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Physics Which career path? Applied or theoretical physics?

  1. Nov 9, 2012 #1
    I am in the process of choosing the topic for my thesis. Originally I came from a more theoretical branch of physics but I realized that I do not see my future in university research, but more in the industry. I want to do research with more direct applications, but now I am not sure what my interests really are.

    Would you rather go into material sciences, optics/laser research, solid state physics/condensed matter physics or a completely different area? May be medical physics? Which industry has the potential to be “future-proof” ?

    At this point research in the area of optics /applications of lasers seem quite interesting to me, but I am not sure. This is my main problem, I am not sure in which direction I want to go.

    I would be really thankful to opinions from experienced physicists. Do you love your job, is it interesting and challenging or would you choose differently if you had the chance?
  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 9, 2012 #2
    I've always been the theory type too, almost went to grad school for pure math but then realized I want a job, lol. I'm only half joking on that but also I don't think I would be a very good pure mathematician.

    But anyway, I can't tell you what to do but here's what I did to find my research area. I talked to almost every professor that did what I was even vaguely interested in; quantum gravity, strings, optics, condensed matter, mathematical physics, etc. I asked them about their research and what they're previous grad students ended up doing. If they fed me some BS about where their grad students went I immediately counted those professors out because chances are I would end up the others, aka not a related job or no job at all. Unfortunately, these counted out the pure theory professors.. strings and mathematical physics were gone. It kinda hurt to know that I wouldn't be doing that type of stuff but I pressed on.

    The condensed matter and optics professors always had great things to say about their previous students : jobs doing industry research, good post docs, some even professors, etc. Even though my original goals were the craziest theory I could get my hands on, I changed them because I realized I want to be an industry researcher. The next thing I did was see how much industry support certain groups had. The AMO department at my current school is off the chain with industry money, big grants coming in all the time. I'm going to use this to my advantage and gain industry contacts through their connections. I've already been talking to some of the researchers from certain companies (alumni from my school) and might possibly get some grant money if I buddy up with them. Bling.

    Another thing I would do is find out the alumni from professors you're thinking of working with and send them an email about the professor. Some will tell you how they are as an adviser. I learned quickly which professors would have me fight for my own when I'm done and others that really wanted me to get a job. It's not only the research that's important it's the adviser.
  4. Nov 9, 2012 #3


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    Applied or theoretical? Do you think there are no theoretical work being done in applied field such as condensed matter? What did Phil Anderson and Bob Laughlin do?

    I wish we can get rid of this "myth", and outright misuse of the term "theoretical physics".

  5. Nov 9, 2012 #4
    But to be fair, even condensed matter theory is often far removed from applications. Its not as if string theorist end up in finance, but industry is chomping at the bit to hire codensed matter theorists. Admittedly, the original post probably should have used experimental vs. theory, but his concerns are valid- if you want to do research in industry its best to avoid theory in favor of more experimental disciplines.

    And in experimental disciplines, its probably best to get as applied as possible.
  6. Nov 9, 2012 #5


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    I don't get this, and you have given nothing to back up your claim.

    I have no idea where you've been hanging around, but I see theoretical work in CM that involves applications ALL THE TIME! In fact, one only needs to look at the work done by both Anderson and Laughlin to verify that! And let's not forget that John Bardeen was a theorist AND did practically all the theoretical calculations that help Brittain and Shockley to produce that first transistor! If there is the Mother of all applied theory, that one surely qualify!

    But that is utterly besides the point for this thread. There need to be a deliberate and unambiguous step to correct this "applied or theoretical physics" idea as IF those two are independent of each other. It is a reflection of a deeper misunderstanding of physics and the various fields of physics. It is also a reflection on the idea that something "applied" may not be as "important" or "fundamental" to basic knowledge as String, Particle Physics, etc., something that I can easily debunk in the NY minute!

    This forum is an opportunity to correct such errors and to kill off such myths.

  7. Nov 9, 2012 #6
    Speaking as someone with a PhD in CMT who spent a good part of the last four years looking for jobs in industry, I can say based on my experience that CMT is often far removed from the types of applications that industry cares about.
  8. Nov 9, 2012 #7


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    However, I'm sure you will also note that "applications in industry" is not the same thing as "applied" criteria that is often used. This is true be it in experimental or theoretical CMP.

    What industries care about is also quite fluid, and is a function of many things, include the state of the economy and demand. When Bell Labs was a giant, it was quite a breeding ground for many CMT theorists, and quite a number of devices came out of such breeding ground.

  9. Nov 9, 2012 #8
    Thank you for the answers thus far.

    @SophusLies (cool name btw): This is good advice - one of my problems is that I don't know what one actually does in different kinds of research; asking the professors themselves or some of their students is something I will keep in mind.

    @ZapperZ: Yes, I agree that theoretical research does not necessarily exclude applications in the real world.

    My original plan was to write my thesis in the institute for theoretical gravitational physics, just because I was interested in the topic. My professor does research in quantum gravity/cosmology, therefore there are no applications, at least at this point. I want to do something "real", with immediate benefit for whoever needs it.

    Actually I am not the engineering type or some kind of tinkerer but neither do I want to do theoretical calculations all day. A nice mixture of theoretical and experimental methods would be nice with real world application and I am looking for inspiration here.

    Most importantly it should be fun, but this of course is very subjective. Anyone here working in his “dream job” in the industry? Which one?
  10. Nov 9, 2012 #9
    ZapperZ, I assumed what was meant was 'applied research' as opposed to 'basic research'. Applied research is usually used to mean client/business driven research to meet certain demands. In this sense, in physics theory research is usually (but not always) less applied and more basic than experimental research. (though no less or more fundamental/real).

    Not all experimental research is applied, in fact, most would probably fall under the header of 'basic' research (which is why even most of the experimentalists I know were unable to find jobs in industry). But MORE of it is.

    Bell labs as a historical entity was famous for its basic research, though in recent years it has shifted to applied- which is why they hire fewer theorists than they used to.

    I didn't say no condensed matter theory was applied, I said less of it was, and its a general impression I have from friends who did phds in condensed matter theory (not one of whom now works in industry).

    This thread was certainly started by someone who wants a job in industry. Hence, it might be best to learn industry relevant skills, which is less likely to happen in theory.
    Last edited: Nov 9, 2012
  11. Nov 9, 2012 #10


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    But based on the OP and the reply from the OP, it appears that he/she WAS making the mistake that I had stated, where "applied" was attached to condensed matter, optics, etc., and not the way that you thought.

  12. Nov 10, 2012 #11
    Thank you for pointing this out. It is correct that I have to know exactly where the differences are before I can decide what path to take.

    At this point I am quite interested in applications of photons/light, lasers to real world problems but I don’t know if this kind of work will be interesting in the future. I assume that it is a growing market in the future? Any experiences?
  13. Nov 10, 2012 #12
    This was my experience as well, though it depends some on where you put the modeling/computational folks - I once really offended a grad student working in some abstract area of CMP theory by suggesting computational work being done by friends was also theory. But where else to put it? It certainly isn't experimental. . . and those folks doing computational work DID get hired into industry.
  14. Nov 18, 2012 #13
    What do you think are the future growth industries with the greatest growth rate/ potential for applications in the area of physics? Anyone working in optics/photonics? Biotechnology? Any other field?
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