At a Crossroads Between STEM Majors (narrowing interests)

In summary, the speaker is an undergraduate chemical engineering student who is at a crossroads in their career path. They were originally planning on going into industry after graduation, but a recent research project and conference has sparked their interest in pursuing a research-oriented career path and potentially going to grad school. They are struggling to narrow their interests, particularly in the areas of math, physics, and organic chemistry. They are seeking advice on how to narrow their interests and potential career pathways to explore. The conversation also includes suggestions for finding overlap between their interests and advice on staying in the same department for their undergraduate and graduate studies.
  • #1
discochicken2000
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Hey all,
Long time forum lurker here. There's a lot on my mind, but I will do my best to keep it concise:

I'm an undergrad chemical engineering student, just starting my junior year. I have found myself at somewhat of a crossroads concerning my career pathway:
Originally, my plan was to finish a 4 year degree and go straight into industry. Recently, however, I have become very interested in research and academia. Last week I was able to attend a conference out of state to present an organic synthesis research project, and it has seriously shaken up my outlook/plans. I now am very strongly considering going to grad school/pursuing some kind of research-oriented career path.

Furthermore, I have been struggling to narrow my interests. I absolutely adore math (specifically calculus & differential equations) and physics. I have also found that I have a strong interest in organic chemistry, however, which does not seem to have much overlap with the former. Chemical engineering seemed like a great middle ground when I planned on going into industry, but now that I am questioning that, I am not quite sure. It seems like most peoples' interests narrow as they complete more schooling, but mine only seem to have broadened, and I feel a bit lost in terms of what direction to take.

Any advice on specific pathways to investigate, or simply on how to narrow/focus my interests, would be greatly appreciated.

Thanks & cheers!
 
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  • #2
discochicken2000 said:
Furthermore, I have been struggling to narrow my interests. I absolutely adore math (specifically calculus & differential equations) and physics. I have also found that I have a strong interest in organic chemistry, however, which does not seem to have much overlap with the former.
There are possible overlaps. There are branches of physics such as chemical physics, polymer physics, and materials physics that would blend well with organic chemistry. Pick one science as a major, and concentrate your electives in the other.

My interests were in materials, which is a highly interdisciplinary field. I was particularly interested in the physics of single crystals, and also in growing single crystals. I majored in physics (undergrad and grad), with a PhD concentration in solid-state physics. I took undergrad and grad electives in materials science and engineering. My PhD advisor was actually a chemist, but he held joint appointments in the physics department and materials science and engineering department.
 
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  • #3
discochicken2000
I began my freshman year in the Chemical Engineering program but loved math and physics also. Lucky for me, my university had an Engineering Physics program.
From: https://ephx.ku.edu/#:~:text=The program offers a B.S.,Engineering Accreditation Commission of ABET.
KU's Engineering Physics program is jointly administered through the School of Engineering and the Department of Physics and Astronomy in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. If you love science, math and engineering, this is the place for you.
 
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CrysPhys said:
There are possible overlaps. There are branches of physics such as chemical physics, polymer physics, and materials physics that would blend well with organic chemistry. Pick one science as a major, and concentrate your electives in the other.

My interests were in materials, which is a highly interdisciplinary field. I was particularly interested in the physics of single crystals, and also in growing single crystals. I majored in physics (undergrad and grad), with a PhD concentration in solid-state physics. I took undergrad and grad electives in materials science and engineering. My PhD advisor was actually a chemist, but he held joint appointments in the physics department and materials science and engineering department.
Thanks for the very helpful advice. I am looking into my university's Chemistry BS with a Chemical Physics emphasis (perhaps I'd try to minor in physics as well, in order to gain more exposure to upper division physics classes?). I'm also looking into physics undergrad degrees, but my school does not seem to have many chemistry oriented options. I'm going to talk with an advisor from each department this week.

How important is it to stay in the undergrad department which I plan to go to grad school for? I.e. in engineering, it is very common to switch disciplines between undergrad and grad (chemical -> mechanical, etc). I would imagine this is not as much the case when going between departments (e.g. chemistry and physics)?
 
  • #5
discochicken2000 said:
Thanks for the very helpful advice. I am looking into my university's Chemistry BS with a Chemical Physics emphasis (perhaps I'd try to minor in physics as well, in order to gain more exposure to upper division physics classes?). I'm also looking into physics undergrad degrees, but my school does not seem to have many chemistry oriented options. I'm going to talk with an advisor from each department this week.

How important is it to stay in the undergrad department which I plan to go to grad school for? I.e. in engineering, it is very common to switch disciplines between undergrad and grad (chemical -> mechanical, etc). I would imagine this is not as much the case when going between departments (e.g. chemistry and physics)?
* Just my personal opinion, but I've never seen the value of an official minor vs taking the electives that you want. [Not sure I understand what you wrote correctly; but if your school requires declaration of a minor to enroll in advanced courses, that's a different story.]

* How easy it's to switch depends very much on what you're switching from and what you're switching to. And also depends very much on the electives you've taken. As I mentioned, when I was an undergrad, I majored in physics, but took most of my electives in materials science and engineering, including an undergrad research project. I could easily have switched to a PhD program in materials science and engineering. In fact, my advisor for my undergrad research in that dept really wanted me to do my PhD with him.

* One option is to look for interdisciplinary grad programs that admit students with different undergrad majors. For example, there are universities that offer an interdisciplinary PhD program in chemical physics, jointly administered by the physics and chemistry departments. If you have an undergrad degree in physics, you apply through the physics department. If you have deficiencies in chemistry, the program is structured to allow you to make them up early in the program. Similarly, if you have an undergrad degree in chemistry, you apply through the chemistry department. If you have deficiencies in physics, the program is structured to allow you to make them up early in the program.

* Not sure how that would work with a chemical engineering undergrad degree, though. In your first post, you mentioned that you were just "starting your junior year". So you should look into some suitable PhD programs for what their undergrad course requirements are, and plan accordingly (e.g., you might have to consider whether an extra semester would place you in stronger standing).
 
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I'm seeing more and more quantum chemistry programs that seem like they might be an interdisciplinary melding of your interests.
 
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