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Admissions Experience in HEP won't help me?

  1. Mar 18, 2016 #1
    Hi there,

    I'm a junior in undergrad, and so far I've had a summer of research experience at an REU, just started research at my current school in December, and am doing another REU this summer. I'm a transfer student and at my previous school there were literally no research opportunities except in fields I know I have no interest in (biology/neuroscience). My lack of research experience there probably led me to being accepted at my first REU, which was in materials science (nanoscale optics). I learned a lot from that REU, and realized that while I don't like working in a chemistry lab, I was very interested in the theory behind certain AMO topics, and at the time, also preferred working with the electronics required such as microcontrollers and C++ programming.

    My programming interest led me to starting work in an experimental HEP group at my current university after I transferred. This was great because I'm doing a lot of coding work. However, I'm still interested in materials, and actually not quite interested in hardware/engineering. At the same time, I'm interested in doing theory in graduate school (I'm really interested in the actual physics and math more than hands-on work, though I like programming).

    I've thought about it, and I would probably consider pursuing something like AMO or CM theory.
    My issue is that my school has no real opportunities in fields of physics that concern materials (AMO, CM)--it is actually well known for HEP, so everyone is doing HEP here. However, despite my experience and my desire to do theory in grad, I heard that applying for HEP theory will kill my grad school chances... (And also, I'm not sure if it's my top interest, as I mentioned before.) In any case, I don't feel very confident that all my research experience in HEP will actually help me out when applying to grad school.

    My REU this summer is also in HEP (didn't get into any non-particle physics ones that interested me), where I will be learning neutrino physics and ROOT. I actually do feel like it will be fun, and I will be able to contribute a lot to the project with my current HEP knowledge (meaning a potential great letter of rec), but basically my issue is... I feel like, through circumstance, I'm being funneled through to HEP, even though I want to do theory in grad school (and probably not in HEP).

    I've been working hard to try to get into the best grad school I can... Do grad schools weigh relevant research experience heavily? Not sure if I should do whatever it takes to switch to materials or even some mathematical physics/theory research work now, or continue with HEP-Ex and become more of a "heavy-hitter" undergrad (and maybe even just apply to HEP-Ex for grad--but I know I would probably just want to "switch" to theory).
  2. jcsd
  3. Mar 18, 2016 #2


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    Staff: Mentor

    The most important things about undergraduate research are that (a) it shows you what research is really like, so you can decide whether you really want to do it after all, (b) it gives your supervisors a chance to evaluate your abilities and promise for research and write letters of recommendation for you accordingly, and (c) it gives you a taste of some particular field. It doesn't commit you to doing your PhD research in that field.

    You'll have experience in two different fields, and hopefully good letters of recommendation from your supervisors in both. I think that will count for a lot in your grad school applications, regardless of which field you actually end up applying for. And even after starting grad school, people change their minds about their research field. I thought I was going to do low-temperature physics, and ended up doing my PhD in experimental neutrino physics. Another guy who did low-temperature stuff with me during the first summer of grad school ended up doing his PhD in plasma physics and fusion.
  4. Mar 18, 2016 #3
    Research experience is research experience. I say this as an undergrad who did work in (all computational) AMO, biophysics, and nuclear physics, and just got into a great grad school for experimental condensed matter. They didn't seem to care a bit. HEP might be an exception just because the environment in HEP can be different than other groups (working in groups of hundreds, and not just a few, for instance), but just do work in whatever you can.
  5. Mar 18, 2016 #4


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    I think your performance in undergrad research is more important than the subfield. Skills from different subfields are often transferable and many people change subfields in grad school anyway. A lot of people applying to grad school for theory never did theory research in undergrad. A lot of the HET people had experience in HEP-ex.
  6. Mar 19, 2016 #5
    Thanks for the replies. I agree that the experience is what's important. I'm thankful that I have opportunities to get some experience, but at the same time, I feel like I could possibly switch to a field that's a better fit now rather than later.

    @jtbell The thing is, I would rather not plan to make a switch after I'm accepted, because I'm not sure how I'd get through the application process if I'm not completely into what I'm applying for.

    @Dishsoap @radium My concern is the fact that skills involved in HEP work actually don't seem very transferable. The hardware work is more like electrical engineering, and programs like ROOT aren't used at all outside of HEP. If I were applying to HET for grad I can see how being familiar with how things go in experiments helps, but I'm not planning on applying for HET.

    I'd be interested in computational or mathematical type research work, but there seems to be this big split in HEP where HET is very out of reach mathematically for an undergrad to be able to contribute (compared to other fields of physics), but HEP-Ex work barely even requires any math (which bothers me a little as a physics/math double major), and because it's for an experiment, the coding tends more towards hardware construction/simulation/testing or data analysis rather than physics modeling. I'm a bit more curious about the latter.

    On the other hand, I'm also not so keen on making a switch or moving around a lot because more familiarity with a project would allow for better recommendations and project results. I guess I'm not sure what I should weigh more heavily here.
    Last edited: Mar 19, 2016
  7. Mar 19, 2016 #6


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    Staff: Mentor

    When I applied to grad schools, I didn't formally apply for specific fields, but just indicated my interests IIRC. I did my undergraduate at a small college that had only a limited amount of research, so I really didn't know enough about various fields to be able to state a strong preference. I applied to some large state universities, knowing that they all had a wide range of research which would presumably give me a number of opportunities to choose from. They all accepted me, and I made my choice (Michigan) based on the amount of financial aid and the range of research.

    At that time Michigan had a pot of funds specifically for supporting graduate students for research during their first summer. Students could "try out" a field and research groups could take them on without committing their own funds. Even if you didn't stay with the same group afterwards, it still provided a source for "internal recommendations", so to speak. That was the way it worked out with me. I worked in the low-temperature group during my first summer, and the prof who supervised me saw that I was strongly into programming. (This was back in the days before PCs, when "programming" meant Fortran on the university's mainframe, or on departmental "minicomputers".) He mentioned me to one of his friends/colleagues in the bubble chamber group, who contacted me and asked if I might be interested in working with them. And that's where I ended up, analyzing data on neutrino interactions in Fermilab's 15-foot bubble chamber.

    Disclaimer: I started grad school more than 40 years ago, and students may be more expected now to jump right into their Ph.D. research field. And I wouldn't be surprised if things were different in theory versus experimental work. Others will have to comment on that.
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