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What Should I Do?

  1. Feb 22, 2014 #1

    I am 17 years old and interested in physics as a career.

    I recently viewed this link and became very concerned. http://www.gradschoolshopper.com/gradschool/rankby.jsp?q=2&cid=3

    It looks very difficult to become accepted to graduate school for physics. I just want to earn a Ph.D and do research in experimental high-energy physics.

    After high school, I plan on attending College of Dupage (community college) and participating in a community college internship at FermiLab. After community college, I will probably transfer to University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign to continue majoring in physics. I live in Chicago metropolitan area so FermiLab and Argonne are local.

    I am just a little worried that my path to a physics doctorate will not go well. What should I do during my undergraduate studies? Will additionally minoring in math increase my chances? Just any advice would be greatly appreciated.

    Thank you.
  2. jcsd
  3. Feb 22, 2014 #2
    You shouldn't be worried about grad school. You should be worried about a job AFTER grad school. That's a way worse bottleneck. I'd encourage you to think about engineering, instead. If you insist on sticking with physics, you need either a back-up plan or pick an area that has been well-established as something that can get you a job in industry with.

    You do have the advantage of starting at age 17, though. So, if you get going on it now and figure out what you need to do to be the ultimate graduate school applicant, you might have a good shot to get ahead of the game. As far as not doing well in school up to this point, I'm not sure it matters that much. There is some correlation between doing well in high school and being able to do a PhD, but only a correlation. For example, when I was growing up, I didn't give two hoots about school and wanted to be an artist. Here I am now with a PhD in math.
  4. Feb 22, 2014 #3
    Engineering makes physics boring though. I'm a philosophical person. I want to know how the universe works. Plus I love math. Engineering just makes everything boring and bland. Correct me if I'm wrong.

    I'm not an applied person. I'm more theoretical.
  5. Feb 22, 2014 #4
    I ditched my engineering major for math, so I would have to say there are certain pitfalls in engineering, yes. Math would have been a perfectly good idea, except for the fact that I turned out to be the worst teacher in the history of the universe, at least when it comes to lecturing, even though I can be excellent at tutoring. I'm exaggerating, but teaching just makes me feel like I have a gun to my head all the time, as does the pressure to publish in academia. Actually, I think lectures are kind of inherently bad for many, but not all purposes, anyway--maybe I'm biased because I'm not good at it, but there's a lot of evidence for that, too.

    Anyway, I even though I ditched it, engineering isn't that bad. You can learn a lot of physics studying engineering. Statics, dynamics, mechanics of materials, fluid dynamics, thermodynamics, electromagnetism. In some sense, it's less of a narrow focus than what a particle physicist would look at. More down to earth. Like, "what does nature do on a daily basis and how can we exploit it?" versus "stuff that only happens in particle accelerators, black holes, or the big bang".

    Personally, I think technology is amazing. Robotics, artificial intelligence, 3-D printers, nanotechnology, biotechnology. Not boring. That's more engineering or at least on the engineering side of physics.

    If you like math, there are areas like control theory or signal processing that have a lot of math.

    Physics can also be very boring, to my mind, particularly when it is done by certain unimaginative physicists. It's really easy to change majors if you do physics for a couple years, so you might as well pursue it at least that far. Just know that most people who study physics don't get to make a career out of it.

    You have to think whether you'd like to do finance type stuff or would you rather do engineering? If you want to do engineering, you'd be better off studying it than trying to pull off the career change stunt to get into it from physics.
  6. Feb 23, 2014 #5
    If I go into engineering, will I study quantum mechanics and string theory?
  7. Feb 23, 2014 #6
    Those are not normally part of an engineering curriculum, except inasmuch as you study quantum mechanics in the introductory physics courses.

    You would have to look at the requirements of engineering at the school you attend to see if there is enough time to study QM and string theory as electives.
  8. Feb 23, 2014 #7
    Thank you very much, guys; you have been very helpful so far.

    I have a couple of other questions:

    Is it possible to pursue a master's in engineering after getting a BS in pure physics? If possible, about how many "catch-up" courses would I have to take?

    What engineering field is closest to physics? What engineering field would you guys recommend I go into after getting a BS in physics?

    What are other options besides engineering?
  9. Feb 23, 2014 #8

    A few. I'm not sure, but not more than a year's worth, I would think. If you wanted to do that, I'd recommend doing some undergraduate coursework, to avoid some of the catch-up work, and to get an idea of whether it's interesting (although, you'd probably find graduate level engineering more interesting than undergraduate, so that could be misleading).

    Quantum would make sense in certain areas of engineering, for example, electronics, if you want to go towards the physics side of it. String theory would be a bit of a stretch.

