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How important is potential advisers' research?

  1. Apr 11, 2015 #1
    It's almost April 15 and I am currently choosing between schools that seem to have a perfect inverse correlation between a) correlation between my research interests and the schools (though I am still somewhat undecided at the moment) and b) niceness of location. I can see how a potential experimental graduate student would benefit from having the necessary equipment available for his research but, in general, how closely should a potential adviser's research be to your own interests?

    Professor X studies quantum error correction. At which point on the following list would my interests be too far out to consider him a potential adviser?
    1. Quantum Error Correction
    2. Quantum Algorithms
    3. Decoherence Theory
    4. Social Network Theory
    5. Condensed Matter Theory
    6. Anthropology
  2. jcsd
  3. Apr 11, 2015 #2
    I'm actually in the same boat as you. Choosing between schools and such.

    Unfortunately, this question has a crappy answer. How far is too far? ONLY you can decide that. How far are you willing to go from your primary interest. Chances are if the subject is within the same realm, then you can still enjoy it. There is also the fact (fact) that people rarely work on the same subject as their dissertation.

    Compromise is the name of the game here.
  4. Apr 11, 2015 #3
    It's not so much the issue of how far am I willing to go as it is how far can my adviser's research be from me without me having to sacrifice my interests.

    If I had my heart set on quantum error correction, optimally I'd like to find an adviser doing quantum error correction. I could probably get away with doing other research in the field of quantum algorithms if that's what I wanted to do but I would probably have to find another adviser if I wanted to do condensed matter theory. So before deciding whether or not to make sacrifices, I'd like to figure out how significant those sacrifices are going to be (best case scenario, I can do the same thing at every school but with more or less detached advisers; worst case scenario, I'm stuck doing whatever research is currently being done at the school I choose).

    It would, of course, be easier if I knew exactly what I wanted to do.
  5. Apr 11, 2015 #4
    Strictly in terms of your ranking, condensed matter theory is very very different than quantum error correction. With quantum computing, if the adviser doesn't have "quantum computing" somewhere on the lab website then I'd seriously question working with them for the 4+ years of research.

    There is also the option of going with a school that has the variety. This is especially valuable when you don't know exactly what you want. This is what I'm doing. There is school where a potential adviser is doing EXACTLY what I want to do at this moment but they expect major competition for the position in their lab. Taking this into account, I'm opting for the school that has multiple faculty working in very similar areas. Going through the many required faculty seminars, I'm sure I'll latch onto someone's work and relate it to my overall goals.
    Last edited: Apr 11, 2015
  6. Apr 11, 2015 #5
    Therein lies the problem- the school that has the most variety is the school that I'd least like to attend (with respect to location). Of course, going back to my original question, depending on how detached from your adviser's research you can get with your own, variety may or may not matter as much.
  7. Apr 11, 2015 #6
    I was going through the same problem: school with perfect research fit is in a less than desirable location (Manhattan and I'm not a city person...). I eventually made my decision to attend based strictly on research interest. After all, that is what you're going to grad school for - to do research. Not to live in a particular place. Especially if you're interested in staying in academia, your PhD research topic might determine the rest of your career.

    However, it's also important to be happy, so make sure you can survive in which ever city you choose.
  8. Apr 11, 2015 #7


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    There is a large component of putting-the-cart-before-the-horse here.

    1. How do you know that you'll even get admitted to that school? (Not sure if by "choosing" means you already have admission letters to those schools).

    2. How do you know that you'll even pass the qualifying exam (if this is a school in the US) to continue on in the graduate program?

    3. How do you know that that professor will even take you on when you ask to join his group?

    4. How do you know that he will have funding to support you by the time you are ready to start your research?

    I can understand putting maybe one or two carts in front of the horse, because one has to do a little bit of long-term planning. But when you have THAT many in front of the horse, it makes for a bit of a random speculation here.

  9. Apr 11, 2015 #8
    I was under the impression that OP has already received offers from these schools and is now trying to decide which one to accept. Who are you addressing?
  10. Apr 11, 2015 #9
    Yes, I have received admissions decisions, visited the schools, and am now making the inevitable school choice before the fast-approaching acceptance deadline.

    It is my understanding that most graduate students do pass the qualifying exam, so that's not something I'm particularly worried about. As for professors and funding, I'm not looking at any specific professor but rather all the potential advisers at each school (there was discussion about which professors were looking for new graduate students and which weren't at the open houses). My primary concern at the moment is to what extent I will be stuck doing whatever research is being done at each school versus being able to branch out into other areas. If I wanted to study quantum error correction, for instance, would it be at all possible to pursue this at a school without any explicit quantum error correction research being done but with professors who were researching, say, other areas of theoretical quantum information?
  11. Apr 13, 2015 #10


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    The research you do as a graduate student should be closely related to what your supervisor is working on/has expertise in. Anything else will simply not work. You are are to a large extent there to learn from your supervisor, and that only works if he/she knows and understands the field.
    The one exception to this "rule" is if there is someone else in the group you can work with (e..g a post-doc) who can be your "unofficial" supervisor of everything related to the actual physics; your "formal" supervisor can then take overall responsibility but doesn't need to be involved in the day-to-day work. This is quite often the case in large groups.

    Don't make the mistake of overestimating the amount of autonomy you will have as a PhD student. Your will (hopefully) gradually become more independent as your project progresses, but at least for the first half of the project you will need a LOT of help and support from your supervisor.
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