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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 30, 2010 #2
    As long as you don't confine yourself to academia, they are quite good. Most physics theorists have a huge amount of computer and math skills and these are extremely marketable.

    If finish the Ph.D., it's not going to matter much.

    As far as employability, what gets people hired are computer skills. They don't have to be totally stunning, but if you've gone through a Ph.D. program, and done all your work in pencil and paper, then it's going to be a bit harder to get an industrial job.

    It depends how broadly you define physics research. Technically I'm working in finance, but the problems I'm working on things that I can convince myself are close enough to physics research that I like the job. Also one thing that is within the realm of possibility is to continue to work on my astrophysics work. Something about physics theory is that all you need are networks and access to computers.
  4. Apr 1, 2010 #3
    Thanks for your response. At this point I am hoping to go into acedemia, or work for a government research lab, so that I can do (theoretical) physics research. I guess I'm wondering how easily one can move between the different physics diciplines, and how easily one can switch from theoretical physics to experimental and visa versa.
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