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Theoretical Physics

  1. Dec 13, 2011 #1
    Basically what the title says. I am a junior in high school and am planning on taking AP physics my senior year and I also want to go to college for Physics (of course). But my goal is to get a Ph.D and get a job somewhere as a theoretical physicist. This is the problem though. I'm fairly certain that there isn't a major you can pick in college that says "theoretical physics". So my question to you guys is, what major should I pick if I want to be a theoretical physicist in the long run?
    My ultimate goal in my life is to reconcile QM with Einstein's General Theory of Relativity.
    Yeah yeah it's funny I know but like the saying goes, you won't get high up there unless you aim high:smile:.

    Any answers will be much appreciated.
  2. jcsd
  3. Dec 13, 2011 #2
    Just physics. Also it would be a good idea to get deep experimental background. While you are at it, getting a good background in history, philosophy, art, and literature.
  4. Dec 13, 2011 #3
    This is the first time I see this being suggested. Why?
  5. Dec 13, 2011 #4


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    My university has a Theoretical physics major, but I'm given to understand that this is rare.

    Do as much physics as you can, and a whole heap of math.
  6. Dec 13, 2011 #5
    My University offers "Mathematical Physics", which I believe to be the same.
  7. Dec 13, 2011 #6


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    In the present context, it seems like you're advocating taking courses in those. In my experience, this would just take away time from your real goal of learning physics. Of course, they're great to have backgrounds in, but taking lower division courses at a university is probably the silliest way to do such a thing considering the other tasks at hand.
  8. Dec 13, 2011 #7
    I've been suggesting this a lot. As far as why.....

    As for me, I'm curious about the universe. Art is part of the universe. You might say "yes, but we physicists we are only supposed to be interested in certain parts of the universe" and my reaction is "so who made up that stupid rule?" At which point you get into history and philosophy.

    You work your rear end off, you get your Ph.D., and then *boom* no jobs. At that point you have to figure out what to do next. At that point art, literature, and philosophy comes in handy. You start to ask deep questions like "why the hell am I interested in physics?" Well for me, one big reason is because this guy named Gene Rodenberry and Ray Bradbury brainwashed me into thinking that science was cool, and I want to fly around in a starship or a blue police box. At this point, thinking about art and literature becomes really useful because it helps you figure out why things are the way they are.

    One thing that I've figured out is to lead the type of life that I want to leave I have to figure out a lot of stuff on my own. I'm not you so I can't tell you what to do, and it may be that no one can tell you what to do because no one knows. This is where art and philosophy come in useful.
  9. Dec 13, 2011 #8
    Figuring out how things are what they are is especially useful if you don't like the way things are. In 1968, Stanley Kubrick made a movie 2001: A Space Odyssey in which people would be traveling to Jupiter, and if the world had gone the way it would have in that movie, I'd be on the research team trying to make sense of David Bowman's last words and probably heading up a research team to Jupiter.

    But that didn't happen. Like a lot of people that dream about the stars, I ended up with a Ph.D. and at a dead end job in which I was just not going to make it to Jupiter. That made me angry. Trying to understand why I was angry and what to do about it was where art, literature, and philosophy come in. You read things like Mailer's "Death of a Salesman" or Shakespeare, and then you figure out what you need to do next.
  10. Dec 13, 2011 #9
    My real goal is to understand the universe, satisfy curiosity, and live a life of adventure (think Captain Kirk). I've found that if you have deep knowledge in several things, that you can combine them in new and original ways and come up with new questions.

    What's your hurry? It's not as if there is anything other than unemployment and crushed dreams waiting for you once you get your Ph.D. The more humanities you learn as an undergraduate, the more you are able to deal with unemployment and crushed dreams, and fight back at the world. Don't do education with the assumption that there is a pot of gold at the end of the road. There is no pot of gold and the road does not end.
  11. Dec 13, 2011 #10


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    I've always loved your cynicism, but I think this is a bit overboard. Being a student is no picnic either. For example, I think I'll eventually want to have my own house. Every friend of mine has become employed right after graduation. Sometimes it was not in the field they wanted, but they're now in the much better position of being paid and having a life vs. paying someone else to attend their classes and teach their labs at minimum wage (no tuition waivers).
  12. Dec 14, 2011 #11
    It's the truth.

    You can avoid having your dreams crushed by not having dreams, but trying to figure out what to do here is again a philosophical issue. You can avoid the whole problem by not thinking and I know lots of people that are quite happy who avoid thinking whenever possible.

    One paradox is that I've managed to become an idealist by being cynical.

    It's not, which is why it makes no sense to get a Ph.D. in which you have to stay in school for a over a decade after graduate school, unless you are some sort of weird intellectual masochist. Like me for example. One reason a course on philosophy is useful is that you really need to figure out why you want to go into physics. About 98% of the people in the world would be a lot happier not having anything to do with physics.

    Something you have to realize is that if you go down this path, you'll be a student for the rest of your life.

    But if your goal in life is to get out of school and get a job and you aren't that picky about what you do, then don't study physics, and whatever you do don't try to get a Ph.D. in the topic.

