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Courses Theoretical physics Graduate courses - is it all string theory?

  1. Apr 2, 2012 #1

    I was wondering what the scope is these days to do a PhD in theoretical physics, but without delving into string theory? Is the world of theoretical physics still very much dominanated by string theory, or can young physicists go down alternative routes? I seem to remember that some years ago, about 90% of theoretical physics PhDs were all on string theory - is it a similar story today?

    If so, does anyone find this very restrictive? What if you want to look into different theories of everything? Where can you go? Or do you have to fall in step with string theorists?

    I would love to get some more information on this.

  2. jcsd
  3. Apr 2, 2012 #2
    I find it hard to imagine that there ever was a time where 90% of theoretical physicists were string theorists. Did you get that impression from actual university contact or from reading semi-popular science sources?

    90+% of theoretical physicists are non-stringers nowadays. In fact, the only theoretical physicists that are suspect of having contact with string theory are particle physicists, astrophysicists, and mathematical physicists. Those fields only make up a minority of theoretical physicists - and only a minority of them do string theory.
  4. Apr 2, 2012 #3
    I suppose what I mean is whether young physicists have the freedom to look into "theories of everything" other than string theory. I know that there were people like Garrett Lisi who wanted to continue academia after his PhD, but felt they couldn't step in line with the string theorists and they weren't given the freedom to look into other theories, or come up with their own. And I wonder if the same is true today? Or is there more scope for young physicists to look into TOE without having to fall in line with the stringers.
  5. Apr 2, 2012 #4
    Maybe I'm reading this wrong, but this sounds like you believe that all theoretical physicists are looking for a theory of everything. This is not the case at all. Just pick a random university and check the website of their theoretical physics department to get an idea of the variety of topics being researched.

    Anyway, there is lots of theoretical physics to be done without getting anywhere near string theory.
  6. Apr 2, 2012 #5
    You aren't reading it wrong - I initially worded it all very badly!

    I am only interested in the TEO theoretical physicists - sorry for the confusion!
  7. Apr 2, 2012 #6


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    Very few people are working on a TOE, and there's very little funding for it. It's not really a problem you can jump in at that end - the solution. You need to hit it somewhere else, like learning more about particle physics, etc. What you're saying is 'I want to solve the ultimate problem of everything', which simply isn't going to fly for an employer or grant committee. You'll very likely spend your entire career never really accomplishing anything, which doesn't make you a very attractive employee. Find something specific to focus on, something that you can actually make headway on, publish papers about, and involve students, and you'll have a shot at a job as long as you're doing solid science. You can certainly think about you work in terms of applications to a TOE, but not just that.
  8. Oct 15, 2012 #7


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    The vast majority of new academics hired in theoretical high energy physics in the nineties and into the noughties were string theorists. These days, not so much. Now, as then, if you want to increase your chances of landing a job, best to go with the crowd and try to make progress in a popular area, under a successful advisor. But, if you want to increase your chances of figuring out something new and cool about the universe, it's best to follow your own interests, wherever they take you. Freedom isn't something you get, it's something you have to choose for yourself, always with a cost. Personally, if I'd cared about getting a job, I wouldn't have gone into physics.
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