The other day I talked to a young women who is about to finish high school, so the time is coming to decide what education to pursue after that. What does a theoretical physicist actually do?, she asked. And while I was babbling away, I recalled how little I knew myself what a physicist does when I was a young student.
Of course I knew that professors give lectures. And I had read a bunch of popular science books and biographies, from which I concluded that theoretical physics requires a lot of thinking. The physicists I had read about, they also wrote many books, and articles and, most of all, letters. They really wrote a lot of letters, these people. There also was the occasional mentioning of a conference, where talks had to be given. And I could have learned from these historical narratives that, even back then, the physicists moved a lot, but I blamed that on one or the other war. I never asked who organized these conferences or hired these people.
While one could say that my family is scientifically minded, when I grew up I didn't know anybody who worked in scientific research or in academia who I could have asked what their daily life looks like. Today, it is easier for young people with an interest in science to find out what a profession entails in practice, and if you are thinking about a career in science, I really encourage you too look around. Piled higher and deeper has documented the sufferings of PhD students as humorously as aptly, and postdocs from many areas of science write blogs. When I finished high school, I didn't even know what a postdoc is! At the higher career levels, bloggers are still sparse, but they are there, and they tell you what theoretical physicists do.
Yes, they give lectures. They also give seminars, and attend seminars. They write articles and read articles, and review articles. They also write the occasional book, though that isn't very common in the early career stages. They attend conferences and workshops, and also organize conferences and workshops. They travel a lot. They sit in committees for all sorts of organizational and administrational purposes.
To some extend, the books I had read contained a little of all of that. What they did not tell me anything about was one thing that theoretical physicists today spend a lot of time on: writing proposals. They write and write and write proposals, to fund their own research or their research group, their students and postdocs, or their conferences, or maybe just their own book, or long-term stays. If you want to be a theoretical physicist, you better get used to the idea that a big part of your job will consist of asking for money, again and again and again. And then, somebody also has to review these proposals...
You will not be surprised to hear that theoretical physicists do no longer write a lot of letters. I don't know how their email frequency compares to that of the general population, but this touches on one aspect of research in theoretical physics that you read about very, very little on blogs. That is how tightly knit the community really is, and how much people talk to each other and exchange ideas.
At least on the blogs that I read, it's like an unwritten code. You don't blog about conversations with your peers, except possibly under special circumstances (like for an interview). Most of these conversations are considered private and sharing inappropriate, even if confidentiality was not explicitly asked for. I think this is good because there needs to be room for privacy. However, this might give the reader a somewhat distorted picture of what research looks like. It is really a lot about exchanging ideas, it is a lot about asking questions, and about building up on other people's argument. A lot of research is communication with colleagues. So, if you try to catch a taste of theoretical physics from reading blogs, keep in mind that most bloggers will not pull their nonblogging colleagues into a public discussion.
Oh, yes, and in the remaining time - the time not spent on reading papers, sitting in seminars, organizing conferences or writing proposals or reports or blogging - in that time, they think.
If you are considering to become a scientist: Check out this wonderful tumblr site that shows you some photos of real scientists!