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Physics Thinking of dropping out of PhD program, need advice

  1. Sep 6, 2017 #21
    I published my first five papers in theoretical atomic physics before I took my first class in atomic physics. Learned it on the fly and just jumped in to the research. Good thing no one told me I had to finish a class first. It was expected that we would jump in, figure it out, immerse ourselves in papers, books, discussions, start slinging code, contributing to the computations. Next thing I knew I had results to publish ...
  2. Sep 7, 2017 #22


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    I agree that taking classes related to your subfield is incredibly useful for research. However, there is eventually a point when you need to be able to learn topics by yourself as you need them as a theorist. While I have taken classes that helped in my research, they only helped so far as being able to understand the basics. The rest I filled in myself by reading papers, reviews, textbooks (the more specialized ones can be very good for learning about specialized topics like AdS/CFT for example), and talking to other grad students and post docs.

    I've also learned that sometimes you just need to start something even if you don't fully understand the big picture because you will learn along the way.
  3. Sep 7, 2017 #23
    Isn't that different though because you would have taken QM?
  4. Sep 7, 2017 #24
    If it were that easy, one would think any grad student could publish in atomic theory as soon as they completed QM. Why not give it a try and see how it goes? It took me many hundreds of hours of independent study in atomic physics above and beyond my QM coursework to be able to do work in the field worthy of publication. Have a look at these two papers and consider how well your QM courses would have prepared you to author them:


    I expect there may be a difference in degree, but not in kind. If you want to publish meaningful work in GR, learn enough GR to do it. No need to wait to complete coursework. Other fields I've published in without/before having a course in the field: astrophysics, traumatic brain injury, blast physics, fisheries science, physics education, and fluid dynamics. Figure out how to learn what you need to do productive work in a field without needing coursework. I had a good library and lots of great books and papers. Today, grad students have the near infinite resources of the internet.
  5. Sep 7, 2017 #25
    An interview with Matthias Bussonnier, PyDev of the week at pythonlibrary.org.

    He has a PhD in biophysics, used Python in getting his PhD, and is a core developer of Jupyter, which is pretty awesome.
  6. Sep 7, 2017 #26


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    I think I agree with the sentiment behind what Dr. Courtney is saying here, but I think a caveat may be warranted. Some people might read a statement like this and question the need for formal education entirely.

    On one hand many students can experience a kind of learned academic impotence - a feeling that they will only be able to do meaningful research in a field if the "golden hoops" are jumped through. And I think that's what Dr. Courtney is rallying against. It's critically important to be able to jump in and do the background reading on your own, generate your own ideas, pursue them, read how other people have approached your specific problem, etc. Because formal hand-holding is only going to get you so far.

    But on the other hand, it's also important to recognize the value of good mentorship, building a solid foundation in physics in general, and learning from high quality sources. The internet is a double-edged sword, which while allowing unprecedented access to information, is also filled with crackpots whose personal theories have "proved Einstein wrong," who are the result of the pendulum having swung too far to the other side of the spectrum.

    It sounds like prior to taking this course, the OP was doing a lot of reading. In my opinion that counts as research. One of the other dangers of jumping in too soon without guidance or having done enough background reading is that you risk doing a lot of work on a problem that's already been solved. Reading isn't going to earn you the PhD, of course, but it is critically important to it.
  7. Sep 7, 2017 #27
    Thanks for the opportunity to clarify. Not at all what I meant. I'm speaking in the context of someone who has completed a BS in Physics and is in a PhD program AND in a research group in GR.

    I was only able to do research in theoretical atomic physics in an analogous situation. My adviser (Dan Kleppner) was (and is) a leading light in atomic physics. He was available every day for students to go into his office, get advice, and bounce research ideas off of. I'd go in about once a week and he'd steer me away from rabbit trails and unproductive paths. Dave Pritchard and Wolfgang Ketterle were just down the hall and all the grad students were (more or less) a big fraternity helping each other figure things out. We met with most of the big theorists in the field on a regular basis AND these guys (and/or their grad students) would answer emails and always help you out to share ideas/code/brainstorms and keep projects moving along.

    The idea of a lone wolf doing real work in serious theory is not what I contemplated. But with real support, there is no need to wait to complete _coursework_ in a specific field before starting research.
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