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What's more important to a potential theoretical physicist: lab or math research?

  1. Jul 22, 2011 #1
    I'm an undergraduate physics student at an european university. I just finished my first year. I really enjoyed all the courses I took, except for a lab class (the only I had) in which I don't think I learned much. I have an option to get involved in math or lab research; not both since I don't think I have time to devote to the two of them concurrently.

    The math research would consist of self study oriented by a professor who I'd meet once a week to discuss my work. I don't suppose I'd research anything important but it seems very interesting.

    The lab doesn't. It would consist of actually helping a professor in the lab, I think (or maybe a grad student or postdoc, I'm not sure). I don't really like technology very much nor "getting my hands dirty" and considering past experience with the lab I don't think I'd like it very much. That's why I think I would enjoy being a theoretical physicist. Yet, lab can provide useful contact with physics professors, which could reveal itself quite useful when I ask them to write me letters of recomendation or to get access to further research. More importantly, it can even change my opinion about wanting to be a theoretical physicist.

    I'd like to hear only the opinions of experienced people; people who are doing or have done graduate studies. I thank the people who respond.
  2. jcsd
  3. Jul 22, 2011 #2
    Everything points to theory. You can't force yourself to enjoy something you don't enjoy. If you change your mind you can always learn MATLAB!
  4. Jul 22, 2011 #3
    Just a warning, first year labs suck HARD. They are crap compared to what you might do in upper years. I hated my first year lab as well and enjoyed my second year lab course a little more (though it still wasn't great). I am currently working for a professor in his lab doing lab work and I really enjoy it. Lab work as a research assistant is NOTHING like what you'll do in a course setting. Just keep that in mind. If you really want to investigate it further go and speak to some professors and ask if they can show you around their lab and explain what they do. You might be interested.
  5. Jul 22, 2011 #4
    Do something which you will enjoy and where you will learn the most. That's the most important factor to consider.
  6. Jul 22, 2011 #5
    Thanks for all your responses. I don't want to sound like I don't actually care about what I'll study, but do you think doing lab research is even going to matter if I apply to theoretical physics graduate school?

    I don't think I can do this since I don't suppose I could tell them that what they are doing doesn't interest me after they have already spent some time on me.
  7. Jul 22, 2011 #6
    Don't tell them "Hey your research is super boring, how can you do that for a living?!" after you're done. Just go up to them and say "I'm having a bit of a career crisis, I really don't know what I want to do, can you show me around your lab and explain a bit of what your research is about? Right now I feel like I'm more interested in theory but I want to explore other options"

    Any professor will be MORE than happy to show you around.

    And to respond to this:
    Knowing experimental physics is a great asset to have even if you pursue theoretical physics, it is imperative that you know how to converse with experimentalists and having experience in experimental research is a great way to immerse yourself in that. Theorists dont just think about math all the time, they can also pose potential experiments to test their theories, and as I have already pointed out, you will benefit greatly from having experimental experience.
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