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Finding a Research Area

  1. Sep 7, 2013 #1
    Hello PF community,

    My name is Charlie Johnson. I just graduated from Stanford where I did a B.S. in Engineering Physics. I am studying for the Physics GRE and planning to apply to PhD programs this Fall. I have many interests both in and outside of school, and so I find it difficult to choose a research area.

    I spent one summer doing nanofabrication, one summer programming, and one summer doing Terahertz research. I liked the Terahertz research because I had more independence compared to my nanofab research, where I was more of an assistant.

    I am considering either trying out Atomic, Molecular, and Optical physics, mostly because it is new and exciting and involves lasers. I like that it has the potential to test novel physics. On the other hand, as a person I am very passionate about the environment and energy issues, so I am also potentially interested in nanoscience to study something along the lines of energy storage and conversion.

    This leads me to two questions. 1. Should I apply for Physics or Applied Physics PhD programs? My sense is that it is harder to get into Physics programs, so I am leaning towards applying to AP, at least at places like Stanford, Cal, and Harvard. Will either one limit my flexibility to find a research advisor?

    2. What should I say about my research interests in my applications? I am weary of sounding too unfocused about my interests, even though it is probably true. How much flexibility will I have to explore when I arrive at a grad school? My understanding is that you can fit in 2-3 lab rotations in the first year, but is it a bad idea to explore vastly different areas in lab rotations?

    Any advice on this general question would be much appreciated. I love science, and I want to feel that my work has meaning, but I also love to understand things in a fundamental way.
  2. jcsd
  3. Sep 7, 2013 #2


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    You might want to spend a little more time exploring your interests.


    You may have a hard time with just browsing through journal articles, but look for review articles, look through journals like Physics Today or Nature.

    In my opinion, it's best to select a program based on the specific project or area that you're interested in, rather that the reputation of the program or whether it's considered "applied physics" or not (this label is likely to vary from school to school). You don't have to have the details of the project spelled out, but if you take a hard look at the stuff that you've most enjoyed reading about, and combine that with the experiences you've had, then usually some vague picture of where you want to go starts to form.

    It is quite possible to have more than one interest too. In such cases apply to both and then make a choice from the opportunities that present themselves.

    For what it's worth, the degree of flexibility can vary from school to school. In my experience you spend your first year on course work and really don't have to have a project selected until summer rolls around.
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