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Undergraduate research for prospective graduate students

  1. Mar 26, 2015 #1
    I'm beginning to look at grad schools for theoretical physics and was wondering how important research is in this field. As an undergrad there really isnt any theoretical physics research I could pursue and I was wondering if I should be looking for any research opportunities in other branches of physics. I'm specifically interested in cosmology and relativity.
    Thanks!
     
  2. jcsd
  3. Mar 26, 2015 #2

    BiGyElLoWhAt

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    Hey Paul, you sound a lot like me, I'm also an undergrad trying to get into theory as a career.
    I don't think I would try to focus on theoretical research as an undergrad, but some experimental research could make you seem well rounded. Obviously if you're interested in cosmology and relativity, you should try to get some research in those fields, but it's a money pit, and it's really competative. I wouldn't limit yourself to those two fields when looking for research. You also might be able to find some kind of hybrid research. That is, doing experiments in theoretical fields. LIGO is trying to detect gravitational waves, which are still only theoretical, but they're doing it by looking for red/blue-shift in photons bouncing between 2 (really far separated) plates due to space time being warped by these waves. So there's a theoretical field that has experimental research going on. The deadlines up for this summer, but they have an REU that they do every summer that might be worth looking into. However, if you get it next summer and I don't... I'll find you ;)
     
  4. Mar 26, 2015 #3
    Wow! Thanks a lot, great response
     
  5. Mar 26, 2015 #4
    Note that theoretical physics is not a branch or field of physics. Every field and branch of physics has theory and experiement. Fields of physics are things like atomic, nuclear, condensed matter, etc.

    In my experience, the opposite of what you say is true. At the undergraduate level its easier to do theory research than experiemental research. Since so much of theory is coding, simulating and numerically solving an undergraduate can walk in and feasably complete a project in a summer or year without consuming a lot of graduate student and professors time with training.

    Most of my fellow undergraduates, including myself, did theory as an undergradute.
     
  6. Mar 26, 2015 #5

    BiGyElLoWhAt

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    What youre describing is not theory, its computational. Theory is a different animal, although a good computational program will be invaluable to a good theorist.
     
  7. Mar 26, 2015 #6
    What theorist doesn't use a computer? What I described is how theory is often, if not usually, done.
     
  8. Mar 26, 2015 #7
    What most people typically refer to when they think theorist is someone working with the hard mathematics, in that context it is then not correct to say that theory work is easier for undergrads precisely because they don't have the math background.
     
  9. Mar 26, 2015 #8

    BiGyElLoWhAt

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    I get the impression that you didn't really read my post. A theorist does what Einstein, Hawking, Kaluza, Klein, etc. did. They look at things that they know, that they can observe, then they try to draw conclusions about the deeper meaning. Don't try to interpret this as me equating experiment and theory, as I am definitely not.
    Theory is when Einstein says, "You know, I'm pretty darn sure that light moves at a constant speed for all observers, and I'm also pretty sure that the laws of physics are the same in all inertial frames. From this, I can deduce the fact that your observed time rate for yourself and my observed time rate for you are different as you move."

    Where does the computer come into play? Maybe for deriving the Lorentz transformations, or calculating something else necessary to solidify the theory, but this as well as Schwartzchild's work coming up with solutions to the EFE, well, that's all computational physics, not theory.
    Theory is the Gedankenexperiments behind the idea, not being a number crunching machine.

    I also mentioned the fact, that a theorist will have an easier time if they have a good (relevant) computational program to work with while developing their theory, (or working with another's)
     
  10. Mar 26, 2015 #9
    When most people think theorist they think wormholes and they think it is a field of physics in its own right... That misconception seems to be in the original post.

    I'm not sure what the hard mathematics is that prevents undergrads from doing theory. An undergraduate cirriculum is almost all theory with little experiement. I didn't learn any special math between undergraduate and graduate school. It was just differential equations, linear algebra and then their applications in each particular field/subject in physics.

    If he wants the differential geometry, real/complex analysis and similar topics in the form of a class then he will probably have to go outside the physics department. But that is still quite doable for an undergraduate, espically if hypothetical physics is his interest. If that is the case, a dual major in math and physics is probably advisable.

    The notion that as an undergraduate there isnt any theoretical physics research he could pursue is not correct.
     
  11. Mar 26, 2015 #10
    Just to be clear, I understand theory is not really a field of physics. It was just poor word choice, I was just trying to get the gist of my question across to the community
     
  12. Mar 26, 2015 #11
    You can do cosmology and relativity research as an undergrad. One of my undergraduate classmates published on black hole thermodynamics as an undergraduate. If that is what you want to do then go for it. You just need an adviser, some time, smarts and ambition.

    If you can't manage that, doing theory in a different field or doing experiment is still good for a graduate application.
     
    Last edited: Mar 26, 2015
  13. Mar 26, 2015 #12

    BiGyElLoWhAt

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    Perhaps its worth mentioning that i am as well doing a dual major in math and physics as a pre req for my career (hopefully) in theory. This is good advice in my opinion.
     
  14. Mar 26, 2015 #13
    I was late to the game in decided on physics. I began college as a chemical engineer and have now switched to engineering physics and electrical engineering in order to graduate in a reasonable amount of time. In an ideal world, I'd do math and physics but at this point it's not doable
     
  15. Mar 26, 2015 #14

    BiGyElLoWhAt

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    That should be fine, but you might need to break up grad school then. Im not really sure, but i think it might be better to do something closer to true physics for a masters program and then move to theoretical for your phd and then a post doc or 2 in addition. You might have trouble getting into a theoretical program with an engineering degree, even if it is physics heavy. I honestly don't know, though. If you have problems getting into doctoral theory programs, try maybe a straight physics masters with specialization in GR or Astrophysics or whatever seems good at the time. Then go into a pure theory or whatever youve decided in the next 5 or 6 years.
     
  16. Mar 27, 2015 #15
    No one said that there is no theoretical physics an undergrad could pursue.

    Your implication that because an undergrad physics students does mostly 'theory' in their courses that they are then more suited to doing theory research is also not correct.

    Now students doing theory work in fields using more standard mathematics of course not have as hard a time, but that is not what I was referring to.

    Lots of undergrads who wanted to do theory in my school wanted to do things like nuclear/particle theory, cosmology theory, string theory and the like and for the work they were doing had to learn real/complex analysis, functional analysis, differential geometry, graph theory and others to even understand what they were reading; not for a class but to derive some result that has physical meaning.

    This was outside the scope of their physics classes and in general they had a more difficult time than other undergrads at my school who did experiments working on CAD design drawings, set up vacuum systems for experiments, built electronics modules, learned LabVIEW, python, and fortran to take in data and reduce noise.

    Me thinks thou dost project too much.
     
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