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When does one become a physicist?

  1. Sep 21, 2011 #1
    I was having this discussion with some friends of mine the other day, and I thought it'd be interesting to see what you all think. When does one transition from being a physicist-in-training to being an actual physicist? Some possible benchmarks that come to mind would be when one earns a BS/BA in physics, when one publishes one's first paper, or when one gets one's PhD, but feel free to suggest any other cutoffs that come to mind--I'm sure valid alternatives ones exist.
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  3. Sep 21, 2011 #2
  4. Sep 21, 2011 #3


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    It's not a good thing when you quote a locked thread.

    Coming back to the original question, there are, of course, many different answers to such a question. Technically, once you have a degree in physics, you can call yourself a physicist. In other cases, it is only when you work as a physicist can you call yourself a physicist.

    However, as far as a personal, "self-development" type of answer, i.e., something that I judge of myself on when I consider myself to be a physicist, I realize that I'm finally a physicist when I can tell the http://physicsandphysicists.blogspot.com/2006/10/it-may-be-interesting-but-is-it.html" [Broken]. I think when one can distinguish between one and the other, that's when one has become a physicist, or at least, a practicing physicist. I'm hoping to incorporate this in a lengthier article as part of the "So You Want To Be A Physicist" essay.

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  5. Sep 21, 2011 #4
    Physics starts after PhD im told, same with karete it starts after your black belt
  6. Sep 21, 2011 #5
    That's wrong. In my book, you get to call yourself a physicist when you've done publishable research and that happens before you get your Ph.D. They won't give you a Ph.D. unless you've done something that people think is publishable.
  7. Sep 21, 2011 #6
    For what it's worth, when I think "physicist" I think someone whose profession is physics. I'd say it starts when you get your first job doing physics professionally. So I guess that would be your first postdoc or some type of academic or national lab position, something like that.
  8. Sep 21, 2011 #7
    Most graduate students get paid for doing research.
  9. Sep 21, 2011 #8


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    My definition would be someone who is currently working on advancing scientific knowledge in the realm of physics.
  10. Sep 22, 2011 #9
    Yeah, but I personally wouldn't consider them a professional at that point since they are still a student. Some undergrads get scholarships so they're getting paid to go to school. Doesn't make them a professional.
  11. Sep 22, 2011 #10


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    Learning and research are two very different beasts. I'm not making an argument either way, I'm just pointing out that there is a vast difference between undergraduate studies and postgraduate research.
  12. Sep 22, 2011 #11
    I just don't think 'getting paid' to do something automatically makes one a professional at that area. It depends on the context that one is getting paid.

    While I agree there is generally a massive difference b/w undergrad and postgraduate research (although there are some really talented undergrads that probably do research of the caliber of a PhD student), I also think there is a massive difference between getting paid a stipend for being a PhD student while doing research and being a professor (for example). For one, there's a pretty big difference in the lower bound of research quality between the two categories -- as evidenced by the fact they are no longer supporting you while you work towards the degree, they are paying you to work and publish.
  13. Sep 22, 2011 #12
    Well here's a related question: can you ever call yourself a physicist without technically having that degree? I am getting a materials science and engineering PhD but my research is something a physics student might do, and I'm much more interested in physics than MSE in every way. I have been teaching myself whatever I can from the physics I have missed; my goal is to be at the level of a passable formally trained physicist by the time I finish PhD/postdoc/whatever. In time I am sure I will be more of a physicist than some people who get the degree, but I still feel I'll never be allowed to call myself one. Seems unfair considering how many scientists end up teaching themselves a lot of what they know anyway.
  14. Sep 22, 2011 #13
    In my own view, you get to call yourself a physicist when you are studying or have already graduated from a physics related degree and have a rock-solid desire to work in a physics related field.

    But that's just me :)
  15. Sep 22, 2011 #14
    In physics, you will always be a student.

    One experience that I remember was one lunch in which a famous Nobel prize winner started asking me questions about my research, and it was obvious that I knew a ton more about the topic than he did (which is not surprising since I'd spent the last five years studying the topic, and he hadn't). For about fifteen minutes, I was the teacher and the Nobel prize winner was the student, and he was a good student, asking questions, thinking about what I was saying.

