• Support PF! Buy your school textbooks, materials and every day products Here!

Thereotical physics or computer science looking for guidance

  • #1

Main Question or Discussion Point

I'm a freshman in college right now and I'm still unable to decide what I want to do in the future...

I think physics is my true passion, and I came into college wanting to do that. But I've been really discouraged by all the stories of physics people being unable to find jobs (and I don't want to end up on wall street), as well as by the sheer amount of material that I need to learn before I can start working on new stuff. I'm not opposed to learning but I just get the feeling that there isn't any place for theoretical physicists anymore, and I don't want to spend all that time only to end up jobless.

What are the prospects for me to get a position in theory? Obviously I'm not expecting an exact answer, but is it even feasible for someone starting out now? I've heard that there's over 300 people who apply to each open position, all of whom are probably really good at what they're doing. I'd say I'm decent at math, I've done lots of math competitions in high school and qualified for usamo, and I did really well in my honors physics and calculus classes last semester. But I don't know if that means anything in the grand scheme of things...

I guess something else I've come to find very interesting is cognitive science and artificial intelligence. I'm not really aware of how research in this area is done though. But the material seems highly theoretical as well as useful, unlike lots of areas of theoretical physics, so I would be able to find a position in industry doing something similar to what I like if I'm unable to find one in academia.

Another thing I've considered is going into theoretical neuroscience after a physics PhD if I'm unable to do theory, which I've heard lots of condensed matter people do. Which sort of allows me to pursue cognitive science in case I'm unable to do physics? Although I feel like I'm more interested in the theory behind cognitive science rather than physically studying the brain. But that wouldn't be hard to transition into? After doing all that math required for physics theory.

I kind of need to decide by next fall, but currently I change my mind approximately twice a day and it's getting really annoying... right now my courses still allow me to go into either math + physics or math + computer science (or physics + computer science but those two don't really seem to overlap..) but next fall I'll have to start taking major specific paths because of all the 1-year sequences and stuff we have.

If anyone has any suggestions on what I could do or think about, that would be greatly appreciated. Thanks!
 

Answers and Replies

  • #2
6,814
12
I'm a freshman in college right now and I'm still unable to decide what I want to do in the future...
I'm twenty years older than you, and I still haven't figured that out either. :-) :-)

I'm not opposed to learning but I just get the feeling that there isn't any place for theoretical physicists anymore, and I don't want to spend all that time only to end up jobless.
The good news is that I don't know of anyone with a physics degree that has ended up living in a cardboard box. Some of the physics graduates I know end up with "standard boring office jobs" but that still pays the bills.

The problem with physics degrees is that with other degrees, I can say that with degree X, you will be able to do X. Physics degrees don't work that way. I can't tell you what you can do with your physics degree, you'll have to figure that out. The good news is that pretty much everyone has ended up with something.

If it really concerns you that you may be jobless, you can learn plumbing or truck driving while you do your physics degree.

I like puzzles and I like building stuff on my own. I like building computers from spare parts. Sure I could go out and buy one prebuilt, but I like to tinker, and physics degrees are great for this sort of personality.

What are the prospects for me to get a position in theory?
Your likelihood of getting a tenured position in a research university are roughly one in five, once you have your Ph.D. Again, if you want a "prepackaged career", then physics may not be a good route. But if you want your life to be an adventure, then it can be quite fun.

Physics is not a "get the piece of paper, turn piece of paper into job" degree. It's now more "get the piece of paper and then figure out what you can do" degree.

I've done lots of math competitions in high school and qualified for usamo, and I did really well in my honors physics and calculus classes last semester. But I don't know if that means anything in the grand scheme of things...
One thing that you quickly learn if you get a physics degree is how stupid you are. Don't worry, you get used to it. I did. When you talk about the level of ability that you need for some of the jobs, you are talking big league world class. Getting a theoretical physics faculty position is about as hard as playing major league baseball or getting an olympic gold medal. The number of open faculty positions are about the same as the number of open spaces playing major league baseball.

I guess something else I've come to find very interesting is cognitive science and artificial intelligence. I'm not really aware of how research in this area is done though. But the material seems highly theoretical as well as useful, unlike lots of areas of theoretical physics, so I would be able to find a position in industry doing something similar to what I like if I'm unable to find one in academia.
You can find industry positions in physics. Also much of theoretical physics is computational.

