How much does one's undergraduate field of research matter?

In summary: I think your chances are good. However, if you're only a sophomore and you're just getting started, you may want to focus on doing research that is related to your eventual PhD field.I think my best option is to stay with my current lab and try to get a paper published asap (I think the paper might end up in an engineering journal), and then try to find a theory lab in my junior year once I have taken more higher level courses. However, I want to know how much less competitive this would make me relative to others if I apply for a theoretical field for grad school. Right now my GPA is great, but I'm rather worried about research.In summary, it
  • #1
I am currently an undergraduate sophomore at a US university that is very reputable for physics. I am majoring in physics, and would like to one day attend grad school, so I tried to start research early and was able to find a research position this fall semester. I emailed a couple of theory and computational labs, but they were all either fully occupied or just didn't want me, so I ended up joining an applied physics (quantum computing) lab, although the research I'm doing isn't completely related to quantum computing. I was able to get enough research done this semester that my supervisor said that I may be able to get a paper out soon, although I'm not sure how soon.

My question is, how important is it for my field of undergraduate research (applied engineering physics / quantum information) to be related to the field that I want to pursue in graduate school? I'm not completely sure which field I want to pursue as of right now, but I'm considering pursuing HEP-TH or astrophysics (which I know are extremely competitive), but I'm definitely open to other fields as well.

If I decide to stay with my current lab for another semester or two and leave halfway through my junior year to go search for a theory lab that is willing to accept me, I don't think I would have time to get much research done in the theory lab before I apply for grad school.

However, if I leave my current lab right now to find a theory lab, I think I'd be wasting the opportunity I have at my current lab to possibly put out a paper soon, and I'd also be wasting an opportunity for a letter of recommendation (although this might not actually be such a loss since my supervisor oversees forty undergrads so their recommendation probably won't be that detailed). Additionally, I'm not sure if theory labs would be willing to accept me since I'm only a sophomore (The most advanced class I've taken so far is intro to quantum).

I think my best option is to stay with my current lab and try to get a paper published asap (I think the paper might end up in an engineering journal), and then try to find a theory lab in my junior year once I have taken more higher level courses. However, I want to know how much less competitive this would make me relative to others if I apply for a theoretical field for grad school. Right now my GPA is great, but I'm rather worried about research.
 
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  • #2
IMO, undergraduate research is (or should be) mainly about learning the research process, developing practical skills, getting exposure to different fields if possible, and allowing your research supervisors to get to know you and your work so that they can write effective letters of recommendation for you. If you can also get a head start on your eventual PhD dissertation field, I would consider that a bonus.

You may end up changing your mind about your PhD field along the way. When I started grad school, I was aiming for low-temperature physics. I ended up in experimental neutrino physics.
 
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  • #3
What do you think your job in a "theory lab" would look like? I am curious.
Your inclusion of research is a good idea. Its quality (and your contributions to it and the team) are far more important than the subject as is the recommendation of the principal You cannot and will not be expected to be expert with an undergraduates degree. You need most to broaden your knowledge of parts of physics that interest you and get to know people who are good at it, both at your school and beyond. Make use of the freedom that is afforded you every day. If you are good, the opportunities will appear for the next step.
 
  • #4
Welcome to PhysicsForums. :smile:
JoblessAndSad said:
I am currently an undergraduate sophomore at a US university that is very reputable for physics. I am majoring in physics, and would like to one day attend grad school,
So I have to ask, why did you choose that username? Did you have trouble finding summer jobs out of high school, or do you already anticipate having trouble finding employment after university?

1609461622504.png
 
  • #5
There are lots of reasons why undergraduates may not have experience in the field they want to pursue in graduate school. These include both limited opportunities, or simply not knowing that they even have an interest in a particular area, or having interests in multiple areas, but only being able to choose one or two.

What tends to be important to graduate admissions committees is what you've done with the opportunities you've had. If you've got glowing letters of recommendation and publications in reputable journals, no one is going to dismiss your application because the topic wasn't directly related to what you're applying for in graduate school (at least within reason). In fact, sometimes a little outside expertise can be seen as an advantage because it means you're bringing a different skill set and point of view to the table.
 
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  • #6
berkeman said:
Welcome to PhysicsForums. :smile:

So I have to ask, why did you choose that username? Did you have trouble finding summer jobs out of high school, or do you already anticipate having trouble finding employment after university?

View attachment 275437
Na, I chose this username as a joke/meme (I hope I didn't offend anyone). Hopefully majoring in physics doesn't leave me jobless in the future though! :smile:
 
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  • #7
hutchphd said:
What do you think your job in a "theory lab" would look like? I am curious.
Your inclusion of research is a good idea. Its quality (and your contributions to it and the team) are far more important than the subject as is the recommendation of the principal You cannot and will not be expected to be expert with an undergraduates degree. You need most to broaden your knowledge of parts of physics that interest you and get to know people who are good at it, both at your school and beyond. Make use of the freedom that is afforded you every day. If you are good, the opportunities will appear for the next step.

Frankly, I'm not sure what undergrads do in "theory labs": I feel like it'll mostly be code and maybe some math/theory.
 
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  • #8
Thanks for the advice everyone! I think I'll stick with my current lab since I do think the research I am doing there is pretty interesting, although I do want to explore other labs later on in junior year, especially HEP or cosmology if any of those labs at my uni is willing to take me in.
 
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  • #9
Also, I was wondering if anyone has any advice on how I should notify my current supervisor when I decide to switch to a new lab? I don't want to look like a jerk since I will probably need a letter of recommendation from them in the future. Thanks!
 
  • #10
Usually it's good to commit to a specific end goal and come to a mutual agreement on what that should be. You mentioned something about getting a paper published--that's a nice way to tie up a project.

Be up front and tell your supervisor that you're thankful for the opportunities, but that you want to gain some experience in other fields. You won't be the first undergrad student who wants to play the field.
 
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  • #11
Choppy said:
There are lots of reasons why undergraduates may not have experience in the field they want to pursue in graduate school. These include both limited opportunities, or simply not knowing that they even have an interest in a particular area, or having interests in multiple areas, but only being able to choose one or two.

What tends to be important to graduate admissions committees is what you've done with the opportunities you've had. If you've got glowing letters of recommendation and publications in reputable journals, no one is going to dismiss your application because the topic wasn't directly related to what you're applying for in graduate school (at least within reason). In fact, sometimes a little outside expertise can be seen as an advantage because it means you're bringing a different skill set and point of view to the table.

Choppy said what I was thinking much better than I could.
 
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