    But with string theory, I'd say, careful what you wish for, you just might get it. For what it's worth, as an informed observer and non-particle physicist, my take on physics beyond the standard model is that we ought to be looking at stuff that happens in the LHC for signs of cracks in the standard model, rather than wild speculation like string theory. That would be a lot closer to what happened when classical physics was reformed. String theory is really a kind of physically-motivated and not completely rigorous math, as far as I'm concerned, and is a better fit for people who like exploring abstract ideas and speculating on how nature MIGHT work, rather than those who are really concerned with finding out how nature ACTUALLY works. Currently, the only really solid ideas we seem to have for verifying string theory are to build an accelerator the size of the solar system. Not happening any time soon, unless anyone has any other bright ideas.

  10. Feb 23, 2014 #9
    Thank you very much, Homeomorphic. Also if I do plan on going the Ph.D physics route, what are some ways that will allow me to enrich my resume for when I apply to a graduate school for physics. What did the people that got accepted do?

    Does the graduate school I go to even matter?

    Fortunately, FermiLab and Argonne are both only about 35 minutes away from my house. I can always do internships there.

    I apologize if I am asking a lot of questions. I just want to reduce my anxiety.
  11. Feb 23, 2014 #10


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    The graduate school you go to matters a LOT. The majority of physicsts I work with (I work at a National Lab) went to school at places like Harvard, Cambridge (UK), and Stanford with very few exceptions.

    Fermilab and Argonne are excellent places for internships but keep your horizons broad.

    Electronics (especially device electronics and solid-state lasers) uses quantum mechanics as a key tool. I'm a circuit designer so I use the *results* of quantum mechanics although I don't do any QM directly.
    Last edited: Feb 23, 2014
  12. Feb 23, 2014 #11
    I also have a related question - what do PhD physicists do after graduation that is not a postdoc? And do these positions give them experience on a resume that can make them more competitive for a tenured position later on?
  13. Feb 23, 2014 #12


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    The path to a tenured position in a university or National Lab is a postdoc. I think going to industry is for the most part (but not entirely) a one-way trip.
  14. Feb 23, 2014 #13
    Undergraduate research, lots of graduate classes, good grades, most importantly impress some professors to make sure you get 3 great recommendations letters (helps to talk to them in office hours, do reading courses, etc, as well as blow them away in classes). That's the ideal candidate. I'd warn you not to bite off more than you can chew, though. Challenge yourself, but don't overwhelm yourself. If you try to do more than you can handle, you'll burn yourself out. Work hard, but don't abandon the rest of your life. Try to do something that's just out of your comfort zone, but not too much. If you do go to grad school, you have to make sure you have a plan for success there, too, because it can be really intense, but I don't think you have to worry about that until you are ready to apply.

    Always helps to have a brand-name degree, unfortunately.
  15. Feb 23, 2014 #14
    Oh, and study hard for the subject GRE if you do physics. Start early, take a million practice tests. It's best to be strong as many areas as possible: grades, letters, research experience, graduate classes, and GRE. Just don't beat yourself up about it, if it's too much to handle. I'm talking about the ideal candidate here--they don't expect perfection, although if you can approach it, your odds will be better.
  16. Feb 23, 2014 #15
    I haven't even taken the ACT yet! Haha!
  17. Feb 23, 2014 #16


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    I am in a situation similar to Amrator.

    I'm sixteen years of age and have loved learning all about physics from my dad's college textbooks ever since the eighth grade. I initially fantasized getting my Ph.D in some field of physics. Now I'm worried that there won't be any jobs pertaining to my potential degree.

    What sort of jobs can one obtain with a Ph.D in Physics regardless of whatever specific part of physics I choose to study ie. solid state etc.?
  18. Feb 23, 2014 #17
    Well, you asked about grad school. You don't need to worry about the subject GRE for a few years.
  19. Feb 23, 2014 #18
    Well, that's the kind of head start that could give you a shot to succeed and beat the insane competition, but there are no guarantees. There are a few academic jobs out there, but it's tough. There are plenty of back-up plans you can come up with.
  20. Feb 23, 2014 #19

    Vanadium 50

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    Even with a PhD in physics, this is unlikely to happen. The more likely outcome (to steal from another thread) is that you'll learn something about the mechanical properties of graphene.

    You can always do internships there? You do realize these are highly competitive, don't you? You may not be selected.

    If this is making you anxious, you may want to reconsider a career in science. In science, you will always be in a situation where you are not 100% sure your idea/detector/fridge/rocket will work. If this kind of uncertainty makes you uncomfortable, you will not be happy as a scientist.
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