I kind of need to decide by next fall, but currently I change my mind approximately twice a day and it's getting really annoying...
No you don't. Try something, if it doesn't work, try something else. Keep trying until you find something that works for you.

but next fall I'll have to start taking major specific paths because of all the 1-year sequences and stuff we have.
You can change your mind. If you go down one path, and it doesn't seem to work, then you have time to change your mind.

If anyone has any suggestions on what I could do or think about, that would be greatly appreciated. Thanks!
This is going to sound a little weird but....

Don't worry to much about the goal. In the end, we are all going to be dead in the end. The important thing in life is not the destination but the journey.
 
  • #3
201
0
You can do a lot of computer science jobs with a physics degree I bet. I don't know about artificial intelligence though, so you're probably going to have to decide between the two.
 
  • #4
491
2
Artificial intelligence is actually a pretty important field. If you're interested in computer science and you're interested in cognitive neuroscience, there is a field (computational neuroscience and related areas) that deal with this. They're usually computer scientists who work in the artificial intelligence discipline and they try to map the human brain and figure it out so they can try and fit it into machine learning and other super cool stuff. Also, artificial intelligence is a really good area to get into because of your expertise in algorithms you can apply your work in a lot of different areas. I'm not sure about the situation in academics for computational neuroscience, but the skills you get from it can be applied to a lot of places (including Wall St., which I'm sure twofish-quant can tell you about).

I think you should look into it a bit more. Also, the world is interested in people who know how to use computers. If you're interested and get to be good at it, you're very valuable. You can be a physicist and still do well if you know computers, provided you've done computational work. Works the same with CS and math as well, though some fields have better job prospects than others (condensed matter, fluid dynamics, systems engineering, etc.).
 
  • #5
I'm applying to a computational neuroscience summer program at my school; it does sound very interesting. But actually I really hated biology and chemistry. I hope that isn't a bad sign. Although that was high school/freshman level story telling so maybe it isn't so bad actually.

Apparently there are physicists working on theories of quantum consciousness. Is that even possible? Some dude Roger Penrose apparently proved that algorithmic processes cannot produce stuff such as mathematical insight and thus a Turing machine can't have "consciousness." Which would render the entire math/CS way of studying artificial intelligence to be pointless.

Actually I find quantum computing to be a fascinating subject too. It combines all of my interests in physics, mathematics, and computer science. Is there a place for theoretical physics in cognitive science?

I'm thinking of doing Math + Physics and just doing taking some comp sci stuff on the side since it seems to give the most flexibility afterwards. The abstract comp sci stuff shouldn't be hard to pick up if I've done some of it and a lot of theoretical math/physics already, and physics should be more useful for comp neuroscience because of all the practice it gives for modeling, no? And then I would be able to do cool stuff like quantum field theory/quantum computing/quantum consciousness/etc as well.
 
Last edited:
  • #6
491
2
I think quantum 'consciousness', in the general popular sense, is a sham. Penrose is known for being a bit eccentric in that regard. It doesn't really render artificial intelligence pointless because there is still a lot of use for even pseudo-AI. There are two ways you can look at studying consciousness (and I sort of described this in my earlier post I believe). There's the CS view where you can try and model a human brain on a computer to create artificial intelligence, or you could go the biological route (which I don't know too much about).

Quantum computing is a legitimate field. Personally I've been looking for more information on it recently, and the impression I'm getting is that there are the physicists who are trying to figure out how to read qubits and how to actually build a quantum computer, and then the theoretical side is left to the computer scientists who try and figure out how one would write algorithms to utilize a quantum computer effectively and things like that. I believe that field is known as quantum information theory, but again I'm still looking for information on it. Hopefully someone with more experience in quantum computing can post here.
 

Related Threads on Thereotical physics or computer science looking for guidance

  • Last Post
Replies
0
Views
1K
Replies
9
Views
2K
Replies
9
Views
5K
  • Last Post
Replies
10
Views
2K
  • Last Post
Replies
5
Views
2K
Replies
4
Views
2K
Replies
9
Views
3K
Replies
7
Views
3K
Replies
2
Views
829
Replies
1
Views
516
Top