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Choose "safety" research area, or more risky at a top school

  • Thread starter Dishsoap
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Greetings all,

Just thought I'd hear you out on a decision I'm trying to make before applying to graduate school this fall, however going to keep it vague so it doesn't come around to bite me in the butt.

I did an REU in physics sub-field A at a school which is #1 in the nation for sub-field B. The professor I worked with there I expect will write me an excellent LoR, and told me that my admission was pretty much guaranteed if I applied to sub-field A. However, sub-field A was something that was interesting, but not what I want to go to graduate school for, of this I'm sure.

On the contrary, sub-field B is my main research interest; I'll be applying to all other grad schools specifying sub-field B, and I am a coauthor on four publications in sub-field B (one first author, the rest all in phys rev). I will have three excellent LoRs from three different research groups (my university, a national lab internship supervisor, and the REU prof). I have a 4.0 GPA, but coming from a smaller school where many courses aren't taught until last semester senior year, my GRE score will not be spectacular.

My question is this: seeing as I'd really like to (of course) go to the top school for sub-field B but have a low chance of admission unless I apply to sub-field A, what do I do?

I have discussed this with the professor both at the school where I did the REU, and also at the university I attend now. The general consensus is that I should apply for sub-field A, and then switch to sub-field B. However, the only way I will be attending this school is if I get an NSF fellowship to adjust for the extremely high cost of living there, and if that's the case, I will begin research as soon as possible, probably with the group I did the REU with. So I will have to switch after doing research with them for a significant amount of time, which seems somewhat unethical to me. Thoughts?
 

Bystander

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Choppy

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However, sub-field A was something that was interesting, but not what I want to go to graduate school for, of this I'm sure.
This statement is what stands out for me.

If you're sure that you do not want to do it, I wouldn't apply for it. Counting on transferring fields is risky because there's no guarantee that you'll be able to do it and there is the potential to burn bridges in the process.

Aim for where you really want to be.
 
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If you want to do research for subfield B, then apply for subfield B.
 

Meir Achuz

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Your subfield is not usually that important in getting admitted to graduate school. Go with the field you like, or you may get locked into something else. What you do as a UG does not have to be continued into graduate school.
 

radium

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List both of the fields, a lot of the time they ask for a few options. What is the subfield you want to switch to?
For publications is actually quite impressive, especially if you are first author. That is actually pretty rare among all undergrads and would make you very competitive anywhere. When I won the NSF they specifically mentioned in the reports that I had a first author paper in a very prestigious journal as an undergrad.
 
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You don't feel good about it --- blessings from strangers are going to help?
I am just curious if switching is a common practice. I have asked my professors, but they entered graduate school ~40 years ago. My university also does not have a graduate program in physics, so my access to people with experience on this is pretty limited.

List both of the fields, a lot of the time they ask for a few options. What is the subfield you want to switch to?
For publications is actually quite impressive, especially if you are first author. That is actually pretty rare among all undergrads and would make you very competitive anywhere. When I won the NSF they specifically mentioned in the reports that I had a first author paper in a very prestigious journal as an undergrad.
Ideally, I'd like to stay in the sub-field I did my undergrad education in. And yes, I do have a first-author paper, but it is not in a well-known journal (Computer Physics Communications), and it was as a freshman; since then, I have not had one, not sure if this looks bad or not. And yes, my application looks good now, but my pGRE score will be the killer. Overall, I'm not a very strong applicant for the school I'd like to go to unless I switch sub-fields (from AMO to biophysics).
 

radium

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You definitely don't need a first author publication to get into a great grad school, it's just something that makes your application stand out. Plenty of people at the top schools have not had first author papers or even lower author papers (although they have very impressive research experience overall).

Ok so if AMO is the subfield you want I assume you are talking about Boulder. If this is true, you really should apply for AMO since I imagine it could be quite difficult to switch. Also, intending to switch to AMO once you get there can be viewed as getting in through the back door. Don't do this for grad school, you need to be more confident.

Also, if you have already done an REU at the school, they will probably recognize your application when you apply. Many schools use their REUs to identify people they would want to accept to their grad program, so this may give you a big advantage.
 
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Definitely apply for sub field B. Most grad school websites I've seen explicitly say they base admissions partly off subfield and whether or not there are available spots in your chosen subfield. If you tried to switch, you may find that it's not always possible.
 

radium

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Everyone wants to AMO at Boulder so I imagine there are few spots. It's definitely more competitive than the other experimental sub fields.
 
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Everyone wants to AMO at Boulder so I imagine there are few spots. It's definitely more competitive than the other experimental sub fields.
Precisely. I will have a decent application, but when they will have probably hundreds of applicants just for the AMO part, I don't stand a chance.
 
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If you have a good application but they'd still turn you down because so many people are applying to AMO, then why would it be possible to switch into AMO if you go there for a different subfield? Just a thought. I would think if they could support more AMO students, they'd let more in.
 
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If you have a good application but they'd still turn you down because so many people are applying to AMO, then why would it be possible to switch into AMO if you go there for a different subfield? Just a thought. I would think if they could support more AMO students, they'd let more in.
A valid point.
 

radium

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Have you asked someone their opinion? It is a great idea to ask your recommenders where you should apply one because they have a good idea where you will fit given your abilities and two this can also give you an idea of what kind of letter they will write you. If a professor is telling you to aim really high, it means they will be writing a letter to help you get there.
 
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If you like and want to do B, do B.
If you prefer B it means that you're most surely going to work harder at attaining that position than you would with A, hence the "difficulty" in getting in B would become the same as getting in A with less work and less dedication, in my opinion.
 

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