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What would be the education path I would have to take to become a theoretical physicist?

MrPastaManMrPastaMan Registered User Posts: 21 Junior Member
Wondering how theoretical physicists and astrophysicist, such as the ones who work at the Large Hadron Collider, did educationally to get where they are. What should I major in and what should I do for graduate/a PhD?

Replies to: What would be the education path I would have to take to become a theoretical physicist?

  • ucbalumnusucbalumnus Registered User Posts: 72,219 Senior Member
    Major in physics in undergraduate (some additional CS and advanced math may be helpful; add astronomy / astrophysics electives if interested in that area) and then do a PhD in physics.
  • juilletjuillet Super Moderator Posts: 12,550 Super Moderator
    The Large Hadron Collider is a research project/tool that's part of CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research. If you take a look at some of the articles that have been published by members/affiliated scientists, you'll see that almost all of them are research physicists that are appointed faculty or scientists at European universities. For example, you can look at the affiliations of the 235 authors for this study (http://cds.cern.ch/record/2641652#). They're in parentheses besides the authors' names; most of them are European universities and institutes, with some universities from other parts of the world (e.g. Australia, Japan, South Africa) scattered throughout.

    @xraymancs is the Forum Champion here but also happens to be a professor of physics, and he's mentored lots of undergraduate and doctoral students in physics. So he'll give you the best advice! But here are some basic steps.

    I'm assuming that you mean you want to be a theoretical physicist and not necessarily specifically at the Large Hadron Collider or CERN. Virtually all of the people in that career field have bachelor's and doctoral degrees in physics. Most are faculty (professors, usually tenured or tenure-track) or are affiliated research scientists at large research universities. (The difference matters, but don't worry about it right now.) Some are full-time researchers at other organizations like national labs, government agencies, or even for-profit corporations.

    To prepare for a PhD in physics, you need to

    1) Major in physics as an undergrad. I mean, you could theoretically major in something else if you take enough courses in physics, but really to be most competitive you should major in physics. I also imagine that theoretical physics requires a lot of math, so you'll want to take a lot of math classes. Talk to your physics professors to get recommendations on what math to take.

    2) Maintain high grades!

    3) Starting as early as possible, but hopefully no later than the end of your sophomore/beginning of your junior year, start doing research with a professor at your university or a nearby one. Most professors at all kinds of colleges and universities (but especially the ones you are considering) take on undergraduate research assistants to help in their research labs/groups, and that is how you learn how to do research. This is probably the most important component of your graduate school application - not only is the experience itself important, but this also helps you develop your specific research interests AND helps you develop relationships through which you can get letters of recommendation.

    4) Do some summer research. You should try at least one summer (the summer between your junior and senior year), but two summers is great. There are lots of summer programs - one place to start is to look at the National Science Foundation's Research Experiences for Undergraduates (Physics: https://www.nsf.gov/crssprgm/reu/list_result.jsp?unitid=69; Astronomical Sciences: https://www.nsf.gov/crssprgm/reu/list_result.jsp?unitid=5045), but there are others funded through other mechanisms. These are paid experiences where you also get housing and usually board, so don't let location limit you. This is an opportunity to do more research but ALSO to increase your network and get more distinguished scientists willing to vouch for you as a budding scientist in recommendation letters, so it's good to get some experience at another campus. Your professors at whatever university you end up attending can also help you find some or recommend some.*

    That's probably the most you should think about at the moment.

    *Note: I'm not sure how important it is in theoretical physics that you specifically do research in theoretical physics, or whether any kind of physics research is okay. @xraymancs can probably address that. My guess, though, is that you should try to do a little theoretical physics research just to see if you even like it. I'm in a completely different field, but it's been my experience that students across fields often like the idea of doing theoretical work but in practice it's a lot different than they expected.
  • xraymancsxraymancs Forum Champion Graduate School Posts: 4,572 Forum Champion
    @juillet has given you very good advice. To summarize, start with a BS in physics, get good grades and a significant research experience as an undergraduate. It does not matter whether it is research in theoretical, or experimental physics when you are an undergraduate, you need the experience and the strong letter of reference from your mentors. it does not matter where you go for a BS in physics as the curriculum is pretty much the same everywhere. Personally, I think that a university with a PhD program in physics is your best choice for getting the research experience but that is not a hard and fast rule.

    Next you need to get into a PhD program. Most physics majors start a graduate program thinking that they want to be a theoretical particle physicist (not all but most), I did. You will learn very soon whether it is the right path for you. Particle theory is a particularly hard field to be successful in. You need to have outstanding mathematical abilities and you have to be ready to take multiple post-doctoral positions before getting a permanent position. My particle theory colleague at Illinois Tech will only take the topmost students in the graduate class because he is very sensitive to this major challenge in developing a career. On the other hand, my PhD students who are materials physicists, have no problem finding good jobs in industry or postdoctoral positions after graduation. You have to decide if you want to be a professional physicist independent of the field or if you are unwilling to do anything but particle theory.

    All that being said, your journey should start with a BS in physics in a rigorous program. Then you can see how your perspective develops and what you are interested in pursuing.
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