How Do I Become a Theoretical Physicist?

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  • Written By: Richard Nelson
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  • Last Modified Date: 12 February 2017
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Becoming a theoretical physicist usually requires a doctorate in physics or mathematics, post-doctoral experience, and several years of job experience applying physics. Working to become a theoretical physicist can take many years of learning and experience. Most often, theoretical physicists will start out in applied physics, and from there move into theoretical physics.

A theoretical physicist, sometimes called a mathematical physicist, uses only theories and math to predict observations, like natural events. They explain why nature works the way it does, like why the sky is blue. Unlike most sciences, theoretical physics does not use experiments to gather data. Experiments are used to support or eliminate theories after they have been invented in the mind of a theoretical physicist.

Achieving a doctorate in physics or mathematics is required to become a theoretical physicist. This step takes an average of eight years of higher educational learning. Students start by earning a bachelor’s degree in a natural science, then move on to a graduate degree in applied physics or a natural science, and finally obtain a doctorate in physics or mathematics. This variety of degree plan shows the remarkable range of information theoretical physics can influence.


The second step, post-doctoral experience, usually requires traveling to a specialized facility and learning how to use physics theories and math to predict observations. Common choices are high energy physics facilities, like particle accelerators, and astronomical observatories. Once accepted to a post-doctoral program, the next two years will be packed with applied physics and publications. Every new observation that is made will need to be interpreted and submitted to several academic journals. This step may need to be repeated many times to get hired full-time as a mathematician or applied physicist.

To become a theoretical physicist, getting work experience is the hardest step and often comes from several post-doctoral programs. The other option is to be hired as a full-time mathematician or applied physicist. This option applies to any field of study but does require an extensive knowledge of using math and physics to solve problems in new ways. Banks, shipping companies, and universities are some options that display the variety of work experience available to those qualified. Commonly, universities provide work experience as an associate professor and researcher after completing a post doctoral program.

After years as a professional, it is possible to apply to become a theoretical physicist. Work as an author, a professor, or statistician are common jobs. Each position requires that a theoretical physicist scrutinize new theories and develop new math and physics models to better explain observations. Albert Einstein is the most famous theoretical physicist in history because he explained that all matter is condensed energy. He also proved that space and time are always connected. His many projects ranged from atomic energy to black holes.


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