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Programs Choosing a specialization (Physics PhD)

  1. Jul 20, 2008 #1
    Hello all,

    I've been lurking on the forums for awhile, and have finally decided to seek your help with a question I've been battling with.

    These days, it seems to be good at anything you must be very specialized - a student can no longer just study physics, but must choose astrophysics, plasma physics, quantum, GR, high energy, condensed matter, etc. etc. And at least at my university, the undergraduate level offers very few courses in the specifics above and instead prepares you in the fundamentals needed to begin studying any of the specialties (as it should). My dilemma comes from the fact that graduate programs (at least from my understanding of the admissions process) expect you to have a specific field of physics you wish to pursue upon sending an application. So, as a student who has virtually no experience in the majority of the fields above, how can I go about choosing a specialty?

    I've attempted to expose myself to introductory texts and articles on the variety of subjects, yet I come to the dilemma that the intro texts either grossly oversimplify things, or in each they present them so well that I see the beauty in each branch and again have no indication of one that appeals to me more than the others. It's quite a dilemma, you can see.

    So I bring it to you, dear Physics Forum, in an attempt to solicit advice on a few points:

    One, if anyone can recommend books, articles, forum posts, etc. that could lead me to a better understanding of the problems involved with each field, I would be immensely grateful.

    Two, if anyone can offer advice on the flexibility of one's field of study upon entry into a graduate program, again it would be most helpful.

    And three, I am more than open to hearing anyone's personal opinion on which field is most interesting. Not that I'll take it to heart or anything of that nature, but it's always interesting to hear what people think about the various fields.

    And just as a note: I am not interested in hearing which fields are 'harder' than the others. I'm not undertaking graduate study in physics because it's easy, after all. Nor do I care much whether it leads to better career opportunities. I'd pursue engineering if a higher salary was my main drive (not to imply that is why engineers choose that path).

    Thank you in advance for all of your help and advice.
    -- Jeff
     
  2. jcsd
  3. Jul 20, 2008 #2

    Choppy

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    Hi Jeff,

    Not all prorams expect you to declare your field of study on entering. Where I went to school we were offered admission from the faculty of graduate studies and research in conjunction with the physics department. Basically for the first semmester we were expected to speak with potential supervisors through the department and pick a project/supervisor while we were doing coursework. There were of course many students who knew on entry where they wanted to go.

    I might recommend you start browsing journals like Physics Today, or Nature, as they tend to present much more broadly oriented articles.

    Something else you might want to consider as well are the types of problems you enjoy working on. Lab work? Computer simulations? Pure math? A combination? This might help narrow your focus.

    And one extra point - you can always get out if you start something and realize its not what you wanted. Generally the earlier you figure this out the better, but it's not unheard of for a graduate student to switch projects.
     
  4. Jul 20, 2008 #3
    Thanks Choppy - as an undergrad research assistant, I've been doing a fair amount of computational work. However, I feel much more drawn towards the mathematical and theoretical aspect of physics. Thus far, I've gotten very little exposure to the experimental side of things, though I'm hoping to change that this fall.

    And I think I will take you up on that advice and start looking through Physics Today... I'd been worrying myself with the basics of each field rather than looking at the work being done in them today, so maybe that will help.
     
  5. Jul 20, 2008 #4

    Dr Transport

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    If you are looking at a graduate department just for the prestige of it, then you may not be happy with it unless you are going after a certain faculty member to work with.

    Try looking at programs where there is a little breadth and can maybe bounce back and forth between a couple of areas before deciding on a PhD topic. Take a look at departments where there is a balance between theory and experiment in an area or two you might be interested in. For example, where I earned my PhD we had an optics group, astro-physics group and plasma group with a couple of oneses twoses working in other areas who collaborated. I started in optics earning a masters in applied experimental optics. For my PhD I hooked up with the two condensed matter theorists who had little if any interaction with the others.

    The long and short of it is if you decide on a specialty and apply before finding anything out about the department or work, you might be miserable and looking to transfer in less than a year.
     
  6. Jul 20, 2008 #5

    Vanadium 50

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    You can kind of see why they ask this on applications. Partly it's to avoid this:

    "I want to spend the next six, maybe more, years of my life studying a particular aspect of physics"
    "Great - which one?"
    "Uh...dunno".

    Also, the department is usually trying to achieve some sort of balance. If they have enough support for three people who want to study thin films, they may admit four or even five people who express an interest, but they won't admit twelve.

    That said, it's certainly not binding.

    One thing you should certainly do, both at your undergraduate and graduate institutions is to attend the departmental colloquia. This is where you'll find out what research is going on and maybe find something interesting.
     
  7. Jul 20, 2008 #6
    I've been having the same problem, and most of my friends are the same way. We graduate this coming year and have no idea what we want to do. I'm lucky in that I found a lot of research to do, so I'm getting an idea of what a few different fields are about.

    I've been told that the reason grad schools make you declare some sort of specialization before you enter is so that you have something to do.

    i.e. so that you don't decide you want to do something that's already full and have nothing left to do. You can definitely switch your specialization or "group" you work with after you get there, but just make sure there is enough room for you.
     
  8. Jul 21, 2008 #7

    Andy Resnick

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    Many Departments aim to be a 'center of excellence' in some aspect of research- astrophysics, soft condensed matter, optical design, etc. So, if you are applying to (for example) the Universty of Arizona, it could be reasonably assumed that the reason you are applying is for quality of the department in optics/astronomy. If that's not the case, the admission committee will wonder why they should give you a slot rather than to someone who in fact *is* interested in their strengths.

    That said, there's almost always room in a Department for a bright eager student who shows promise. The first couple of years of graduate school are mostly general classes, same as undergraduate. Having a desire to master *some* aspect of physics, to make a contribution towards solving *some* useful problem is more important than deciding what that aspect and problem are at this point (for you).

    In terms of flexibility, again it's entirely up to you. This is your career and your life- I've seen entirely too many people thoughtlessly head to the brightest lab, hoping some magic would rub off and enable their own research careers, only to see them fall away because they never took ownership of the problem they were trying to solve- their advisor simply gave them something to do. Ditto for chasing the trendy topic du jour- what's trendy now won't be in 6 years, just in time for you to graduate.

    My experience is that by starting with a question rather than a specific technique is the key to maintaining a viable research program. For example, rather than characterize my research as "optical probes of matter", I say "I'm trying to understand the glass transition", or "I'm trying to understand how macroscopic properties arise from microscopic properties".
     
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