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Theoretical Physics-Whats the path? What's it really like? What will I be in for?

  1. Feb 26, 2010 #1
    Hello everyone-

    My question is in regards to Theoretical Physics. Since my last post (which apparently was in Oct 2008...my goodness, I have learned so much since then), I was debating on whether or not I even wanted to go the physics route, but now here I am, a lot of math and two years later and I am very sure this is where i want to go.

    Now branching off of that, Im fairly certain I want to go into theoretical physics. Id like a better idea though of what types of things they do. I know the general idea of what one does as a theo physicist but I suppose I mean specifically. Do they work on one problem and devote time to that? Work in teams? Teaching and research? Lots of travelling? No traveling at all? Lots of computer work? etc...

    I currently am still in my undergrad series and have a fair bit of a ways to go, but Im a little unsure of whether i should major in Mathematics or Physics if I DID happen to choose to focus on theo physics. A grad student who tutors at my school told me it would be best to major in both, which I have no problem with, and then others say just stick to majoring in math. So, what do you guys think? A little confused on that.
  2. jcsd
  3. Feb 27, 2010 #2
    Any of those, depends on the project. In a sense, everyone works in teams, but it might be as small as you and your research supervisor.
    "Grad student" might be giving good advice, "the others" seem to be giving bad advice. Why would you study math but no physics if you were wanting to focus on physics?! In the UK I would say "do a degree in theoretical physics", which might translate to "major in theoretical physics" on the USA, but I'm not sure if that's a possible major!
  4. Feb 27, 2010 #3
    Generally, no. There will likely be a main 'project', but research time is often spent working on different areas, it also depends on whos available/whats coming up: which brings me to my next answer...

    In a way, very much so, yes. Research is collaborative and I think everyone will agree that one must also be very sociable (as well as have the smarts) to be a successful researcher. For example, there will be things you work on where you might not know how to approach a certain problem - but you will likely know someone that does. Relationships like this lead to collaborative work, where something that might start as a one or two man project can blossom.

    I can only speak for the UK here, but teaching is generally a requirement. Depending on the field and which stage of the career you're in, you may only spend, say, 20% of your working time actually doing research (teaching, planning, grant applications etc etc. make up the rest). Travelleing depends on both your personal choices as well as the field you're in. For example, if there are lots of conferences related to your interests, then yes, you'll travel a lot.

    As for computer work, I don't know of any researcher that isn't almost always using a computer. Pen, paper and whiteboards are useful for planning and providing a means of setting the problem straight in ones mind, but computers are the way to get the results.

    Having a solid base in math and programming is an excellent idea, it will certainly make things easier when it comes to grad school, but majoring in physics will be 'enough': if you get in to grad school you'll have the opportunity to learn anything you need to anyway.
  5. Feb 27, 2010 #4
    I'm not really keen on degree titles like "Theoretical Physics". For starters, I think it brings an unnecessary 'commitment' to people that are only just at the end of high school. It isn't really appropriate to describe undergraduate physics as 'experimental' or 'theoretical' so I'm not convinced that these programmes are really any different from a normal physics curriculum. And making a mental commitment to oneself for something like a theoretical job when you're still 4-5 years away from even qualifying is silly.
  6. Feb 27, 2010 #5


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    In the USA, undergraduate degrees are generally not specialized. One simply majors in "physics." There are some exceptions, for example many schools offer degrees in "medical physis" or maybe "engineering physics" or similar areas. But "theoretical physics" as a separate major is not common here. At least, I don't remember any such degrees here.

    If people want specific academic advice, they really need to give us some idea of where in the world they are.
  7. Feb 27, 2010 #6
    Also one thing that you should do if you what to go into physics theory is to learn how to program, and take some courses in numerical analysis. One major whole in physics undergraduate curriculum is that it was developed pre- computer, so the standard undergraduate curriculum has essentially nothing related to computers, whereas they are bread and butter of current theoretical work. Also you need to realize that there is very little chance of getting an academic position after you get your Ph.D., and computer skills are very, very marketable.

    Also I wouldn't specialize too much as an undergraduate. You need to take the humanities seriously and work on your communications skills. I found reading about sociology and economic history to also be very useful.

