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Theoretical Physics vs Physics (UK student)

  1. Aug 28, 2008 #1
    I'm having to decide which degree to take now and can't really make my mind up between straight Physics or Theoretical. I will be applying to Oxford, Bristol, Manchester, Imperial and Nottingham if anyone cares.

    Just wondering what peoples thoughts are on the 'Physics with Theoretical Physics' course. I've never really had any lab work in Physics but I'm assuming I would find it tedious and boring (if it's anything like chemistry lab work). I much prefer the mathematical side and am much more able at mathematics than practical. I'll have Maths, Further Maths and Physics A-levels next year.

    Also what are the job prospects like for a graduate in Theoretical Physics as opposed to straight Physics. I've heard that many go into finance and IT which I wouldn't mind as long as I'm earning good money.

    If anyone's got any advice I'd love to hear it; and if you are studying Physics in the UK I'll take your word as gospel.
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 28, 2008 #2


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    I'd study physics, if I were you, since you don't really know what you want to specialise in, or whether you'll like theory. The first year will be pretty much the same in both degrees anyway, so you'll be able to switch between the two at the end of your first year. Thus, I wouldn't say it really mattered which you apply for.
  4. Aug 28, 2008 #3
    I was in the same position as you before starting uni, and actually chose physics in the end (at one of the unis you mentioned), even though I too hated chemistry/physics lab work. I found that to no surprise I didn't really enjoy physics uni lab work either, and enjoyed the computational labs and theoretical stuff a lot more, so I ended up switching over to theoretical physics.

    From what you've described about yourself, I would say you will enjoy the theoretical modules and theory labs more, so would go with that, but like Cristo said it's no big deal anyway because you can just swap.

    It's a bit early to say at this stage, but if you were thinking of a PhD in a theoretical subject like string theory, it might even be worth while considering a joint maths-physics degree, as you would have to learn it during such a PhD anyway, and this gives you the luxery of learning it in a formal setting. This route would basically kill lab completley (I dont know if that appeals to you or not) and in my experience, it wouldn't have meant I missed out on anything I found interesting (things like Solid state physics, gas liquids and solids etc would have been lost but you would gain things like algebraic geometry, differential geometry, group theory all v useful for further study in theoretical particle physics). But it's prob wayyy to early to know what you want to do a PhD in, or even if you want to do a PhD at all or not. I knew someone who swapped to joint math-phys at the end of year 1, so it is possible to even do this.

    Pretty much the same as a graduate from straight physics to be honest. If you take labs and projects with more programming in this might be an advantage to getting a role in say an IT consultancy.

    As for finance, investment banks and the like recruit at the graduate level from all numerical (and even some non numerical) degrees, but these jobs are extremely competitive (in the UK they recruit from target universities with Oxbridge, Imperial, LSE, UCL being the top five, typically graduates with a first class degree, and you will need to actual show knowledge and interest in finance itself). I would suggest if in a few years you are attracted by the huge salaries and bonuses of investment banking, you take some finance options which will be offered to you, get plenty of extra curricular things going, and starting reading the FT :smile:
    Like I said investment banking is a very competitive area, since starting salaries for fresh grads are typically £30-40k, plus bonuses, and within 5 years you would typically be earning £150k+ . The hours are long long long however, i.e. 12 hr days as standard, with frequent 15hr days cropping up.

    Lots of physics grads always go into acturial work, but this involves taking further qualifications (whilst you're working for the company), until you've done this you'd be on about 20k for a few years. When you become qualified (like I say after a good few years) the salary goes to about £50k.

    Other options are the nuclear industry, engineering like BAE systems, medical industry, software development. A good link for typical career paths for UK physicists: http://www.kent.ac.uk/careers/physics.htm

    In brief the only way Theory vs straight physics is going to make a real difference is if you go down the PhD route, and you can discover this sometime into your degree after having a taste of everything.
  5. Aug 28, 2008 #4
    Wow, the 150k has really got me interested. Would a maths graduate be more employable than a physics graduate for financial careers? If so I'm toying with the idea of Maths and Physics joint honours instead of theoretical. Thanks for all the advice btw!
  6. Aug 28, 2008 #5


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    Yes, a math major is (much) more employable for financial careers.

