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University Choice for Theoretical Physics

  1. Oct 16, 2013 #1
    Hello, all.

    Perhaps this is the wrong place to post, considering the descriptor for this subforum is "Grad school and PhD help", but I couldn't see an alternative for advice about undergraduate study, so I hope you'll forgive me if this is the wrong place! This is the first forum I've come across that has so many professional physicists as active members, who seem willing to help someone entirely new to the field understand the "ins and outs".

    Anyway, to the point at hand: I'm in my final year of high school, and I'm currently applying to universities. My applications for UK universities have already been sent, but I also plan on applying to some American universities, namely MIT, Harvard, and Princeton. I'm interested in theoretical physics, but not any very specific field just yet - really, I find myself fascinated by all aspects of physics and haven't been able to narrow down yet, with only a fairly limited exposure to advanced topics as of yet. With this in mind, I'm finding it difficult to research the absolute top universities for theoretical physics as a whole. I don't have a favoured field, so I can't research which universities have particularly excellent resources/faculty for certain areas, and the QS/Time rankings only rate based very broadly on "Physics and Astronomy", which would cover experimental physics and possibly various other subjects, which I am less interested in.

    I know it's pretty much impossible to pinpoint any university as being the absolute best, considering each has different areas of specialty and so on, but I thought it wouldn't hurt to ask. The top universities I've applied for in the UK are Cambridge and probably Imperial College London, so comparing those to MIT, Princeton, and Harvard... is there any in particular that's known for being that little bit ahead in terms of its broad education in theoretical physics/astrophysics? Or are the differences in quality between such excellent universities so minute that it'd be better to take other factors into account (cost, location, atmosphere, etc.)?

    I suppose my small, secondary question, although I suspect it has been asked many times before, is about employment prospects. I keep reading conflicting opinions about it - some say that the chances of actually getting a position in a university or research facility after your post-docs is only about 1-in-10, and I've heard estimates higher and lower than that. I've also heard before (possibly in a blog by someone on this forum, though I'm not sure) that experimentalists are far more sought after than theoretical physicists. The potential unlikelihood of employment won't stop me from pursuing physics, but it'd also be naive and foolish of me not to plan ahead and consider it, and perhaps double majoring in Maths and Physics so I have the sort of skills needed for transferring into finance or some other alternative. Can anyone provide some extra opinions on this, either through anecdote or statistics? It'd be greatly appreciated. After all, a future family won't feed itself, and money doesn't grow on trees, so to speak.

    Thank you to anybody who takes the time to read this and respond - you're helping me achieve a dream and pursue a passsion, here. ^^
  2. jcsd
  3. Oct 16, 2013 #2


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    Staff: Mentor

    I also see "Which college and degree?" which refers to undergraduate studies, at least in the USA. This forum also includes secondary school (high school in the USA). We can fit only so many characters into those descriptions. :smile:
  4. Oct 16, 2013 #3
    This is a subforum for just academic advice/help in general, you're question is perfectly fine. I am also assuming by theoretical physics, you mean high energy. If not, ignore this response.

    First piece of advice: make sure you have a backup. The school's you're planning on applying to are extremely competitive, even absolutely flawless applications get rejected by the truckloads there.

    You aren't really expected to have exposure to any rigorous theoretical physics just yet. This particular branch of physics is known for being extraordinarily complicated and involves a large amount of abstract and advanced math, you can find many threads on the forums about what you need to know to even start these topics. Often, the amount of material is to much to list fully.

    For your undergrad education that question is nearly irrelevant. You will most likely not be doing much high energy (if any) during your undergraduate education. I again stress that even starting these topics in earnest requires graduate level mathematics. There are ways to get around this and learn some basics, but any real high energy work will be in your graduate school.

    As for cost, location, etc.; that is purely your decision.

    There are many conflicting reports on job prospects regarding to the actual numbers, but overall chances are fairly low. Experimentalists are more sought after because there work is most directly applicable to modern tech, etc. while theorists rarely produce an invention or refine a technique, etc.

    A backup plan (as you indicated) is a good course of action.

    At the end of the day, whether or not it's difficult to get a job, ask yourself: can you see yourself doing anything else? If the answer is no, your path is clear. Keep in mind most of the statistics are low as people willingly drop out of the post-doc cycle, or give up along the way.

    Good luck!
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