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In theoretical physics, I'm torn between high-energy and condensed matter physics. Is it true that the former has a much steeper learning curve than the latter, assuming I don't pick a well-trodden area like high temperature superconductivity? I'd like to start becoming productive as early as possible, and I don't necessarily want to spend more time than needed in getting up to speed. Does that rule out high-energy theory for me?

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dmckee's axiom of academic struggle: related, established fields are of roughly equal difficulty. (If they weren't people would cross discipline boundaries to pick up some easy papers, a behavior you can watch in action any time a new sub-field emerges.) –  dmckee Aug 23 '12 at 16:48
    
I noticed that in the PhD program I will be applying to, it says that I can have an engineering degree to enter Condensed Matter Theory but need graduate-level (Masters) knowledge of physics to enter High Energy. So at least there, they seem to be sending a message. –  Joebevo Aug 23 '12 at 16:52
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Once you've chosen to commit to theory, it seems kind of silly to quibble over where you'll make the bigger impact. The biggest impact in condensed matter physics comes from experiments, and sure it's easy to write theory papers about those experiments that no one will ever read. The kind of serious intellectual breakthroughs that CMT and HET actually reward though (with like, jobs) are equally hard. –  wsc Aug 23 '12 at 17:15
    
My question wasn't regarding impact per se(although that would be nice to have) but more about when I could start putting into practice the stuff that I learn. The prerequisites to string theory include a daunting amount of math, while the prerequisites to condensed matter theory seems to be (to my knowledge) not a whole lot more than a graduate core curriculum like electrodynamics, statistical physics and quantum mechanics. –  Joebevo Aug 24 '12 at 3:18
    
@Joebevo: The only barrier to learning string theory is learning 1960s S-matrix stuff, after that, many of the constructions are easier than most condensed matter systems in terms of actual computational effort to reproduce. The mathematics is a little more involved in conceptual background. –  Ron Maimon Aug 24 '12 at 6:32
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closed as not constructive by Qmechanic, Manishearth, Emilio Pisanty, Waffle's Crazy Peanut, Sklivvz Dec 26 '12 at 13:07

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