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Theoretical Physics Sub-Fields

  1. Apr 4, 2014 #1
    Hi, I'm entering my senior year as an undergraduate and will soon be applying to grad school. I go to a small university that has an excellent undergraduate research policy which has allowed me to have experienced working in experimental and theoretical(computational) physics. I know one of the biggest choice besides chooses a sub-field is to decide whether to be an experimentalist or a theorist. I really hated working in the lab and was just didn't enjoy the entire process of experimentalism. On the other hand I've been working with a computational physicist and have really enjoyed the work and the way that things work on that side. I enjoy the theory and always thought as I was going I wanted to do both, experimentalism and theory. Computational physics has that going for it. It's theoretical but you kinda do numerical experiments of which I liked the idea.(computers are much more reliable than lab equipment =(. )

    So basically I've decided I want to be a theorist, but I understand there are sub-fields within the discipline and was curious what those options are and what each type do. The only one I am familiar with is computational or I'd list of some other examples.

    To paraphrase all of that, I like theory and have worked in computational physics and am curious what other types of theoretical physics there are and maybe a brief description of what each type do and maybe the fields of phyiscs they work in. (I am mostly interested in condensed matter and high energy/particle physics. I have experience with condensed matter but not with particle.)

    Thanks in advance.
  2. jcsd
  3. Apr 5, 2014 #2


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    I think this depends on which academic staff in your department are interested in theoretical or simulation projects. Every physics sub-fields have theoretical components as far as I know.
  4. Apr 5, 2014 #3
    Unfortunately if you want to be a theorist you need a high PGRE score. So get crackin!
  5. Apr 5, 2014 #4
    I kinda rambled out that question wukunlin. What I mean are sub-fields of theoretical physics. Like computational theory or maybe analytical theory. I'm just trying to figure out what my options are besides computation.
  6. Apr 5, 2014 #5


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    Why don't you visit the APS website and look at all the different sub fields in physics. All of this sub fields have theoretical work, even some "applied" area such as accelerator physics. All physics sub fields have theoretical components. Not all physics sub fields have experimental components.

    You never mentioned where in the world you go to school. If you are I'm a US institution, and you are a senior already, I'm surprised you have never visited the APS and AIP website by now.

  7. Apr 5, 2014 #6
    I'm in the U.S, sorry didn't think about that. I'm actually a member of APS. I guess I'm asking the wrong question. I'm aware of the different sub-fields in physics and have narrowed that down to between condensed matter/high energy physics.

    From the research I've done I suppose I may have gotten the wrong impression. I know that most sub-fields of physics have a theoretical branch, what i'm trying to figure out is with-in that theoretical branch are there other sub-branches. Say I'm in the theory department at a university, are all the theorists going to be computational, or will there be a variety or is computational methods just a tool that all theorists have in there pocket?

    Sorry if I'm not articulating my question well enough.
  8. Apr 8, 2014 #7


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    When people talk about subfields in theory they not only mean the methods used (computational or analytical) but also if it is based on phenomenology or is more "exotic". Phenomenology focusing more on understanding and predicting experimental signatures whereas exotic work can be more out there. It usually involves a higher degree of math. However, the distinctions between these two categories are blurred, some very fancy work actually does relate to experiment and some experimentally motivated work is very exotic.

    This is partially based on conversations I had with my REU advisor last summer and also with a Professor at the University of Chicago. I am going to grad school in condensed matter theory in the fall.

    About the PGRE scores, while it is best for a prospective theorist to score very well, your application goes way beyond just your PGRE. Your letters and research experience matter the most by far. Also a lot of the top schools these days are starting to deemphasize the PGRE score, even several top ten schools!
  9. Apr 9, 2014 #8
    What about one's GPA?
  10. Apr 9, 2014 #9


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    Grad schools care the most about research and letters of recommendation. They care about your coursework to the extent that you challenged yourself and did well in your advanced classes. That being said, they judge your transcript in context with the rest of your application. If you got Bs in lower level courses but As in your advanced courses and maybe even graduate courses, then your grades in lower level courses won't matter to them, especially if you have really great letters and research experience. Research opportunities in theory are hard to come by as an undergrad so if you have done theory research as an undergrad it really helps.

    In my example, I had gotten some Bs in lower level coursework and my GRE wasn't that great. However my letters were truly outstanding, I had excelled in several grad courses, and my research experience was also truly outstanding (first author paper in PRL in CMT). In the end I chose between several top ten schools for CMT and got fellowships from Harvard and UChicago given to the top applicants.

    One thing that may have been important in my success is that I come from and Ivy and my recommenders are all very well connected. This is obviously not the case with everyone. Some people (who I believe are misinformed) may say that my gender did me a huge favor. While it may have caused some people to put less weight on my GRE score, I heard from a student at the Harvard open house that a professor told her that all of the CMT admits this year were women (I don't think they admitted many students in CMT this year). This was not because of any preference, it happened to be that all of the best applicants were women.
  11. Apr 9, 2014 #10
    That is a huge benefit. Being connected is huge in and outside of academia. Your network is important.
  12. Apr 9, 2014 #11
    Thanks! This was was I was wondering. While I'm coming from a relatively small university, I've been gaining research experience in the field I am most likely going to specialize in. I'm currently working with a computational physicist diagonalizing geometrically frustrated spin systems, and in the summer I've been accepted to an REU working ,this time, I believe with topological insulators, although I'm not certain on the details of that. So by the time i'm applying to grad school I should have accumulated pretty decent experience working the theory side of things. My grades are in the top of my class. Although like I said I go to a small school so I'm not sure how I'd scale nationally.... My worries weren't really about getting into a theory program, but knowing what my options are when looking to apply. I enjoy computational work, and really hate being in a lab, but before I commit I wanted to be aware of what else I could do.

    Thanks again!
  13. Apr 10, 2014 #12


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    If you want to teach for the rest of grad school to support yourself, choose High Energy Theory.

    If you want to actually be funded to do research, condensed matter theory is a possibility, among others.
  14. Apr 11, 2014 #13
    Haha, yeah condensed matter theory is really up there for me because I'm really interested in adding my efforts to the decades of work that have been done on the search for high temperature super conductors. In my mind if they are discovered we enter a new technological era and perhaps one one step closer to living in star-trek-esque world.
  15. Apr 14, 2014 #14
    Some fields have surprisingly interesting theoretical work in places you would not expect. Look at quantum biology or just plain old biophysics; there is some very interesting theoretical work to be done there.
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