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How do I find what interests me most for grad school?

  1. Jun 8, 2015 #1
    I feel like most of my fellow students throughout my undergrad have already figured out what they enjoy most, they have their favorite classes based on the content, and the area of physics which seems most interesting to them. I haven't taken a course yet where the content wasn't interesting to me. Sure the professor makes or breaks whether I enjoyed the course itself, but the content has never been an issue for me. Plus I've always gotten similar grades out of any given course for a similar amount of study, nothing has felt much harder or easier. I will have a minor in mathematics and I've done several electrical engineering courses and both seem just as interesting as Physics to me. I've done some research and I enjoyed it well enough, taught some labs and found teaching enjoyable too. Also shadowed some industry jobs and thought they seemed very cool.

    Now that I need my grad applications out by December I am realizing I am really uncertain about what I want to do. For a while I've been considering Medical Physics as my first choice. I like a lot about the career, and I've even done some job shadowing and talking to PHD students and professors, but I still can't tell if it's the right fit for me. It's like I have some kind of mental block that stops me from objectively looking at my skills and interests. It doesn't help that a Bachelors in Physics is such a broad degree that can get me into lots of different grad programs from all the realms of Physics, to Engineering, to Mathematics, to Actuarial Science. I am almost hoping I only get into one school just so I don't have to choose and that's a bad mindset to have.

    I suppose I am more or less asking how to stop being so wishy washy about my future? Perhaps I really just haven't found my niche yet.

    Hearing some stories on how other people decided what to do in grad school might help too.

    Thanks in advance guys, sorry for the ramble.
  2. jcsd
  3. Jun 8, 2015 #2
    What can make or break the fun of research (to me) are the methods used, not really the material in itself. For example, you might do a research on something very cool, but the research involves only computer programming. If you don't like programming, then you will hate this research, otherwise, you will like it (and anything in between). Other methods can consist of doing mathematically very precise things, or it might consist of numerically trying to solve hard differential equations.

    Now, the method used is very dependent on the professor you will work with. So I suggest to take a look at the different professors you might consider working under, and to look at their recent research papers. This might give you an idea whether you like the topics and the methods used.

    It's ok to be undecided though. I was undecided for a very long time, and then decided to pick the wrong field. But I eventually learned to like the field. So I don't know what that means...
  4. Jun 8, 2015 #3
    I'm curious. First of all, how do you know you chose the wrong field?

    Also, if you don't know what you're interested in, is it best to apply to grad school in "general physics", or to convince them that you are really passionate about one thing or another and then wait until you get to grad school to really decide?
  5. Jun 8, 2015 #4
    I have to agree with micromass. The nature of the research can be as important as the topic itself, and I think enjoyment for research is probably the most important thing when deciding what to study in grad school. Even more so than the coursework.

    As an anecdote, I started research as a freshman in a field that sounded really cool but actually ended up being pretty boring. I thought maybe I just wasn't cut out for research. Before giving up, I decided to try out a different field - geophysics. Maybe it isn't the sexiest field, but it involved fieldwork allowing me to travel to the other side of the world and spend lots of time outdoors. It was exactly what I was looking for in research and now I'm totally positive that geophysics is the right field for me, and I'll be starting a PhD in the fall. When you find the right field, you will KNOW.

    Have you done research yet? What did you think about it?
  6. Jun 8, 2015 #5
    So far I've only done Mathematics research, optimization to be specific. I enjoyed the programming aspect, but the actual subject wasn't all that interesting to me. I think I'd really like a chance to try out some of the more hands on aspects of physics like medical, engineering, even geophysics, but I don't know how to get such an opportunity. Maybe I should just come to terms with the fact that it might take me a couple of tries to find the right grad program.
  7. Jun 9, 2015 #6


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    I'm not sure there is a way to figure this out with any certainty.

    From an optimization point of view you're on a Pareto front. You're looking to find a single optimal solution in a scenario where multiple options yield the same objective cost - or at least you have to assume that they do based on your limited experience.

    By broadening your experience you can reduce the uncertainty in each of the options, but that process requires a lot of time and effort, so you are essentially limited to only a couple kicks at the can.

    It sounds like you're on the right track though - talking to people, shadowing, reading up, asking questions... these all increase your understanding of the potential consequences (good and bad) of each route. And that certainly helps.
  8. Jun 9, 2015 #7
    In my case, I picked a field that was really popular and had a really good professor. But after a short while, it turned out I really didn't enjoy the research at all. I couldn't get myself motivated to do anything, and I always spent time reading up on different fields. So I guess that's how you know. I did learn to like the field though...

    I cannot answer this as we don't have the same system as in the US.
  9. Jun 9, 2015 #8
    Thank you for all the replies. I will do my best to narrow it down by continuing to do as much research as possible and talking to as many people as possible. Hopefully I will make a good choice, even if perhaps it isn't the objectively right choice.
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