    In any event, if you have a limit in the number of classes, you are better off if you don't do 100% physics and take a class in say French post-structuralism rather than do everything in physics. If you do something that has nothing to do with physics, and you find it more interesting then *GREAT*!!! It's not as if I get a commission for everyone that applies to graduate school.

    Also why the heck do you want to own your own house? It makes little financial sense for most people, and lot of people singing the praises of "home ownership" are people that have a financial interest in making sure that you have as much mortgage debt as possible.
    Last edited: Dec 14, 2011
  13. Dec 14, 2011 #12


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    I don't really disagree, but you have to admit there are people doing things they love despite possibly not being the 1 dream job they wanted as a kid/undergrad.

    Also, why wouldn't you want your own house!? Okay okay, there are like 50 reasons owning a house sucks, however if you're like me, you must. When I have my first home to call my own, I'm going to do so many things to it that I'll probably go broke in the process, few of which would be acceptable to any landlord out there. To me, a house is one giant project/experimental lab.

    Of course, I think I'm a bit unique there and for most, this doesn't apply. There are good reasons though... especially if you don't take the usual 30y mortgage, custom this and that home ownership route.
  14. Dec 14, 2011 #13
    Rework the dream. I want to be Captain Kirk. I've actually gotten pretty close to what I really wanted.
  15. Dec 14, 2011 #14

    I am really surprised you said that. This is simply not true. Although the likeliness of getting a tenure position in the field of your dreams may be a long shot, it is certainly possible and I know many people who ARE in those positions who worked very hard to get there.

    What is strange about your posts is that you always seem to advise people on not getting PhD's if they love physics, yet you do, you claim you are very interested in physics, and then you say you are "pretty close" to what you wanted. I can only come to the conclusion that you have either seen many of your friends fail to do what you have and feel bad for them, or you don't want more physicists that could take away your dream job from you, and I think its the latter. It would be nice if you didn't give completely false hope to a young person who has a dream, because you don't know what they are capable of or anything about them. It's good to give people a perspective of what they are getting into, but I disagree on crushing their dreams because you think they might not get a job.

    Furthermore, taking humanities courses does have a purpose, but I would not agree at all that they induce deep thinking more than physics. My life has completely changed since taking physics courses. The critical thinking skills needed for coursework has transferred over to critical thinking in everyday tasks. I hold that physics has taught me to consider my options in every situation in a much deeper sense, and no other subject besides possibly math or philosophy could come close to that.

    To the OP, go for it. Your chances may be slim, but you seem like a determined young physicist in the making. I also am a physics student, and from theoretical physicists I have spoken with, majoring in physics is a must. Double majoring in mathematics would probably be good if you have any extra time, but put the physics first.
  16. Dec 14, 2011 #15
    It's possible to win the lottery or become King of England. I just wouldn't count on it.

    Also, don't think that you can get the position if you work hard enough. If there are n spots and 10*n applicants, everyone works hard.

    I don't see the contradiction here. If you really are that obsessed with physics, then you aren't going to be influenced by anything that I say to convince you that you shouldn't do it. I've been told that if you plan to convert to Judaism that the first thing that a Rabbi will do is to try to convince you not to do it.

    Same principle.

    No. I didn't get a tenure track research position, and I have no hope of getting a tenure track research position. I found something else that got me what I want out of life, but that was a lot of pain and agony. Was it worth it? For me, yes. For someone else no.

    And also I do want to make it clear that the "dream job" make be a mirage. For example, right now it's not hard for a physics Ph.D. to find a job in Wall Street with a starting salary of $120-$150K. However, there are only several thousand of those jobs, and if you suddenly started having 10000/year physics Ph.D.'s instead of 1000 Ph.d.'s that would overload the system, and so salaries would drop and the jobs would be hard/impossible to get.

    We are dealing with 18 year olds and not eight year olds here.

    By the time you are 18, you should be mature enough so that your life won't fall apart if someone tells you that there isn't a Santa Claus. If you don't want to hear someone talk about reality then you don't have to read anything that I have to say.

    Also, the earlier you think about things, the more chances you have to change your future. If you start swimming the English Channel and 80% of the way through, you have problems, then you are in deep trouble. If you take a look and it seems that you aren't going to make it, you are in a much safer position.

    It's a different type of thinking, but if you have a well taught course then it does make you think very deeply about things. Things like "so why am I trying to study physics?"

    I don't. The problem with physics is that there are certain characteristics of physics problems that don't occur in other situations. For example, the laws of physics do not change, whereas the laws of finance do change from month to month. Physics tends to deal with repeatable things whereas people are not repeatable. One electron will act the same one one day to the next, but people just aren't that way. Physics problems tend to deal with things in which you have more or less complete information. When talking to a person, you don't have anywhere near complete information.

    People are not electrons. Physics will help you look at the world, but if you think that physics is the *only* way of looking at the world, then you are setting yourself up for a pretty nasty fall.

