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When to decide experimental/theoretical physics

  1. Jun 9, 2008 #1
    I am heading to college (liberal arts college).. what I want to know is when does one need to decide if he wants to be a theoretical or experimental physicist.. can we decide only when we get to grad school.. although I am heading to an outstanding college, I don't think there are many if any outstanding theoretical physicists there at a liberal arts college.. I plan to double major in math and physics and think that most of the research that I am going to do is experimental physics.. hmm.. do most undergrads only do experimental physics research?
  2. jcsd
  3. Jun 9, 2008 #2
    The fundamentals of physics, i.e. the undergraduate curriculum, are common to both theoretical and experimental physics.
  4. Jun 10, 2008 #3


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    Don't worry about making the decision now. You'll have a better idea of what's offered by either side of the spectrum by the end of your senior year. (And lots of senior students still don't know). Most of the time the decision is made when you select a thesis topic in graduate school. But even then it's possible to change topics, or pursue a Ph.D. in a different field from your M.Sc.

    It's actually fairly rare for undergrads to be actively involved in research, unless you get a summer or part-time job working in a lab. It's more common though to get involved in the experimental side of things at the undergrad level because experimentalists often have more funding for hiring students. That's not to say that theorists never take them on. I had a summer position working for a theorist between my third and fourth year.
  5. Jun 10, 2008 #4

    In my experience: it's a good idea to choose a research field a few months before the end of your first year of graduate school. You really should know by the end of your second year. The reason for this is that in my department, we pick thesis advisors in March of our first year, and we work for them over the summer. If we don't like what we're doing, we can switch to another group for our second summer. After that we're technically still allowed to change, but it's not a good idea because it wastes time.

    Truthfully, I had no idea what I wanted to do in undergrad (except that I wanted to do physics). In my junior year I had a research class, and I did it in experimental condensed matter; it was NMR analysis of epoxies. My senior year I worked for a space physics theorist, modeling EM waves in resonance cavities. I wouldn't worry about the lack of theorists in your undergrad department. In undergrad you need to learn the basics of physics: both theory and experiment. Any good physics department will be able to teach you both. Now when you get to graduate school and specialize, then the composition of your department will matter more. That will be the time to look specifically for theorists or experimentalists. But at this stage it doesn't matter all that much.
  6. Jun 12, 2008 #5
    Thank you for all the advice!
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