    The other thing is that math and physics involve very, very different thought processes. You have to have good math skills to do physics, but physicists think in ways that are very, very different from the way that mathematicians think.
  8. Feb 27, 2010 #7
    Thank you for everyone that put your advice. Im taking all the considerations that everyone said in order to make the most out of my time as an undergrad.I noticed there were a couple people from the UK posting. I just wanted to add Im from the UK (England) as well and was planning on going back at some point for grad school. Im still a citizen so it was something that Ive been thinking about. Either way, all of the posts made here were very useful, so thanks.
    Yes, I actually regularly forget that I should improve on my computer skills as I go higher in the academic feild, so Im glad this was brought up. Im not too concerned with specializing too much as an undergrad, but just as an idea wanted some specifics on what I would be in for if I went in this direction, so I understand what you mean. I agree with taking more humanities classes as I also forget that these will probablly be extremely useful for me in the long run. Thanks for the post

    Forgive me if I read this wrong way, as I have a tendancy of doing that, but I dont find making a commitment to myself silly. I am definetly not "just" out of high school, I graduated high school in 2003. I agree that describing an undergraduate in physics as experimental or theoretical is silly, but as far as making a goal for myself in regards to something Im interested in...I dont know if I think thats silly. Also take note that I completely understand fully that with the amount of time I have in regards to school is a while, and things can definetly change concerning what area Id like to "specialize" in. I mean, its possible I might just really hate the idea of it in 4 years after more classes under my belt (I somehow doubt it but you never know).
    Either way, I understand that an undergrad student wouldnt claim "theo physics" right away and that its specialized. I just wanted a somewhat more detailed outlook on what they do.
  9. Feb 27, 2010 #8
    By 'just out of high school' I was making an assumption about the academic standard you've reached in physics specifically. I guess I didn't mean for the comments I made to seem as derogatory as they were taken, then, for clarity: of course I agree that setting oneself long-term goals can be great for motivation (well, no-one would be able to apply to a specific degree subject if they didn't have an idea of where they might want to go, so that's agiven!).

    Goals are great, but the reason I made the comments that I did is that I see too often students making a mental commitment to a particular topic very early on in their degree (some aren't even aware that they do it): and this can be harmful. The problem isn't with having a 'plan', so to speak, since one does need to have an end in sight to be able to effectively choose courses and build skill sets: the problem is when people find something interesting and decide that's what they want to do (though not necessarily as black and white as that) then it means that, consciously or not, they may disregard the alternatives.

    Essentially, the advice boils down to the (pretty obvious) suggestion that it is best to put a weighted-equal amount of work into all of your subjects: especially with something like physics where there are so many options.
  10. Feb 27, 2010 #9
    Ah yes, I thought I was reading that out of context. Thanks for the reply. I agree to keep an open mind. Of course Ill keep what I think Ill enjoy close but there are potentially a lot of aspects of physics, as you said, that I should keep an open mind about. Its hard not to get excited and jump ahead of yourself, Im sure everyone can agree with that. And over-romanticizing a concept is also a dangerous thing to do, so...I will try my best to keep my feet on the ground.
    Did you (or anyone else for that matter) find yourself doing the same thing in the begininng?
  11. Feb 28, 2010 #10


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    Not sure what you mean by academic position, but if you broadly mean a position in academia, then this is not true. In 2005-2006, over 60% of Physics Ph.D.s in the US were employed by Academia. By comparison, the private sector hired less than 20%.

  12. Feb 28, 2010 #11

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    That link is for initial positions, not total employment. It's also skewed towards academic positions, because grad students often take a "bridge postdoc" of a few months, while they wait for their official graduation date. Often the student spends this time working on publications based on their thesis work.

    A http://www.aip.org/statistics/trends/reports/careerphd.pdf" that looks more at total employment was commissioned by the NSF. It shows that 2/3 of the PhDs hold positions outside the academic sector. Of the academic 1/3, half are non-teaching positions.
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  13. Feb 28, 2010 #12
    You need to look very closely at those statistics since only 30% of the academic positions are "potentially permanent" where as 60% of the private sector ones are. Also "academic" includes national labs and community colleges. It also include people doing things like system administration in universities.

    You have no chance of getting a permanent (i.e. tenure track) position with just a Ph.D. and you'll need two post-docs just get your applications in. It gets worse, "tenure track" positions aren't permanent either.

