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I'm considering taking a hobby (taking math and physics classes, reading attempting to read arXiv papers) and turning it into a career change. However, I have 3 kids and a wife who doesn't make a lot of money so I have no choice but to look at grim reality.

I'm willing to work hard, network with people, do research, etc. so let's leave effort aside.

What is the statistical likelihood of getting a job as an actual theoretical physicist?

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closed as off topic by David Z Jan 19 '11 at 18:48

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You would need to add a lot more information to get a useful reply. Which country do you live in? How old are you? Do you already have a degree/PhD? What other skills do you have? What do you mean by "a job as an actual theoretical physicist?" . Do you mean a research post in a university, or a research job in industry? What area of theoretical physics? Having said that, the career prospects are not likely to be good at all however you answer. –  Philip Gibbs Jan 18 '11 at 18:50
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I'm sure you are "willing to work hard," but are you also willing to neglect your wife and kids? Being a tenured professor is a great job for a husband/father, but getting there is awfully tough. There is a lot of traveling, conferences, and after-hours networking required. I am an optimist and, even without knowing anything about you, would say that if you really want to, you could become a full-time professional theoretical physicists. I just doubt that would be a very good idea for the rest of your family. –  Jeremy Jan 18 '11 at 20:10
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I'm in the same boat. To get a job in theory you have to have a PhD. An alternative is to get a job as a grad student. I expect I will have such a job next year. –  Carl Brannen Jan 19 '11 at 2:00
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Lucky for me, females find me absolutely repulsive, leaving me free to dedicate myself to years of thankless over-time labor in grad school in the near future. –  Mark Eichenlaub Jan 19 '11 at 2:45
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It sort of depends on if you mean "getting a permanent job" or just "getting a job." Being a grad student is a job of sorts (sometimes requiring them to be teaching assistants, sometimes solely researchers), but it doesn't pay very well. (The high end is in the $30k/yr range in the US, with a good fellowship.) Postdocs in theoretical physics are full-time researchers and are paid much better than grad students, but with short-term jobs (typically three years). Long-term faculty jobs are, of course, much more rare, but worrying about that would be at least several years down the road for you. –  Matt Reece Jan 19 '11 at 2:46

3 Answers 3

As an experimental physicist, I'm not perfectly placed to answer. However, the only job as a theoretical physicist, that is, doing theoretical physics, at least as far as I'm aware, is in a research/invited/appointed post at a university, special institution (Institute for Advanced Study, etc.), or (maybe) a national lab.

That said, there are more Ph.D. students coming out of physics than there are university positions for them to occupy. For a short version of why it's unlikely to get a job as a theoretical physicist, take a look at the Many Applicants, Few Academic Posts on page two of this article: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=does-the-us-produce-too-m&page=2 (the rest of the article is worth a read as well).

The outcome of the situation is that a lot of physicists go into industry or other fields. But, industry doesn't use theoretical physicists as theoretical physicists. They use them in Wall Street for solving complex equations, for example, but not for physics.

I'd add to this that the competition in theoretical physics is rather significant, since it takes quite a special brain and a lot of training to make real headway on the deepest problems of the universe.

So, unfortunately, I'd say that the likelihood of getting a job doing theoretical physics is rather slight. And, given your economic constraints, it's unlikely you could afford to go through the low-pay period of a Ph.D. (a requirement) and a post-doc (in practice, also a requirement) in order to get an appointment in the field. If, on the other hand, you want to learn theoretical physics, even get a degree in the field, and then use that knowledge elsewhere (Ph.D. only), you might be able to swing that.

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This is general information, since I really know rather little about you or your circumstances, but here it is anyway.

Talking about probability in relation to getting a job is not really the right way to approach things, in my view. What you need is a lot of dedication, a certain amount of god-given talent, and a real passion. Perhaps that understates it, even.

In terms of practicality, you'll definitely need to start by getting a Bachelors or Masters in physics (4 years), after which you'll want to enter a PhD programme, write and defend your dissertation (~3 years), get a job as a post-doc for a few years, and finally become a researching theoretical physicist. The whole process can easily take up to 10 years, so it's nothing to be done lightly! And at the end of the day, there's nothing to guarantee you'll be successful; it's a highly competitive field. (They also say it's one for the young.)

This is, of course, the route you need to take these days if you want to enter academia/professional physics. There is nothing stopping you from pursuing all this yourself, using the relevant resources, and publishing papers yourself to gain reputation. IF the other way is harder, this is even harder. (Even the greatest minds in theoretical physics needed some amount of education in order to grow.)

So in theory, there is nothing stopping you, but it's a very difficult path you're taking, especially if you did not begin it after high school. If you want any more specifics, I suggest you elaborate on your situation.

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Down-vote why?? –  Noldorin Jan 18 '11 at 19:43
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Wow,wow,wow. TP postdocs can legitimately call themselves theoretical physicists. –  Joe Fitzsimons Jan 18 '11 at 19:55
    
@Joe: That's true, though I believe they're still fairly restricted in what they can do. Calling them "researchers" is probably pushing it, no? In any case, this is quite subjective. –  Noldorin Jan 18 '11 at 19:57
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Of course postdocs are researchers. So are grad students (in the US, maybe not always in the first year or two of grad school, but certainly after that). –  Matt Reece Jan 19 '11 at 2:39
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@Noldorin: I do not agree at all. It is an entirely objective fact that postdocs are researchers. They get paid to spend all day doing research. In TP this research is very usually independent, and while the direction of research may depend on the funding sources involved, this is true of all researchers. If you get a grant to study some area, then you are expected to do so whether a postdoc or a fellow of the Royal Society. Almost all postdocs have a number of papers to their name (and often very many) and many supervise students. I can't see any way in which they arn't proper researchers. –  Joe Fitzsimons Jan 19 '11 at 5:00

Stephen, I am sure everything you are reading here is horribly depressing, but unfortuntely true. Barring vast personal wealth, the normal path to practicing physics is largely for the young and single. However, that said, there is nothing that would be better than to get a good education in a more accessible field, and bring a passion for math and physics to it. I would recommend taking math and physics courses, even if they don't lead to a career of a physicist. You will find that because people with a passion for math and physics is extremely rare, anyone who has skill and determination can bring a considerable amount of illumination to their field.

Now, the question of what kind of math to learn on short notice is important, and my answer to that is statistics. I would also spend time learning computer programming, nothing complex, but maybe some visual basic in order to create macros in excel. If you understand those two things and can do it well, you have automatically positioned yourself ahead of 98% of the population.

Hope that helps.

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