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Do Grad schools care about your topic of undergrad research

  1. Jul 14, 2011 #1
    Hi everyone,

    So my question is, do grad schools care about the topic of your research when you're an undergrad? I'm interested in high energy/particle theory but obviously I'm not doing research in that since I'm an undergrad. I did a semester's worth of work with the high energy exp group but I didn't get much out of that. Right now I'm part of an optics REU and I'll be working in an ultracold/BEC lab next semester. I find these subjects interesting and the experiences useful, but I doubt I'll be going into these subjects in grad school. I'm not sure if I want to go into HEP theory specifically, but I'm still leaning towards theory.

    On a related note, how do you prepare for HEP theory for grad school? I'm a double major in math and physics and I'm trying to do independent study subjects in advanced topics but are there undergraduates who are doing research in theory? I'd imagine it would be difficult but I suppose you could always do computational work.
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  3. Jul 14, 2011 #2
    Grad schools are interested in people that can handle the course load and that can come up with original contributions. If you did undergrad research and it went well (and your professor can write positively about you), then you've shown you can handle research. That's the only thing the grad schools care about. I don't think they care if it wasn't in any particular field.
  4. Jul 14, 2011 #3


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    To first order, no. What graduate admissions committees are interested in is a demonstrated capacity to make progress on a research project. As a student, you take advantage of the opportunities you have and most committee members are well aware that (a) students don't always have their choice of projects to get involved with, (b) have not decided on any particular path and need the opportunity to explore, or (c) may have realized after working in a particular field that it's not for them.

    To second order, yes it can. Chances are your project mentor will be one of the people you ask for a reference letter. If that person happens to be well known in the field you're trying to get into, it's possible his or her recommendation could carry more weight.

    The second point is far less important than the first. Doing a great job on a project you enjoy will go much further than a mediocre job on a project you don't. And doing something is better than doing nothing at all.
  5. Jul 15, 2011 #4
    It is difficult to find a position doing HEP theory research as an undergrad but they do exist. I'm also a physics/math double major and was able to land a position doing string theory this summer. You may have to look very hard or in unusual places to do so, but there are several other undergrads here also working in HEP theory. For example, I only ended up here since I wanted to do noncommutative geometry (I don't really have much interest in string theory), and it just happened that this professor (who primarily works in noncommutative geometry) was thinking about a problem in string theory related to noncommutative geometry that I could understand.

    EDIT: Independent study in advanced topics is a great idea. I've probably spent an average of an hour or two per day just studying whatever interests me for the past few years, and doing this alongside working very hard in classes I believe is the only reason I've ended up with enough knowledge to work in noncommutative geometry and string theory as an undergrad. Also try to see if you can do a reading course with a professor - I did a reading course on some specialized aspects of mathematical physics with a professor, which led to me working for that professor for a summer, which led to him referring me to the professor I'm working for now. So, you get to learn topics you are truly interested in and do some valuable networking.
    Last edited: Jul 15, 2011
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