I majored in Physics and Franklin & Marshall College, and then earned a Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota. My field was, circuitously, quantum optics. Putting the details aside, I was an experimentalist (the other option being a theorist), and I had the great advantage of picking a field (initially nuclear physics) where experiments are small enough that you master the entire experiment, and sophisticated enough that there is a lot to learn. (If you end up in patent law, as I have, that is the best background to have.)
I was lucky enough to end up in a hot field — quantum optics. My thesis work ended up in (it’s a 25 MB download) Physics News in 1986 (see pages S23-24). Even as of 2014, my work is discussed by a Nobel Prize winner (see p. 6 on the “The neglected experiment of Finn and Greenlees.”).
Dang wise words, from the late Martin Perl, discoverer of the tau lepton: “The time scale for physics progress is a century not a decade. There are no decade scale solutions to worries about the rate of progress of fundamental physics knowledge. My advice is (a) study calculus and machine shop in high school and (b) have a long life as advised in the old song by buttoning up your overcoat and eating an apple every day…On the hand, occasional scanning of the obituaries in the New York Times indicates that financiers live longer than physicists, so perhaps start a hedge fund in high school.”
Re the quote, taking calculus in high school changed my life. And I learned machine shop in graduate school. After learning the basics, I said to myself: “Now I know how the real world is built.” Link to Perl’s site (live/static image).
More on Laser spectroscopy & Nuclear power.