Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

Physics Trying to decide between phd in pure physics or phd neuroscience (AI related)

  1. Aug 25, 2010 #1
    I'm currently a graduate student doing theoretical physics at a tier 1 school. I'm trying to decide between these two.

    1) stay in pure physics
    - since I've already taken field theory, I can start doing research quickly
    - will probably learn some useful simulation skills (I'm considering doing lattice QCD)
    - I enjoy (i.e. have a great deal of fun) learning physics very much. Taking more theoretical physics classes will allow me to build my analytical skills

    - I don't think high energy problems are particularly important for mankind, even though they are pretty interesting to think about. I'm not sure how enthusiastic I can remain for a field that I enjoy doing, but know is pretty unimportant in the grand scheme of things (for society, not the universe)
    - will most likely have to switch fields after graduation (I don't mind not becoming a professor; I just have no idea what jobs, besides quant finance, are available to people with simulation skills and theoretical particle physics)

    2) switch to neuroscience (AI related)
    - I think the problems I'll be working on (where does intelligence come from, how does the brain work) is probably one of the most important problems in terms of the big picture
    - group I'm considering to join seems to be very well funded, students are happy, the PI is a very experienced, very well connected, famous, and works on a large variety of projects
    - group has a proven track record of placing students at companies and faculty positions

    - will have to take a lot of bio + EE classes, possibly like an entire year of classes before actually doing research. This will probably lengthen my stay in grad school by a year or two
    - Since it's a change in field, I have no idea what methods people in this field use to attack problems. I have no idea whether I will enjoy using these methods the way I enjoy doing physics
    - I often feel intimidated by colleagues that come from backgrounds closer to this field, like (EE, CS, Neuro, etc)

    Can anyone please give me some advice? Thanks.
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 25, 2010 #2
    Switching areas is probably one of the coolest things one can do.
    One year of waiting before starting research is not a bad idea. Better wait one year than wasting your life doing something not fulfilling.

    Since Physics develops good reasoning skills, don't be so worried about the new methods you would learn in neuroscience. Intimidation is normal if you are a beginner.

    In short, worry less about catching up and more with choosing what you'd REALLY want to do.
  4. Aug 25, 2010 #3
    By the way,
    since you are from a different field than most of the other guys working with you, you will offer a unique point of view. I find it is an advantage to think differently from everyone else in the room.
  5. Aug 25, 2010 #4


    User Avatar
    Homework Helper

    There are areas of physics that use field theory that aren't high energy. Condensed matter makes a lot of use of field theoretic techniques, and could in principle have important implications for mankind (materials, new technologies etc.). So, you could also consider switches groups within physics. This is not to say not to switch to neuroscience, but that there are other switching options where many of your current skills will carry over and you might not have to take a lot of more coursework.
  6. Aug 25, 2010 #5
    I agree. After reading the original post, I don't find it 100% clear which topic you are actually more interested in.
  7. Aug 25, 2010 #6
    I see. Let me clarify. I find the methods used to solve problems in pure theoretical physics really cool and interesting, logically simple, and fun to do. However, the conclusions that they draw (scattering amplitudes of processes, critical exponents of field theories, etc.) I find utterly inconsequential.

    On the other hand, I'm not sure I'm comfortable with the methods biologists and neuroscientists (even the theorists) use. It lacks a certain grittiness that theoretical physics has. In theoretical physics you start with as few assumptions as possible and then "crunch" the assumptions to arrive at the final result. However in biology I feel there's a great deal of handwaving going on, and oftentimes they spend more time just naming and categorizing all these different objects and what they do. It's hard for me to put it into words. However, I find the questions asked in neuroscience (how the brain works, how consciousness arises) very very profound, interesting, and extremely important.
  8. Aug 26, 2010 #7
    I can understand your problem regarding theoretical physics, although you have to understand that this is a consequence of the career. Theorists often work their whole lives trying to arrive at substantial solutions only getting bits and pieces on the way there. I can definitely see why you like the problem solving methods used. I should point out though that in biology and neuroscience the area of consciousness studied is very limited- as of now our interpretation is still mostly philosophical and psychological. Consciousness is often studied in neuropsychology.
    I wish I could point you too a healthy medium-but I am not qualified nor aware of one. I am sure that you will favor one at least in the soon future.
  9. Sep 3, 2012 #8
    Dear sabinscabin,
    I am a student in the last year of my Master Degree in Physics (Italian system, we have 2 years' masters). I think I am in the same situation as you two years ago. On one hand I like the way you solve problems in theorethical physics and am afraid in neuroscience the methods are not rigorous enough for me. On the other hand I am really attracted by the topics of neuroscience and by the fact that they are really important for humanity...
    I just wanted to ask you what did you choose in the end and why...
  10. Sep 3, 2012 #9
    If you can have the choice between applied physics (especially nanophysics) and neuroscience, then the possibilities and merits are more similar.
  11. Sep 3, 2012 #10
    Biology will always be more handwavy than physics because its complexities mean that looking at things from a reductionist point of view doesn't get you very far. Hence it doesn't and probably will never have the same level of elegance as physics. Spending time to get a really deep understanding of things is often sacrificed to get key experiments done. Take immunology as an example - vaccine constructs are pretty much just made like magic potions and tested. No-one cares how a potential vaccine works at the molecular level but just if it works at all. Across biology there are several problems that simply haven't been studied at a fundamental level usually because it was impossible or there were more important (ie cooler, headline grabbing) experiments to do. With modern instrumentation and physical methods this is changing since these fundamental processes can be studied much more so than previously. Physicists working on biological problems could have a huge role to play here and could literally help to redefine the field in a similar way to how quantum mechanics revolutionized chemistry. So while there is a big culture difference between biologists vs physicists, in my opinion this opens up opportunities for new exploration by looking at things from a different point of view.
Share this great discussion with others via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook