Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

Physics Theoretical Physics: Career paths, work, area of expertise?

  1. Jun 1, 2010 #1
    Hey guys, I'm new here. I read Zz's 'So you wanna be a physicist', great post and I learned a lot about it. However, I have some questions pertaining specifically to theoretical physicists.

    Are there less theoretical physicist jobs than experimental physicist jobs? What constitutes a theoretical physicist's job anyway? I'm under the impression that they work a lot with mathematics and [duh] theory, but do they do any experimental work at all? This seems as though they're confined greatly to faculty positions at universities. I have a great passion for mathematics and physics, especially theory, but I don't want to major in mathematics or computer science because I really love physics and that incorporates both (or all three). What exactly do theoretical physicists work on? I mean, is it more difficult than experimental physicist jobs? Are there actually jobs for theoretical physicists to actually work as theoretical physicists?

    Also, I have a few questions about research. Do undergraduates often do research simultaneously during semesters? When do they usually begin? I'm very eager to start but I don't want to get off on the wrong foot asking researchers for things that aren't even feasible or sensible.

    Any advice at all is appreciated, thanks.
  2. jcsd
  3. Jun 7, 2010 #2
    I too am interested in this if anyone can give some feedback.
  4. Jun 7, 2010 #3
    Well, you should get started in research, in whatever capacity, as soon as possible. You'll probably be working for an experimentalist, but try to get into a lab in the field that (you think) you're interested in---for example, if you want to be a high energy theorist, you should probably start working in a high energy experiment lab. The sooner you start, the better. And you should do as much research as possible---I'd say it's better to apply to grad school with a 3.7 and one or two pubs than a 4.0 without ever having been in the lab.

    As for theoretical physics, you'll learn all the math you need along the way. Do what you want to do and stay curious. Take enough math to get you the formal background that you need (typically through complex analysis, ODE/PDE, and linear algebra). Take a class or two in computer science, but anything more than that is probably a waste of time.
  5. Jun 8, 2010 #4
    Thanks for the reply.

    How hard is it to publish a paper as an undergraduate? Is there a certain field I can more easily publish, and does the field have to be the same as what you may want to study for graduate school?

    The only math classes my institute requires for physics is Calc. 1 - Differentials and linear algebra. Would it be worthwhile to still take more classes? I was thinking of a mathematics minor.

    Finally, when are students usually able to start working in research? Should I have taken atleast Physics I and II, or are more required to ask to be able to do research?
  6. Jun 8, 2010 #5
    I'd look for a large, active group. It doesn't matter what they do, however, if you have your eye on a certain field, keep in mind that the guy you work for as an undergraduate will have friends in the field, and will be writing you a letter of recommendation. Pubs are important, but experience is more important. If you work in the group for 3-4 years, you should have a publication or two.

    If you WANT a math minor, you can take one. I wouldn't advise you to do it to improve your chances at getting into a specific school or discipline. Physics is not math, and many physicists aren't that great at math.

    Why don't you ask the person you want to work for? They don't bite...
Share this great discussion with others via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook