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How did you decide on a field for graduate studies?

  1. Dec 27, 2013 #1
    Hi everyone,

    I myself am unsure of what field/program to pursue for grad studies. For sure, want to get a Masters (msc/masc). I feel it is too early for me to decide if I want a PhD, and that decision I could only make after some time doing a masters.

    I've been looking at a lot of different programs for a while now and... I just can't decide!
    There are just too many options in physics alone, let alone non-physics fields (i.e. engineering subfields, applied mathematics, economics & finance, etc...) I mean I have ruled out some (i.e. I dont particularly enjoy Astrophysics) but almost everything is more or less equal. Well I guess that isn't entirely true, as of recently I've been looking more specifically at the following:

    Photonics/ Optics/ Lasers
    Accelerator science
    Material physics / CMP
    Computational electromagnetics (CEM)
    computational fluid dynamics
    Medical physics (Imaging and/or neuroscience)
    Plasma physics

    But this list sometimes changes as my interests in some go up more than others (i mean, just last weak I hadn't considered photonics...)

    I understand this list itself is pretty broad... basically, I'm pretty indecisive and this indecisiveness of mine has been causing me a great deal stress. I've actually considered taking year off in between undergrad and grad school to: (1) think about what field I want pursue, and (2) continue working for my current undergraduate thesis supervisor and improve my programming & researching skills among other things. (i do have interest in scientific computing so this seems tempting currently. Not that I am opposed to any experimental work or anything though)

    Actually, I did want to go into Fusion (I probably sound idealistic but I think it's super cool and necessary for the future), but unfortunately the country I live in (Canada) does not really do Fusion research... and apparently the job prospects from Fusion are very bad all around world. This recent news has sorta got me down. I did consider maybe a broader field like CEM or Plasma to sort of keep my 'foot in the door' to the Fusion world, while still having a fallback (I mean, CEM seems super applicable anywhere). But even that idea... I'm not so sure if its feasible anymore...

    so I kind of rambled up there. Now, I was hoping to hear from any of you, how did you choose a field of graduate studies after a physics undergrad? Were any of you as indecisive as me in choosing a field? if it was in a non physics field (e.g. ECE) how hard was the transition going from a Physics background to that field?

    Also, as a side, would my idea of taking a 'break' in between undergrad and graduate school be a bad idea? As I mentioned, i'd continue working for my current undergrad thesis supervisor (which is field of medical physics)...would I be at a disadvantage in applying to a non-medical physics field after the gap year?

    Thanks for all input! looking forward to all of your stories! (and advice)! :)
  2. jcsd
  3. Dec 27, 2013 #2


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    You wrote a lot of stuff, but you left out a lot of important information. For example, at what level are you currently at, and at what institution will you be enrolling? The latter is important, because what you CAN do will be dictated by what type of expertise is available at that institution!

    Secondly, you also have a lot of misinformation here, such as this:



    In fact, both U. of Toronto and U. of Alberta have collaborations with ITER!

    I think you need to double check your facts.

  4. Dec 27, 2013 #3

    Thanks for the reply. I'm currently in my 4th year of undergrad in Honors physics. I've been looking at most Canadian universities such as Toronto, McMaster, Western, UBC, McGill, Waterloo... These institutions all have, save a couple, the fields I mentioned in the list.

    and my misinformation about fusion.... actually I did talk to the professor at Toronto about fusion. He was the one who dissuaded me from going into it. I did not know about the other groups though,(looks like I can't google that well), I'll have to contact someone at each one
  5. Dec 27, 2013 #4


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    I think the decision for everyone involves a little serendipity. And it might help to know that you may actually be in a position where you're chosing between several good options - as a opposed to a situation where there is an absolute right and wrong choice.

    You figure it out by exploring, taking advantage of the opportunities that you have, and weighing up the practical aspects of each choice that are important to you - to the best that you can evaluate them.

    I started out in graduate school (MSc) working in plasma physics (in inertial confinement fusion, in Canada, oddly enough). That was mostly the result of a random walk. I had really wanted to go into astrophysics at the time, but got talking to a professor who was looking for a student in plasma and somehow convinced myself that I was interested in the area. After a couple of years, I was moderately successful, but I wasn't passionate about the area to that extent that you need to be if you want to pursue a PhD.

    During that time I developed an interest in medical physics, stongly influenced by a post-doctoral researcher friend of mine who was also interested in the field. I began attending and looking forward to weekly medical physics seminars at the local hospital. I was in the fortunate position that my school had a strong medical physics program that hosted such things. I also began to think about the realities of my future and really liked the professional aspects of medical physics (a balance between clinical and academic responsibilities, employment opportunities, salary, etc.) and the notion that it seemed like very fulfilling work.

