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How to effectively choose a research career?

  1. May 28, 2007 #1
    I have a few questions, but first, some short background for those who don't already know. I'm a first year physics graduate student. I graduated college back in December in physics and math, I start graduate classes this fall, and I'm doing astrophysics research this summer. I'm not entirely sure what field I want to go into (that's where you guys come in), and so I'm using this summer to see if I like astrophysics. However, I'm also thinking about condensed matter physics.

    So last week, my professor called me into his office to talk to me about my long-term career. He talked about some areas of astrophysics I could go into after my two years of classes. Though students don't typically do any research while taking classes, he also asked me to stay in touch with the astro group during the fall, and to come into the lab at least once a week (which I would like to do). This is what got me thinking about what I should be doing to figure out whether I want to do astro or CMP. So I've got a few specific questions for professors, other PhDs, and people who are farther into grad school.

    First, will one summer + one day a week of research in the fall give me an adequate flavor of an entire field, so that I can make sure that this is what I want to do for a living? Or are there any books/people (perhaps posters on PF) that I should be consulting?

    Secondly, how do I go about checking out CMP research? It's highly dissimilar to astro, and since I'm already going to be doing astro research this fall, I can't also join a CMP group. What specific things can I do to get a good idea of what CMP research is like?

    Finally (and perhaps this is the more tricky one), there's a reason that I'm undecided about astro vs. CMP. Astrophysics as a discipline interests me far more than condensed matter physics. I suppose I just don't get too pumped about phonons and hole theory. However, I'd also like to have an experimental career. Basically I'd prefer to spend my days setting up apparatuses and collecting data, and I'd rather not be stuck doing math problems and programming computers all afternoon. I'm told CMP is very hands on. The astro research I'm doing right now is almost entirely programming, but it doesn't bother me, since I'm operating under the assumption that astrophysics professors don't spend all their time writing code. Am I assuming correctly about astrophysics, or is there no room in this field for experimentalists? Any other comments on this?

    Well anyway, I'd be interested in what people have to say. Thanks!
    Last edited: May 29, 2007
  2. jcsd
  3. May 29, 2007 #2

    I can't give you concrete conclusions, but from what I have seen, the field you go into is based on the University you go to for your grad work. You can't study under a CMP group if the University doesn't have one. Also your advisor will play a big role in what type of work you do, theoretical or experimentalist. You clearly have a school picked out, and probably an advisor, either go full swing into what they do, or perhaps look for another advisor. I would also suggest that next summer you find some work in CMP to balanance out your experience.

    Also remember that most experimentalists don't like theorists, and the other way around, so make sure your advisor and committee is of your flavor.

    "If I occasionally neglect to cite a theorist, it's not because I've forgotten, it's probably because I hate hime." -- Leon Lenderman

    CraigD, AMInstP
  4. May 29, 2007 #3
    whoa....harsh. the lederman quote that is. :tongue:

    Honestly, I want to be a mixture of both experimental and theoretical.
  5. May 29, 2007 #4
    Thanks Craig. First I should mention that my school does indeed have active research groups in both CMP and astrophysics (fortunately for me, these are the first and second biggest fields at my school). Also, my professor is an experimentalist, but I think he comes from a high energy background. Is it practical to be an experimental astrophysicist? Or is this a rare phenomenon?

    Also, given that a typical PhD program is five years, would it be possible to do CMP research my first summer to get a feel for the field, and then ultimately switch back to astro for my dissertation? Or is the summer after the first year typically when grad students choose their dissertation topic?
  6. May 29, 2007 #5
    I'm not sure I can comment on the last question, that you would need to talk to the people at your school. But as far as an experimentalist in astrophysics, you would be correct in assuming that there are not a lot of experiments, but that is not to say there are non. Often grouped in astrophysics, but argued to be seperate by many is Astroparticle physics. Astroparticle has more experiments, in school I worked on the RICE experiment located at the south pole, there are quite a few astroparticle experiments down there. I never went, so I was on the programing end of things, but others I had classes with, made the trip and worked on the actual contruction of the telescope.

    On a side note I am building a cloud chamber for fun, but you may look into drift chambers or look at miniBoone for examples of current experiments.

    CraigD, AMInstP
  7. May 29, 2007 #6
    Yes, I am talking to people at my school, such as the current professor directing my research, my first-year advisor, older students, etc. Indeed, they are my first source of information, but the way I see it, it never hurts to get more opinions from other scientists (which is why I'm posting here).

    Anyway, thanks for sharing your experiences. As it so happens, my current area of research is high energy astrophysics, which I suppose would be somewhat related to astroparticle physics.
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