    To a first order approximation your chance of getting a traditional professorship at a research university with a Ph.D. is zero. You are much better off assuming that you won't get that sort of position. The good news is that the unemployment rate among Ph.D.'s is really low, and everyone I know has found something decent.
  14. Feb 28, 2010 #13
    Also in the academic section they don't break things down into community college, SLAC, and large research university. A pretty large number of Ph.D.'s end up teaching community college after the don't get any job offers after the post-doc.

    One problem with the system is that it is "up or out" once you leave the traditional track, you just aren't going to get back in through traditional means. One thing that I do find curious is that at this point if I did want to go back into academia, I'm much, much more likely to get a professorship in business/finance than I am in physics.
  15. Feb 28, 2010 #14

    Vanadium 50

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    Actually, no. National labs are classified as "government" in the statistics.

    Why should that surprise you? That's what you are doing, not what you used to do.
  16. Feb 28, 2010 #15
    I did. I still hold interests in the things I found myself enamoured with years ago, but my work has taken a completely different direction: for me, I now feel that thinking like that meant I didn't seriously consider a lot of my options - which is why I mention it to you now!
  17. Feb 28, 2010 #16


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    Immediately after a PhD, sure it's true. After a postdoc or two, your odds get much better. Nevertheless, (going by the NSF table from V's post) it looks like eventually only 10-15% end up doing research in Academia.

    Definitely a whole lot more likely to not get such a job than to get it. Agreed.
  18. Feb 28, 2010 #17
    Thanks for the correction.

    About being a finance professor (and the reason that looks viable is that I know someone with my background that has gotten a finance professorship

    The thing is that once I get the title, there's nothing really keeping be form showing up at the physics/math departments seminars and publishing the occasional paper in ApJ.
  19. Feb 28, 2010 #18
    But if you don't get tenure track after the second post-doc you are hosed. If you beg and plead, you might be able to get a third post-doc, but once you are doing the third post-doc, you are damaged goods and your chances of getting a fourth post-doc or tenure track go back down to near zero.

    The first order approximation to getting a research job in academia is zero. The reason that needs to be drilled into the heads of people interested in getting a Ph.D. is that I've found that graduate students have extremely unrealistic notions of what the odds are because there is the attitude that "the odds don't apply to me."

    The reason I think is that Ph.D.'s have often been in the top 10% and so when someone says only 10% of the people make it, the attitude is that "yeah, I'll be in the 10%" because that's what has generally happened in the past. The thing that people do need to realize that it's not the "smartest 10%" that make it because everyone is smart. It's mostly a matter of luck and political connections.
  20. Feb 28, 2010 #19

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    I disagree, and I think this sounds sufficiently bitter that people might be inclined to disregard your advice based on that.

    Yes, luck helps. But it also seems that the smart and hard-working people tend to be lucky more often.

    I think you touched on the issue earlier. People see the 10% number and think to themselves, "that's OK; I've been in the top 10% all my life". The real problem with that logic is that so has everyone else in that situation.
  21. Feb 28, 2010 #20
    It's real.

    It's based on luck and political connections, because there really isn't that much else that you can choose things by. By "politics" I mean primarily funding. Right now you have a lot, lot better chance of getting a job as post-doc in biology than in physics, because Congress is pouring more money into biology than fusion. If you have a department that has enough political pull to push for more funding in what they are studying, then you have a much better chance of getting a post-doc.

    One thing is that "luck" and 'politics" are not bad things. If you just go to the library and do what you are told, you will likely get nowhere. What you need to do is to be able to market and sell yourself and your research. Go to conferences. Meet the people that are the important people in your field. Learn what gets a paper read and what doesn't. Those are skills which I classify as "political."

    Being smart and hard-working won't help you much in a field where everyone is smart and hard-working. How many physics Ph.D.'s are dumb and lazy. Maybe a few, but not that many. So lets say 60% of physics Ph.D's are smart and hard working, and you have jobs for 10%. O.K. how do you choose? One of them writes a million papers at conferences, the other just stays in their room. Whose going to get the job?

    And that's why luck and politics are so important.

    The basic problem is that there are just too few jobs for too make smart hard-working people so any criterion that you come up with is going to be semi-bogus.
    Last edited: Feb 28, 2010
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