    The problem, however, is that the math needed for financial careers is completely different than that needed for physics. So you'll need to choose between courses good for theoretical physics (pure math) or that for financial careers (stats)
  7. Aug 28, 2008 #6
    In terms of math or physics or joint maths-phys, it will barely make a difference. Some universities offer things like physics w/ finance or maths w/ finance (stochastics, black scholes etc it's actually fairly interesting to see how things from statistical physics like Brownian motion relate to this stuff) which will make a difference (mainly to show an long standing interest in finance than for the actual knowledge! as most people will be applying just for the money with no interest in finance this what they look for). I think the most desirable degree course would be economics from somewhere like LSE (the breeding ground of investment bankers) if you were set on this, mainly because of where it is and the chance to 'network'.

    The way it works at most investment banks is that they take on people of any degree discipline (usually numerical, but not always) as Analysts, and they take on people with a degree+MBA's as Associates. Associates will be starting on about £50k and I think will essentially be your direct boss.

    Another way invenstment banks are structured is the so called Front Office, Middle Office, Back office. Front office positions are the most sought after, and where the money is (i.e. directly on the trading floor), the money goes down as you go further from front to back office positions. So the best candidates take all the Front Office jobs etc.

    If you were really set on this career, I would say do either maths with finance or physics with finance (again you can change to these after year 1), at either oxbridge or a London uni. Get an internship with an investment bank one summer during uni. Get a first class degree. Do other extra curricular things like societies. Possibly consider doing an MBA after your bachelors.

    It is phenomenal money, more than any other industry that I've ever heard of (except actually starting your own sucessful business), and if you are good at it, it's not an exageration to say you will make millions. But it is extremeley competitive to get a foot in the door in the first place, because of these financial incentives, and also because of the "credit crunch" places are even more limited, compared to demand than usual. But it's also hard to retain a position, if you dont perform and win clients you will be sacked and a lot of people only last a year or two.

    You should really research this alot though before committing to it, as most people in the industry will tell you, investment banking is a lifestyle choice (just like academia is but for different motives), you will be working 7am-7pm, or 7am-9pm sometimes, and even 7pm-11pm other times, you will have to come in at the weekend sometimes. So think carefully how that will impact your family life at that age.
    It sounds like a cliche, but it's not all about the money. Are you going to enjoy this work, do you enjoy direct competition all day every day, and liasing with clients trying to sell them junk, or do you want to do something that fascinates you, makes a difference in the world, enjoy the work you do etc. A commonly reported anecdote about investment banking, is about the trainer telling the new recruites "welcome you have just sold your soul to the devil", hehe.

    If you do find you love physics or maths when you start your degree, enough to do a PhD, but not enough to go into academia another path would be to enter an IB as a Quantitative Analyst or Quant as they're known. This isnt as good money as sitting on the trading floor, but it seems much more enjoyable work, programming, making financial math models etc, so its a hands on tech role rather than smoozing with clients. The money will be something like 50k start, maxing out at 200k after you have a lot of experience. Which is still much more than most grad jobs ever get to. It's something lots of physicists end up doing if they fall out of academia.

  8. Aug 28, 2008 #7
    I would have to disagree with this, although I don't work for an IB myself I know a few people who did (in the UK at least). Most seem to favour physics because of its applied nature. Plus jobs as traders, you will barely see any "real math" anyway, they just want you to be numerical and be able to do macros on excel basically! lol

    If you want to be a quant then yes, physics PhD isn't THE best (but its still acceptable and lots from physics, engineering and even chem get taken on as quants) and it's no worse than a PhD in a pure area of mathematics. Obviously the best PhD would be something very closely related to finacial research. Plus the maths of physics is pretty intertwined with finance maths, well the maths of adv statistical physics is anyway. Things like black scholes are essentially diffusion equations. Stochastic calc seems to be all over the place, and so on.
  9. Sep 5, 2008 #8
    Check out "My Life as a Quant" by Derman. There seem to be a fair number of these "how I loved physics but had to give it up!" type books around now. Another I'd recommend is "Disciplined Minds" by Schmidt, who went into physics magazine editing (but had to give that up as well!) Myself, I went into IT. Always jobs there, and you can hop around until you find an IT post you can stand. "The Cuckoo's Egg" by Stoll is great on that route (as well as being a real-life spy thriller!)
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