How to Become a Theoretical Physicist

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Theoretical physicists are on the cutting edge of science exploration. They use math to observe and understand the natural world. Theoretical physics is one of the most challenging career paths. Job opportunities are competitive and limited. This article covers some of the main points to consider on your journey to become a theoretical physicist.

Get an Undergraduate Degree

  • Start early if you can, by getting good grades in algebra, geometry and advanced math classes at the high school level. Strive to maintain a high grade point average to help you get into the best universities.

  • Score high on the SAT. Participate in SAT preparatory classes and practice tests from the previous years (see Resources).

  • Take college level introductory science and math courses. Laboratory experience is fundamental to continue on as a theoretical physicist.

  • Join the "Society of Physics Students" (SPS) and the "American Physical Society" (APS) for career guidance and financial aid. The SPS is targeted towards undergraduates and the APS is a leader in physics news.

  • Increase visibility with instructors by volunteering on their research projects and gaining references.

  • Acquire a physics internship to boost your resume or graduate school application. The physics department of your school, professors and online searches may offer opportunities.

  • Choose a concentration of theoretical physics and declare your major. Periodically check in with your academic adviser to make sure you're on the right track as you earn your degree.

Advance in the Field

  • Prepare for graduate school with the GRE General and GRE Physics Subject tests (see Resources).

  • Research different graduate schools and apply while still in the first semester of your senior year. Apply to schools with high admission standards, desired location or strong reputation in your research area of specialty.

  • Complete all required classes and prepare for the qualifying exam given out by the physics department of your school. Pass the qualifying exam to determine your eligibility to remain in the program.

  • Select an adviser from the faculty to guide your research work. Publish findings in physics journals and present at conferences. Both of these actions help you to make contacts and boost your reputation in the field.

  • Write a thesis by narrowing down your research to one area and complete your dissertation. Use thesis guidelines laid out by your school and be prepared to defend your thesis to show mastery of the material and gain your Ph.D.

  • Plan a year in advance of completing your Ph.D. to review career options in government, academics or industry professions for theoretical physicist.

Tips & Warnings

  • Read biographies about Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, Stephen Hawking and other famous theoretical physicists to gain knowledge. See how they mapped out their careers and their contributions to the world.
  • If you're unsure that you want to become a theoretical physicist, choose a liberal arts school; it's easier to change majors over engineering schools.
  • GRE scores don't determine admission in many graduate schools but are needed if applying for a teaching or researching assistantship.
  • Post-doctorate appointments that normally last for 2 to 3 years are necessary to progress to teaching at a university. Once there you can work your way up from assistant professor.
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