I am planning to do an internship in a theoretical physics area for a year before applying for PhD. My current masters' thesis advisor (who is a hardcore experimentalist) warned me that I might not actually learn anything new in a theoretical intern, and that I will only end up solving some textbook problems. I was wondering how plausible this is, and if it is a strong possibility, how I can make sure that there is a significant addition to my skillset during my intern in theory. Anyone?

EDIT : This internship will NOT be a part of my M.Sc. I will be doing it to bolster my otherwise ordinary profile. I basically want to publish something or at least get a good recommendation letter before I apply for PhD.

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    Given one of the answers, I think you should clarify if the internship will be part of your MSc or if it will be between MSc and PhD. – Helen - down with PCorrectness Apr 25 '17 at 16:40
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    I might not actually learn anything new in a theoretical intern, and that I will only end up solving some textbook problems — If you don't learn anything new from solving textbook problems, you're using a crappy textbook. – JeffE Apr 25 '17 at 19:36

Answering is an experimental physicist who had authored a few theoretical papers. I find the suggestion given to you incorrect (maybe voluntarily, as your MS advisor would like you to be his/her PhD student right away?). As a Master student, the level of work you will do is not limited much by your skills/knowledge, rather from your supervisor's wits and guidance. An excellent supervisor with a brilliant idea waiting to be executed can guide you to a very valuable research publication in three months or so. And of course you can be left in a corner with a textbook and generic instructions which will only leave you confused and isolated. It really depends on your supervisor and how much effort will you both put into it.

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    +1, it really does depend on the supervisor. My Master's project is in theoretical cosmology and could have easily been constrained to textbook problems, but I have a great supervisor who has led me to do some really cool novel (if not quite publishable) research. – astronat Apr 24 '17 at 15:34
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    @astronat thanks, and hope you'll manage to get your own work into publishable shape sometime soon! – famargar Apr 24 '17 at 20:12
  • I am not sure that this will be related to his Master's. In principle, internship is something different. – Helen - down with PCorrectness Apr 25 '17 at 16:40
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    @Helen let's wait for the OP to clarify. My understanding is that he has completed or almost completed his MS, and has time to invest, or simply explore. An internship in academic research in my opinion is just another word for research at junior level, i. e. not self-directed. – famargar Apr 25 '17 at 17:18

I did an internship of a few months in theoretical physics in an excellent lab in Paris, France. The head of the group was a famous professor who made his name a long time ago by developing a method that is now widely used today.

To some extent I would agree with your supervisor that you might end up solving textbook problems. This was the case for maybe 50% of my work, mostly because my background in the field was not strong enough. Had I arrived with better preparation, I would perhaps have had a chance to jump right to contributing to new work.

At the same time, I don't think it was a waste of time at all. I learned and improved on a lot of basic skills such as reading literature, writing code and presenting my work in a report and oral presentation at the end.

I think it depends on what you want to get out of the internship. If you are hunger to work on something where you can quickly churn out publications and apply your knowledge, perhaps theoretical physics is not the best option. However, gaining a solid foundation in a theoretical subject is likely to be highly useful whatever you end up doing.


What is your reason for wanting to do so?

If your PhD will be in theoretical physics, as I understand, then why not jump in immediately?

If you would like to save some money before PhD, then I think this is a valid reason.

EDIT: To answer the question per se, the best thing you can do is discuss with the internship advisor what you'll be doing before you commit. And, as others have pointed out, even solving textbook problems at this stage can really give you something (but some planning and discussion is needed for this to be sure as well). You can also try to gauge if it's likely to participate in a publication during that time.

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    I am doing planning to do the internship because my profile (grades, university, etc.) is otherwise ordinary. I wanted to work with someone from a proper research institute, gain their recommendation and publish something before I apply. – Charudatta Manwatkar Apr 25 '17 at 18:53
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    I see, I think this makes sense. I've also added an edit to my answer. – Helen - down with PCorrectness May 4 '17 at 16:34

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