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Why a theoretical physicist seeks professorship

  1. May 13, 2013 #1
    What kind of resources does a university provide that are so important to a theoretical physicist? I pose this as a serious question. I know not all fields of theoretical physics are the same, but lets just take string theory for example. It seems to me that string theory at the moment is purely mathematical work. Which means all you really need is pen and paper, and maybe a laptop. So after someone obtains a PhD and all the knowledge that comes with it, what is the advantage of gaining a professorship at a university when you can do all that work from home? (other than collaboration with other scientists... and getting paid). I mean you wouldn't need to perform any experiments and you could submit your papers to scientific journals whenever you please, right?
     
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  3. May 13, 2013 #2
    There are several things. One of the main things you get from a university is the time to do research. If you don't work at a university then you are going to need to have some other job to pay your bills. Then you are going to have other considerations like housework, making food, keeping your significant other happy, raising your children, etc. It doesn't leave a whole lot of time for research. If you work 40 hours a week in your day job, you might be able to put as much as 10 to 20 hours a week in doing research on evenings and weekends, which isn't much.

    Another thing you get is free access to journals. Lots of stuff does appear on the arxiv, but lots of stuff doesn't. If you're going to write papers and publish them, you need to have access to journals so you can read what stuff people have already done, and properly cite it in your work. It's possible to finagle this if you don't for a university if you collaborate with someone who does, but I think that is more difficult if you don't have local access to the university.

    And another thing you get is the ability to go to conferences without having to pay for them yourself. (Well, maybe not as much in string theory as in condensed matter, I don't know.)

    Don't underestimate the importance of being plugged into the social network of scientists for doing science. The vast majority of people who make achievements in science aren't isolated from their peers.
     
  4. May 13, 2013 #3

    Rolen

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    In theoretical physics you have to do your work with other people. You can't do your job by yourself. You question is a important one, no doubt but makes no sense. If one gets a PhD, one must seek a job, not do research but oneself.
    Also, publish papers don't pay much, actually you can't make a living out of it.
    One more thing, do you ever noticed that every scientist that appears on internet or TV they always are mention with a University, like, Prof. Smith, NYCU. This is because your reputation has to do with the place you work. And thing about one other thing. Mathematicians don't usually need labs to do they work, and you don't see them working home, do you? And, teaching, boring as it is, still is part of academia.
     
  5. May 13, 2013 #4

    SteamKing

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    Even theoretical physicists gotta eat. They can't assume that string theory will automatically provide clothing and shelter. When they walk down the street, the crowds do not shower them with garlands, nor do the crowds provide the theoretical physicist with sacrifices and offerings in return for perfecting the most elegant theory.

    However, if you obtain tenure at a university, you pretty much have a job and benefits for life, and that is a valuable consideration.
     
  6. May 13, 2013 #5

    Jano L.

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    That is too strong a statement. It is true that nowadays, many theoretical physicists publish papers with many co-authors. But it is definitely not necessary to do so. Actually, I am quite sure that the most innovating contributions to theoretical physics were the creation of one man. It is understable - in order to get at the root of things, you have to think in original way but then you do not need co-authors.

    There are advantages for being at the university - an important one is that the physicist has an opportunity to teach and interact with students, which can help him considerably to educate himself too. On the other hand, the mutual interaction with colleagues at the university on the subject of science seems almost non-existent from my experience - it is much more probable that one collaborates with someone in different town, even different country. In view of this, is rather the access to Internet that is crucial to communication with other physicists.

    Do you mean teaching is boring activity for you? That's OK, but then please do not teach! Students deserve much better teaching than they are getting these days.
     
  7. May 13, 2013 #6

    MathematicalPhysicist

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    If only we could solely do research for a living.
     
  8. May 13, 2013 #7
    You have already answered your own question, although I think you have the order wrong.
     
  9. May 13, 2013 #8

    Choppy

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    I think the biggest reason why people seek professorships is because being a professional researcher is generally seen as the the optimal condition under which to produce decent research. Sure, you can do it under other conditions, but professors are paid and supported in what they do.

    Collaboration is not always a case of needing or establishing co-author relationships, although that's becoming more and more popular. Sometimes it's a case of just having someone to talk to - a wall to bounce ideas off of, a viewpoint that helps you to see the bigger picture when you are otherwise deeply invested in a problem. It's also about listening to the problems other people are working on and the way they are approaching them as these can be a valuable source of inspiration.

    There are also a lot of other resources to consider. Journal access was already mentioned. But there are also things like computing services, technical support, and even administrative support that can eliminate huge time sinks.
     
  10. May 13, 2013 #9

    Jano L.

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    This is interesting claim. Can you elaborate please?
     
  11. May 13, 2013 #10
    I created this account purely to receive one question on how to publish a scientific paper. I am rather young at the moment and have quite some time before graduating from an university. It has come to my understanding that it is almost impossible to publish a new scientific paper without having a degree in that field. Is it better off to wait till I graduate and receive a doctorates or to seek help from a professor who could possibly publish it? My new theory might get trashed, but I hope it will shine a new light on a very tricky topic to research; what would be the best way to go from this point?
     
  12. May 14, 2013 #11

    Rolen

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    I don't thinks that's true. You see, Andrew Wiles worked alone to solve the Fermat's Last Theorem, but he spent 7 whole years working by himself, alone from academia. If you read the book or even watched the documentary you can see that his co-workers thought that it was an unusual behavior of his part.
    Science is evolving at a point where writing a paper almost can't be done by one man in general. Sure one man can do a paper by himself, but would be a huge and unnecessary amount of work that wouldn't make any sense to do so, when instead you can have a life, a wife and kids and still be a man of science.
     
  13. May 14, 2013 #12

    Choppy

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    Administrative tasks can sometimes take a lot more time than one might think. Granted, a lot of administrative tasks are actually a function of the professorship itself (i.e. organizing lectures, tracking marks, administrating pay and benefits, writing up performance reports, maintain a web page, etc.), but others may come up just through the nature of collaborative research (setting up video conferences, taking meeting minutes, administering grant money, ordering supplies, etc.).

    Perhaps many such tasks would be minimized if one was working alone, without teaching responsibilities, and not receiving any pay or benefits. Certainly many people get by just fine without a secretary. Admin support is not the number one reason why someone doing theoretical work would seek a job as a professor, but it can certainly help.
     
  14. May 14, 2013 #13

    Choppy

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    One of the reasons it's good to wait is because most people in your position simply don't have the background to know what's original and novel in the field. An idea can seem like it could "shed new light on a very tricky topic" to someone who is not well-versed in the field, when there really isn't even anything new about it. That said, if you're an undergraduate now, there's nothing to stop you from approaching one of your professors to get some feedback on your ideas.
     
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