What sort of background do I need to succeed in particle physics?

Recommended Background:

How should you prepare for a degree in Particle Theory? In short, learn as much math and physics as you can. Nature’s Laws are written in mathematics, so if you wish to decode them you must speak the language. And theoretical physics is the art of translating real-world problems into this language, solving them there, and then translating the results to interpret what they mean for the real world.

  • In High School:   Be sure to take as many maths and sciences as you can. Sometimes students are discouraged from doing so by well-meaning but misguided advice, for fear the difficulty of such courses might lower one’s marks. But besides being useful for particle physics, if you have an aptitude for math these courses open many doors: they allow you to stand out in a world where half the population goes to university. (Anybody can do easy.) And physics and math are required for many other careers – including engineering and medicine. Even if they are not required to enter university, they are often required when you enter into a program at the start of your second year. Much better to take physics and math courses for free in high school than to take remedial credits later on in university!
  • In an Undergraduate Degree:   A solid undergraduate physics degree is the standard trajectory for a graduate program in particle physics. But some students do transfer from related degrees, like mathematics or engineering. Although many universities offer an introductory course in particle and nuclear physics at the undergraduate level, the main theoretical tool is quantum field theory and this is normally first taught at the graduate level. When choosing courses the theme should be a solid grounding in undergraduate physics (classical and quantum mechanics, statistical mechanics and thermodynamics, electromagnetism and relativity) and math (linear algebra, calculus of one and several variables, probability and statistics, differential geometry). The ability to program a computer (such as in FORTRAN or C++ or PYTHON) is also invaluable, and for a student has the bonus that it makes you attractive to be hired as a research assistant even before you have learned the other math and physics tools of the trade.

What if I don’t get into particle physics?

It is true that particle theory is a very competitive area: although it is actively studied at many universities and government labs, there are fewer research and teaching positions at these places than there are students that enter the field. Is a degree in particle physics a dead end, and should you worry about getting a job if you do not go on to do research in the field?

The good news here is that should you leave particle physics your penalty is usually to triple your salary. 🙂 Just like a physics training in general, the skills learned in a degree in particle physics – mathematical modelling and problem-solving skills, computer programming, electronics – are in high demand throughout other areas of research and indeed throughout the economy. Among our ex-students who have left academic particle physics are both entrepreneurs who work for themselves and people in more traditional jobs, including banking, risk analysis, engineering, computer science, teaching and a myriad of other pursuits.

Physicists are a hidden asset throughout the economy, and the rich rewards of a physics training are hard to overstate. So if you like physics and math and are tempted by particle physics, follow your heart and do what you enjoy safe in the knowledge that you are also providing yourself with a solid training for a wide variety of careers.