Firstly I hope this question is appropriate to ask here. I am a third year studying Mathematics at the University of Oxford, with plans to continue to 4th year to complete the masters course.

I have been considering many paths to take so far this year, I started off by looking into finance, this I found however incredibly unintellectuality stimulating. My passions have always been for Maths and Physics, this year I will be studying quantum theory, quantum computing, special relativity and fluid dynamics, which I will continue on into 4th year with the addition of general relativity, theoretical physics and other more general applied courses.

I'm very interested in applying for a PhD after 4th year, mainly because i've never been more fascinated by the subjects i'm currently learning, Quantum theory in particular is amazing and has really changed the way I look at the universe.

Unfortunately I'm only getting a mid 2.1, however it is from Oxford so I hope that this may carry some weight, but because of this I will be mainly focusing on applying to universities other than Oxford and Cambridge.

What I'm wondering is is there any point in following this dream? I'm extremely motivated but I feel not having a first might have ruined it for me. Can anyone recommend any strategies I can use to make myself more competitive?

Currently i'm planning on applying to universities for summer research assistant placements, paid/unpaid. I'm also reading the Feynman lectures to boost my background knowledge of physics, to help bridge the gap between physics courses and my mathematics course. Can anyone recommend any other books/ideas that could help me be able to apply for experimental physics? Also universities with departments that would be good to approach.

To sum up my long and laboured question, i'm extremely passionate about mathematical physics and the idea of stopping learning about it, and say going into a deskjob is sort of horrifying. Any advice anyone can give me I would greatly appreciate.

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    Why do you want to go into experimental physics if your heart beats for mathematical physics? – Arnold Neumaier Nov 14 '12 at 16:54
  • Well I believe I would find both very interesting to study, but currently I've only had the option to study mathematical physics. I didn't really want to limit my options, as theoretical physics is very competitive. My heart beats for all of physics really ;) – LHS Nov 14 '12 at 16:56
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    Do you know why you only got 2.1? Being able to learn from past mistakes is one of the most successful strategies for reaching one's goals - besides having clear goals, which is even more important as it limits the number of options that need exploration. – Arnold Neumaier Nov 14 '12 at 17:13
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    In applying for a phd track fellowship/assistanship, dedication, focus on physics and what you call passion, do play a role in the evaluation of applicants. Particularly in the US an Oxford degree is much appreciated. I know of a 2.1 from Oxford who on graduating and applying to Princeton was offered a fellowship including a car for his use ! Recomendations from your professors go a long way in replacing any grade handicap. Professors like enthusiastic students. Do not be discouraged but follow your passionate interests. – anna v Nov 14 '12 at 17:30
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    I strongly, strongly advise a masters program--you'll have a chance to bridge the gap, and you just simply don't know enough right now to make a good choice of an advisor, and I have no words for how dramatically your choice of advisor will alter your life and career. – Jerry Schirmer Nov 14 '12 at 18:08

Don't go to graduate school in physics, at least immediately. The best case scenario is a five year program, followed by three years of postdocs, and then THAT will be followed by five years of tenure review, and THEN you might have a chance at having a stable life. All of this happens with a tremendous amount of competition.

Use that Oxford degree to find a job somewhere for a few years, and see if you still really want to do physics at the end of that. If you must absolutely go to school, find a terminal masters program, and learn about research some. If you don't know whether to prefer experiment or theory, you're going to have a horrible time picking a school that has a compatible advisor, and you want to be looking for compatible future advisors far more than you want to be looking for the Platonic "quality physics programs." So, you'll be better suited to start a PhD program effectively (and getting a masters on the way doesn't really slow you down--you are better prepared to start research after that, and the first couple of years between your quals and really starting research is where grad students flounder most frequently). Additionally, if you are in your current situation, this will enable you to rehabilitate your academic record. Finally, if you do your two years and don't like physics, you can find something else to do. As someone who has finished a doctorate, I strongly recommend against immediately entering a doctoral program straight out of college.

EDIT: Additionally, as you go through school, keep some sort of exit plan--sign up for those numerical projects and learn programming. Take the sensor analysis class and learn how to align a laser. Learn the basics of data analysis. There are all sorts of skills that physicists have that are wanted not just in academia, but also in the private sector or government. Make sure that you have the skills to go out and do something enjoyable, even if it is not academic physics. Because the odds are really, REALLY against anyone making it in academic physics (and none of these things will hurt your physics career, to say the least).

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    I don't necessarily agree about delaying grad school. You only get so much life. But this is superb advice: "Additionally, as you go through school, keep some sort of exit plan--sign up for those numerical projects and learn programming." – user1504 Nov 14 '12 at 20:49
  • @user1504: people who start at 26 tend to finish in four years. People who start at 22 tend to finish in seven. There's only so much life, but there's value added portion of life, and there's wasted life. – Jerry Schirmer Nov 14 '12 at 20:56
  • Excellent answer, even after removing the phrase "in physics" from the first sentence. – JeffE Nov 15 '12 at 18:46
  • Thank you very much for this answer, I will think hard about what you have said :) – Freeman Nov 20 '12 at 17:00
  • "There are all sorts of skills that physicists have that are wanted out in the private sector, but the private sector or government." Could not quite parse the latter part of this sentence. – Faheem Mitha Jan 24 '13 at 22:21

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