Think about what you want to do with your degree, as well. Soft matter physics would likely be more marketable in industry. Cosmology/particle physics is pretty much limited to academia, I would think. I am not a physicist, but I suspect that the job market in academia for particle physicists and cosmologists is not real hot, but I suspect that more places may be interested in hiring someone with a degree in soft matter physics. In addition, soft-matter physics touches more areas of science: Physics, Materials Science & Engineering, maybe Chemistry and Biology, too. Cosmology and Particle Physics is pretty much limited to Physics and Astronomy, I think.

    Look at what has happened to the recent graduates of the two programs that you are considering. How have they fared in the marketplace?

    You should of course do what you love, but you should also concern yourself with the more mundane issues of where you want to live, what standard of living you would like, etc.
    Last edited: Jan 14, 2015
  4. Jan 14, 2015 #3
    If for some reason you consider sophisticated mathematics to be an attractive feature of a topic in physics, you can certainly find groups which attempt to apply such techniques to soft-matter problems. I've seen people use quantum field theory (the mathematics anyway) to invent novel RNA folding algorithms with some promising results (the technical specifics being the ability to overcome pseudo-knots which confound more naive algorithms). Some CS/Math groups have been using various forms of topological data analysis to study protein conformational change/folding. Another paper I was browsing recently described applications of information theory to rationally identify reaction coordinates.
  5. Jan 14, 2015 #4
    From my personal experience semi-spiritual intentions like "deepening your knowledge about the most fundamental aspects of nature" don't get you very far. The successful particle physicists I know are very pragmatic people. To paraphrase the my advisor of my master's thesis (in particle theory): "don't be blinded by the glamour factor of a topic, look for the impact factor". I recommend to focus your choice on "I like actively doing this", not on "this is a topic I would like to understand one day" or "only this topic has a sufficiently tough reputation to be chosen by me".

    For the question of being afraid to make a decision: I've learned that it is often better make a best-guess decision and then to focus on the opportunities behind a door you have chosen, instead of worrying about the non-further-existing opportunities behind the door you haven't chosen. Delaying decisions only makes sense if there is a sensible reason to assume that you are able to make a better decision in the future (and even then it has to be weighted against the possible cost of having delayed the decision).
  6. Jan 15, 2015 #5


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    Why not hard matter? The research done today relies heavily on quantum field theory and stat mech. It also can be closely related to experiments high Tc, cold atoms, and in creating qubits.
  7. Jan 16, 2015 #6
    Thanks for your replies.

    @Quantum Defect
    Of course "employability" is to some extent part of my considerations. But I have never heard someone say something like "I totally regret doing what I loved when a was still at university because now I have fewer opportunities on the job market. I wish I had done something like xyz". For me, my time at uni is one of the very rare opportunities in life where I can really do what interests me. Problem is, I am not so sure what that is right now...
    As far as I have heard, particle physicists often go into consulting or the financial sector. The people I have talked to usually started doing a phd in the respective fields. I don't know what they will be doing in a few years from now.

    I would be very happy, If you could provide me with a link to these papers.

    I am not sure if the brutal honesty of your answer isn't mixed with some cynism ;). I get your (or your advisor's) point that one shouldn't "be blinded by the glamour factor of a topic" but in how far should the impact factor ( I assume by that you mean the citation metric) be of any more value? If by pragmatic you mean being down-to-earth, doing things step by step, being realistic etc. then I agree that it is good to be pragmatic. If it means doing things that are fashionable (high impact factor) then I don't.
    If my choice will make it hard or impossible for me to stay in academia then so be it.
    But I must admit that I am driven by my ego to pick a topic with "a sufficiently tough reputation". I know that's a bad thing for it is likely to make me unhappy, but it is very difficult to overcome. But I'm rather sure that it is a common issue among physics students.

    The problem is, that I am rather clueless when it comes to solid state theory. The topic never really interested me and I think those guys would rather accept a master student who has some background in solid state stuff.
    Last edited: Jan 16, 2015
  8. Jan 16, 2015 #7

    Quantum Defect

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    Talk to some 40-50 year olds and see what they say. ;)

    I studied what I loved at university and graduate school, but the decisions that I made at 20 continue to have an impact today. I sometimes wish that as a 20 year old, I could have had a conversation with my 50 year old self.

    This is kind of like marriage. The person you are passionately in love with at age 20 might not be the best life partner for you, no?

    I know that particle physics people used to go into finance, but I had heard that this market tanked during the recession. Also, ask yourself if this really makes sense -- studying particle physics to get a job on Wall Street.
  9. Jan 16, 2015 #8


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    I think solid state fits your requirements much better than soft matter. There is heavy use of QFT and stat mech. It is also would give you more employment opportunities.

    A lot of people have the misconception that condensed matter theory) soft matter and solid state) is not as hard as HET. That is absolutely wrong. Many of the ideas in HET like RG, confinement, spontaneous symmetry breaking, and the Higgs mechanism were actually first discovered in CMT. Soft matter has an abundance of problems that have a lot to do with geometry and topology. Jamming has also been shown to be a phase of matter in that there is a jamming phase transition. So you shouldn't think that going into condensed matter is less prestigious that doing cosmology. Some of the most well respected professors at my undergrad institution (one of the top three in soft matter) did soft matter. One in particular had knowledge in a huge array of topics in physics. He is one of the most famous soft matter theorists.
  10. Jan 16, 2015 #9
    Old RNA folding w/ field theory paper by Anthony Zee, he of particle physics textbook fame:

    As for topological data analysis, I'm not very knowledgeable about it, but I browsed this review paper a while ago and found it informative (I don't know if there is an arxiv preprint out there):
    "Conformational Ensembles and Sampled Energy Landscapes: Analysis and Comparison
    F. Cazals, and T. Dreyfus, and D. Mazauric, and A. Roth, and C. Robert"

    This paper used information theory to more rigorously devise collective variables in biophysical simulations:

    Of course protein biophysics is a subset of soft matter, but it sounds like Radium can point you to some more cases of exotic phenomena in the broader subject.
  11. Jan 16, 2015 #10
    That seems a little sheltered. My math grad program was full of students who found that it wasn't what they expected and regretted what they were doing. I can easily say I wish I did computer science, electrical engineering, or even physics would have been better than what I did. I like elementary topology or graduate level topology, but I have little to no interest in research level stuff, for the most part, and it made getting a job very difficult. It's been over a year, and all I've had is tutoring. I've got tons of job leads and interviews at the moment, so I think maybe I might be just about out of this hole, but it's not over yet, and my luck/interviewing skills are pretty terrible, so I'm not counting my eggs yet. Halfway through my PhD, a numerical analysis student told me he picked it because it was the easiest, and my number theorist friend and I were like, "OMG, why didn't we think of that. We're IDIOTS!" Plus, it would be easier to get a job. It's easy to think you want it to be challenging, but that may be just because you haven't been to grad school is yet, so you haven't found out the meaning of the word "hard". There are tons of regrets people have about grad school--it's not everyone, but it's common.
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