    I started talking with a few of the local medical physicists, both about their careers in general and what their research interests were. I vistied another school/program and fairly soon I had a pretty clear idea of what a PhD project might look like.

    Anyway, that's how it worked for me. Hopefully you can get something useful out of that.
  6. Dec 27, 2013 #5
    Choppy hit the nail on the head. I started out as one of those guys who wanted to do cosmology/particle theory what have you but in looking for lab work I got a brilliant opportunity with biophysics. I'm still an undergrad but there's a good chance I'll enter into that field, which is vastly different from what I initially thought I wanted to do.

    Try out various things, and see what opportunities arise!
  7. Dec 27, 2013 #6
    I am still an undergrad but I was unsure about what I wanted to do until this past summer. For me, research has helped guide my interests. Have you done any undergrad research? If so, what field(s) and what did you like/dislike about it?

    I did biophysics research for 3 semesters and felt pretty down about it. I'm fairly outdoorsy and realized I didn't like sitting in front of the computer modeling cells all day every day. I wanted the opportunity to do fieldwork outdoors, travel, and work on large scale phenomena as opposed to cellular/molecular level. This led me to do a geophysics REU and I absolutely loved it. In my opinion, the nature of the research is just as important as the topic itself.
  8. Dec 27, 2013 #7
    Thanks for the replies everyone!

    @ Choppy
    I suppose you're right. Even I know it should be serendipitous to an extent but I guess I haven't fully internalized that. (hence the indecisiveness). If you don't mind, could you tell me which school you did the ICF masters in? Also how was the change going from Plasma to Medical Physics?

    What specific area of biophysics have you worked in and interests you the most? I just realized most of the schools I have in mind have a bunch of faculty doing biophysics research so I might look into that.

    I've done some undergrad research. It was in astrophysics and I didn't particularly find it engaging (but realized I kinda like scientific computing, so I got that out of it!).
    Thanks for bringing up the out doorsy part. Now that I think about it, I didn't like always sitting at a desk 8 hours a day, the field work of geophysics seems pretty appealing now... It might be too late for me to get undergrad experience in this however as I'm already in my final year :/
  9. Dec 28, 2013 #8
    Biophysics is a hot topic for a lot of reasons. I currently work in computational biophysics, and have only ever worked in this superbranch. The subbranch I'm into is solvent dynamics around macromolecules, although the lab in particular studies membrane proteins. I'm basically developing an algorithmic tool which can be used to study a huge range of different systems; I've applied it to enzymes and am now applying this to a transporter. It has a broad range of applications. If I were to concentrate on the function of a particular type of protein, it would have to be transport proteins, since they are extremely versatile, being involved in every system of the body; some projects I've worked on are related to important problems in neuroscience, while others have more to do with the reproductive aspects of cell function.

    So far, my work has involved forays into computational science in general, with lots of talks on various algorithms and schemes for getting the most out of that precious computer time. I have done a decent amount of programming and working with Unix. I have never worked in an experimental lab, but I feel quite a bit like how I imagine an experimenter feels; I run the "experiment" (simulation) of the system of interest, and then analyze its behavior in a very direct way, while keeping the theoretical underpinnings of the process at the back of my mind. I have interacted a bit with the theory side though; there are interesting open problems involving the proper approximation schemes to use for say, large ions such as calcium, and I think such a focused project could be enjoyable. I don't know much about the actual experimental side, but some labs do stuff like x-ray crystallography which is very similar to what you would do if you were studying non-biological samples.
  10. Dec 28, 2013 #9
    Realizing what it is you don't like is just as important! It's also good to understand WHY you didn't like it. This could help you avoid similar things in other fields you might be interested in.

    That was actually what lured me into geophysics in the first place. It really is a unique aspect that probably isn't found in any other field of physics.

    As far as seeing if it's a good fit for you, yes that's unfortunate. As for preparation for grad programs, the good thing about geophysics is that grad schools are more interested in your physics background than geology and they can teach you the geo stuff as you go. They know that many (if not most) people don't find out about geophysics until later in their undergraduate careers.

    Anyway, my general advice would be to think about what you WANT from research. Forget about the exact topic for a second and think about other important things such as the skills that you want to gain, the nature of the research you want to be doing (computational, experimental, observational, a combination?), whether or not fieldwork is important. And of course career goals; Do you think you'll want to move into more of an engineering position in the future? Then do something more experimental in nature, etc...
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