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(Just to anticipate, having looked at other closed threads about physics education, I don't think this question should be too opinion based or broad.)

Since being in a lab now for a couple years, I've noticed a problem with the classes we're required to take in physics grad school: Of our "core classes" we're required to take in our first year, 5 of them are theoretical and 1 of them is experimental, while when people end up joining labs after the first year, I'd say roughly 80% of people go into experiment and 20% into theory. From what I've seen at most other schools (barring outliers with theory powerhouses), this is a relatively common distribution. And of the available classes you can take, I'd guess ~95% of them are theory.

I think this is a problem because while I had a little lab experience before joining my lab, I still had to spend (and still do) a ton of time just learning how to use all the equipment and experimental techniques: SEM, TEM, AFM, XRD, photolithography, electron beam lithography, clean room techniques, metal deposition, FTIR spectroscopy, more general optics and electronics design, etc, just to name a very few. And there's no reason to assume I'm alone in this. Meanwhile, while I certainly enjoyed what I learned in my theory classes, I have used about 0.1% of what I've learned in them.

There are a few major counterarguments I can come up with:

  1. If we did the opposite and trained people almost exclusively in experiment, I suspect there's a fear that we'd just be trained lab monkeys rather than carefully planning experimentalists.
  2. Undebatably, experiment is more expensive to teach. Theory needs to pay for a professor, while experiment needs to also pay for very specialized equipment.
  3. Theory is "what's actually happening" or something -- meaning that at the most fundamental level, most experiment is trying to prove/verify some theory, so you need to know how that theory works.
  4. Taking all these different classes gives you a taste of lots of areas of physics.
  5. Ideally, theory allows you to know where to explore, even in experiment.

And there are definitely other big ones. But I still have to emphasize how little an impact the theory I've learned in classes has had on my experimental work. The way it worked for me (and what I've heard from friends in experiment), when you join the lab, you spend a little time reading the relevant parts of textbooks and a bunch of papers to learn the theory and history behind the experiment. It's possible I'm not appreciating the base of theory I learned in classes that allows me to read and understand this more specialized theory that's in the papers, but I don't think so -- I can tell you that I've essentially never used anything from Classical Mechanics, Statistical Mechanics, and most of the second Quantum course. Some of the first Quantum course, and a lot of Solid State has been very helpful.

I think a much better solution would be to have almost the inverse distribution of what there currently is: something like 4 experimental courses, and 2 theory ones, at least until you're specialized in an area. The courses would teach you general experimental techniques and design, which I think is better because it would give you an example of what you might actually do in your research. For example, if you're doing experimental research on quantum dots, you will need to know some QM, but what you might end up spending 95% of your time doing in that research is optics and fabrication.

Inevitably, the goal of the education needs to be defined, or this is all meaningless. This is of course also up for debate, but I doubt I'm too far off from what most people would say if I said the goal is something like "to produce effective scientists" (mostly because it's just so general). Again, anecdotal evidence, but a concept I've seen many times now: another guy in my lab clearly had a much bigger emphasis on research and experiment in his undergrad than I did, and while I like to think I see some "bigger picture" or have "deeper insights" into the research, he's just objectively the better researcher.

To put it all in a question format, is there a reason this theory/experiment class distribution seems to be the standard?

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closed as primarily opinion-based by Chris White, John Rennie, tpg2114, Qmechanic Nov 18 '13 at 16:54

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise.If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

This is going to sound harsh, but if you're not using anything from basic classes (and it might be that you just don't realize you are using that knowledge), then you're not doing physics research, experimental or otherwise. Experimental physics tests theories and explores new ways about how nature works. You can't do that if you don't know what the theories are or what we already know about nature. No one works on every field, but you should be aware of the state of the art theory and experiment in something. Otherwise you are just being used as a lab tech, not a researcher. – Chris White Nov 18 '13 at 15:55
No worries about the harshness. Well, I said that I use stuff from my solid state class fairly often. But that's one class (though to be fair, it draws from QM, E&M, and SM some). I'm sure I don't need to tell you, but the truth of how most of a grad student's time in experiment is spent is doing lab tech type stuff. There's no shame in that; and it's not to say I don't carefully plan experiments (which a lab tech probably wouldn't be doing) sometimes, but that's the truth of experiment, I think. – YungHummmma Nov 18 '13 at 16:05
Also, one other thing -- like I said, we do learn the relevant theory about our research, through papers and specific reading. My question/qualm isn't about the value of theory, it's about the distribution of classes we take. You didn't address that, I think. – YungHummmma Nov 18 '13 at 16:10
It seems to me what you describe is true of almost all grad students, in theory or experiment. Thesis projects are so focused on one thing, all you need to know for your research is the background of that one thing. I think the broad(ish) classroom experience is not there to teach you how to do your thesis research; it is to teach you how to be a successful researcher after you complete your thesis research. The goal is, eventually, for you as a mature researcher to make connections between disparate ideas, which you can't do if you haven't seen them before. – Flavin Nov 18 '13 at 16:11
@Flavin, I agree mostly. All I'm saying is that there is a disparity in the numbers: I think it would also be worth complaining about if it were the opposite case and 80% of grad students went into theory while we were teaching them 90% how to do things like soldering and fabrication. That would also seem odd to me. Also, what do you say about people who got educations more like my labmate's, and seem to be excelling because of them? Do you suspect that they'll produce more in the short run, but of less significance or something? – YungHummmma Nov 18 '13 at 17:03