    That happens pretty often.

    One professor mentioned that they hand you the Ph.D. when you can convince a group of five professors that you know more about the topic that you've studied than they do.
  16. Sep 22, 2011 #15
    Professors have to deal with more administrative nonsense, but there isn't that much of a difference in quality of research. If you can't produce research that is as good or better than what your supervisors can do, then you shouldn't get a Ph.D.

    The social relationship between graduate students and their advisers is completely different than between teachers and undergraduates. One professor told me that the thing that he is most proud of is that he gets to teach and inspire students to do things that are much better work than what he is capable of.

    The crowning moment of a Ph.D. is the dissertation defense in which you have to convince a committee that you know more about the topic of your dissertation than they do. If you can't do research that is as good as your dissertation adviser, they shouldn't and won't hand you the Ph.D. There are some topics that I know more than my adviser. There are some topics that he knows a lot more than me.

    This makes Ph.D.'s fundamentally different from any other educational experience. Also a lot has to do with economics. The only reason we have post-docs is that there aren't enough faculty positions to go around. Someone that has a Ph.D. is perfectly qualified to be a professor, it's just that there aren't the positions.

    There really isn't. Publishable research is publishable research. Also it works the other way. You get the professorship *after* you show that you have done original and cutting edge research.

    Also this matters a lot of career advising. The fact that you get your Ph.D. *after* you've become a scientist, and not *before* makes a big difference.
    Last edited: Sep 22, 2011
  17. Sep 22, 2011 #16
    If you have an engineering Ph.D. and you are doing semiconductor research, I wouldn't have any problem if you called yourself a physicist.

    One thing that I find interesting is that the terminology for physicists resembles a lot for the terminology for Islamic scholars. When can you call yourself a mullah, ayatollah, or grand ayatollah or issue a fatwah?
  18. Sep 22, 2011 #17
    IMO this question is similar to "whats in a name?". Its really an arbitrary line drawn in the sand.

    example: I personally do everything a competitive bodybuilder does with one exception. I do not compete. I do everything else exactly the same except ask someone to judge me. does that make me not a bodybuilder or a bodybuilder? Well, I think(again this is personal opinion), anyone who has done what it takes to be an expert in a field can call themselvs that. there have been plenty of philosophical statements on this such as: the 10000 hours of practice, the " your an expert when you have made every possible mistake in a given field" statement. In my opinion a Physicist is anyone who does work in Physics. The difference being a highschool physics teacher with a BS in Physics Vs. the guy on the discovery channel with a PHD vs. someone locked away in a room with a pencil and paper trying to tease out the underlying principles of existence. All three work in Physics and are Physicists, but, to the degree of their understanding of the subject they may operate at different levels.

    I have a feeling this is more of a philosophical question than an imperical one.
  19. Sep 23, 2011 #18
    Sure. If I'm doing an orbital mechanics problem as an aerospace engineer, I'm not designing anything, testing anything, contributing to the manufacture of anything, or doing anything else that is uniquely engineering. I'm doing nothing more and nothing less than a physics problem. I'd still prefer to call myself an aerospace engineer, since physicists are icky and have nerd cooties, but I'd technically be a physicist.
  20. Sep 23, 2011 #19


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    The Oxford English Dictionary has:

    physicist |ˈfizəsist|
    an expert in or student of physics.


    No, technically, you'd be an engineer doing a physics problem. :biggrin:
  21. Sep 23, 2011 #20


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    Most graduate students will publish at least one peer reviewed article before they graduate. Most will publish more. I'm in my third year of my Ph.D. and I have two papers that will hopefully be out before before next summer. Most graduate students will present at conferences at least once before they graduate. I presented a poster last summer, and several grad students from my lab will be giving invited talks at a conference this fall.

    I haven't taken a scientific poll, of course, but my experience over the past three years tells me that graduate students are treated as professionals within the culture of physics, albeit, professionals in an "apprenticeship" position. In any physics department, the relationship between the faculty, the graduate students, and the department is very different from the corresponding relationship between the faculty, the undergrads, and the department.

    I think if you ask a random physics phd if a physics grad student is "a physicist" they will say yes.
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