    Here is an example of "deep thinking" in action. I don't think saying that "your probabilities are slim" is a meaningful way of talking about the situation. The situation is that you have 100 people, and 10 spots. Describing the situation as P(win) = 0.1 doesn't fully describe the situation because if P(win) = 0.1, then there is a decent change that P(winners > 10) exists, when in fact P(winners > 10) = 0.

    Physicists are human and are subject to the same types of cognitive biases that Las Vegas gamblers and lottery players have. To figure out how to deal with these sorts of tournament situations it helps to understand human psychology and one way of understanding human psychology is read great literature.

    One other thing is that professors are often some of the worst people in the world to talk about physics careers, since they've spend all of their lived in the university, and often have no clue what life is like outside. Also there is selection bias. You are talking to people where P(winner) = 1, which can seriously distort what is likely to happen to you.
  17. Dec 14, 2011 #16
    I know there should be no sugar coating when talking about careers. I know that from experience: I'm switching from a Physics career to Electrical Engineering for purely financial reasons. However, twofish-quant is being overly harsh on the original poster. It's undeniable that a career in research is hard to get and it doesn't pay as much as I would wish. But crushing someone's expectations just because you or I haven't become a successful researcher is just plainly wrong.

    I had a hard time leaving my original dream in a Physics career. But I rest assured that other, more talented and engaged people would more than fill my gap. I hope is that the original poster is one of them. Good luck, FrugalIntelle!
    Last edited: Dec 14, 2011
  18. Dec 14, 2011 #17
    But what about your bias, having P(winner) = 0?
  19. Dec 14, 2011 #18
    It's like Schodinger's Cat. In the end, the cat is either alive or dead, and in this case, it's probably going to be dead.

    One issue that quickly gets you into deep questions of philosophy is "what is a probability?" In meterology for example, there are tons of paper asking exactly what it means when a weatherman says there is a 30% probability of rain (look up Brier score and scoring rules). If you really want to go down the "life of the mind" you really have to start thinking when someone says that there is a "slim probability" of that happening (so what does that mean).

    One thing that i find weird is that physicists are supposed to be "rational" yet in dealing with career planning are subject to the same obvious cognitive biases that Las Vegas gamblers have. But that's not surprising since physicists are human, and we are talking about human desire and human emotion which is something that is not the topic of most physics curriculum, but is a topic you'll find discussed in courses in art and literature.

    One other thing that you'll find is that it really is a rat race. Think of the greyhound track. They through a mechanical rabbit that the greyhounds chase, and the system is set up so that no one will ever catch that rabbit. One thing is that you'll find junior tenure-track faculty still chasing after that rabbit, and I've seen 80 year old Nobel prize winners still chasing after that rabbit.

    Now I wonder if at some point one of the greyhounds starts wondering "so what the heck am I doing and why am I doing it" and that's not a physics question.

    The other thing that you'll find is that there is a huge amount of politics and marketing once you get into "real science research." For example, the 80 year old Nobel prize winner that I've seen spends a ton of his time lobbying Congress for more funding for science, and you'll find that one big factor in whether you get tenure or not is how much grant money you can pull in. If you go with a "I just study physics and I don't care about politics" that's going to really hurt you later, even if you do get tenure track.
    Last edited: Dec 14, 2011
  20. Dec 14, 2011 #19
    First of all, I *am* a successful researcher, and the story about how I managed to be one is interesting and probably worth hearing. One big mistake is to think that only university professors do research. One big of good news is that it's not that hard be a successful researcher. They won't give you your Ph.D. unless you are a successful researcher. Something that I'm happy about is that even if I spend the rest of my life cleaning toilets or selling hot dogs, I can die knowing that I spent five years of my life in graduate school where I was doing astrophysics research, and I have a piece of paper on my wall that says "successful researcher."

    Now you get paid crap while you are doing physics research, but hey, it was fun.

    Second. I think it's more wrong to *not* crush people's expectations if they don't make sense.

    If I give a talk to eager young physics undergraduates, then I *know* that if they all get Ph.D.'s then only one in ten are going to get tenure track positions. Now I can get around the problem by talking to people one and a time, and if I talk to people one at a time, then I might be able to say "you are the lucky one" but since I talk to a lot of people about physics, I can't do that.

    Also the good news is that you are unlikely to be a tenure track professor. The good news is that if you go into physics graduate school, you *will* be doing physics research, and it's not particularly hard to get a *research position* once you get out.

    The weird thing is that I am living my dream, and it was only by crushing my dreams that I ended up living my dream. The bad part about having unrealistic dreams is that in the end, it's not going to work. So the trick is to figure out how to turn an unrealistic dream into a realistic one. Once it became obvious to me that I wasn't going to be tenured research professor, at that point I started asking myself "what do I do to get what I really want?" and that involved asking myself "what do I really want?" and that involves all of this humanities stuff that people think is inessential.

    What I'm saying is that if you want to be a physics researcher (which is a completely different thing from a university professor or having a physics career) then putting 100% effort into studying physics to the exclusion of everything else is a bad, bad, bad, bad idea.
    Last edited: Dec 14, 2011
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