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Physics Theoretical Physics: Job Prospects

  1. Mar 29, 2010 #1
    I have read the numerous threads discussing experimental vs. theoretical physics on this forum. I am leaning toward pursuing theoretical physics in and after graduate school despite the numerous caveats regarding job prospects. I realize that one need not make a decision between theoretical and experimental physics until graduate school, but the decision has bearing on the classes I will take for the rest of my undergraduate career - basically more rigorous math courses (algebra, analysis, pdes, diff. geometry, etc.) for theoretical, and more applied math and physics courses for experimental - so I'm really trying to decide before graduate school.

    If I make the commitment to go the theoretical track, how difficult/competitive will it be to pursue a degree in theory and find a job as a theorist afterword (see background)? I'm really having trouble finding data/statistics on job prospects for theorists compared to experimentalists. I'm looking at questions such as: What schools are hiring theorists the most and where are they being hired from? What percentages (theorists/experimentalists) are hired? How sparse (quantitative if possible) are jobs for theorists - employability? What caliber (profile) of students are being hired as theorists? Does the discipline of theoretical physics pursued make a difference to employability/graduate school acceptance?

    Also, if for some reason I "fail" at becoming a theorist, in graduate school or after (no one will hire me, accept me on their research team, etc.), or if I just decide it isn't for me, what are my options (assuming I want to continue to do physics research)? How easy would it be to make the transition into experimental physics?

    Background: I'm a undergraduate junior at the University of Minnesota - TC with a 3.3 gpa (predicted for graduation) double majoring in physics and math with 2 years of experimental research experience and 2 solid letters of recommendation.

    Any insight you can give on this lengthy post is much appreciated. Thanks!
  2. jcsd
  3. Mar 31, 2010 #2


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    I've been waiting for someone else to reply, but unfortunately nobody has.

    From an economic perspective, physics is probably one of the most globalized careers in the world. Yes, manufacturing jobs may get sent to weird countries, but anyone anywhere in the world who gets good enough grades and gre scores can get paid $20-30k a year to study physics (or applied math, etc) in the US. (It's harder for foreign students, but the point is the applicant pool is that much larger and competitive.) That, combined with nsf funding for physics grants amounting to around 76 cents per person in the US, doesn't help. (There's funding from a few other agencies like the DOE, but the total remains pretty low. The nih has 10B, which is not a lot, but is still around 30 times larger.) So physics grant funding as a percentage of the US's yearly gdp is probably less than 4x10^-4%. I'm obviously biased, but for the science that allowed for the internet, microprocessors, cell phones, gps and radiation therapy, I feel like it should be higher. Materials science should be a lot higher too (even though I personally find it really boring), but that's another story. All of this basically boils down to: there's a lot of competition.

    My best advice is to get A's in your remaining semesters to raise your gpa above 3.5, and to score in the 80th percentile or higher on the physics gre. This will put you above the cutoff for every school - which just means they'll look at your application. Recommendation letters are probably what makes the difference after this. Frankly the pgre is just timed problems & memorization of calculational shortcuts that anyone who passes QM can understand. This is why foreign students score so much higher than US students, they study for it more because their cutoffs are higher. Also study for it in the summer before your senior year, so that it doesn't interfere with coursework as much. Yes it's a lot of work, but that's what's required.

    There's a lot more than can be said, so hopefully someone else offers their perspective.
  4. Apr 1, 2010 #3
    Thanks for the post. Does anyone else have anything to add?
  5. Apr 1, 2010 #4
    As long as you are insistent about getting a job in academia, don't worry about job prospects. There are plenty of jobs for physics Ph.D.'s. Very few professorships, but lots of jobs in general.

    It's a good idea not to get too specialized before graduate school. It will help a lot of be either a theoretician or an experimentalist if you can think like someone in the other camp. One thing I do recommend is that you get some experience in computers and numerical analysis (note that I didn't say necessarily take a class).

    It depends how broadly you define "theory" and "theorist." If you insist on getting a professorship at a large research university, then the odds are very much against you. On the other hand if you have a very broad definition of "theorist" then it's not that hard. I'm doing basically the same work on Wall Street that I did in graduate school.

    http://www.freewebs.com/heprumor/ [Broken]
    http://www.freewebs.com/heppostdoc/ [Broken]

    The magic google term is "rumor mill" There are rumor mills for pretty much all types of physics.

    Also you can tell that there aren't that many jobs, because the rumor mills don't merely give statistics, they give the names of the people being interviewed, and it all fits on one web page :-( :-( :-(

    http://www.fnal.gov/orgs/gsa/calendar/past_events/career/gerdes.ps [Broken]

    Very much. There are certain fields that are "hot" and certain fields that are "not"

    While you are in graduate school it's disruptive, but not that hard if you make a switch early. As time passes, it gets harder and harder, and once you get your Ph.D. it's really, really hard since doing anything different is pretty much the kiss of death getting a post-doc.

    But the important thing is to do what you like, because if you do what you like at least in physics, it's not a hugely difficult thing to get someone to pay you to do something similar to what you like to do.

    My big piece of advice is assume that you aren't going to get a research faculty position, and plan accordingly. The other piece of advice is don't get too narrow. Take courses in writing, philosophy, literature, and history very, very seriously. The reason those courses are important is that they give you some background into figuring out the system and changing it if it doesn't work for you.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 4, 2017
  6. Apr 1, 2010 #5
    One thing that you has to be emphasized is that you have to make a distinction between "job prospects" and "job prospects in academia." Job prospects in traditional academia are quite dismal, but those aren't the only jobs out there.

    One other thing is that the definitions that matter are the ones that you make up. Most people would look at what I do and they wouldn't think of it as being a "physics theorist" but I do which is why really matters.
  7. Apr 1, 2010 #6


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    Gold Member

    What DO you do, twofish, if you don't mind me asking?
  8. Apr 1, 2010 #7
    Very broadly, I babysit computers for a financial firm. I can go through a lot of detail off-line, but one annoyance that I have about working in finance is that they don't let you talk too much about what it is that you actually do.

    Speaking in general. There is a lot of demand for physics Ph.D.'s in finance. Your typical investment bank probably has about 100 or so physics Ph.D.'s on staff, and that's not counting people that work in hedge funds and in other parts of the industry.
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