Materials Science vs. Physics for Grad School

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Materials Science vs. Physics for Grad School

Hello, I'm a new poster here, but have gotten a lot of great stuff out of this forum in the past...

Some questions/thoughts on a Mechanical Engineer pursuing a graduate degree in Materials Science (or Physics...)

I'm interested in optics, specifically electrically/optically active materials as well as semiconductor devices. I want to pursue a graduate degree in order to take my career back in the path of R&D in these fields. I typically interview very well and have probably more "real-world" practical experience than your typical applicant straight out of an undergraduate program, but less in the way of formal academic research experience.

My background:

BS in Mechanical Engineering (University of Delaware, 2008), Magna Cum Laude, 3.86 GPA, Mathematics Minor (extra coursework in PDEs, Linear Algebra)

2008-2010 - 2 years as a Process Engineer in the R&D Dept. at a small private thin-film a-Si startup company (lots of film optimization and processing)

2011 - short stint (~6 months) at a development company spent working on concentrating optics for a solar "dish" style collector project (I left because the company laid everyone off)

2012 - another short stint (~6 months) at an automated welding equipment manufacturer as a mechanical design engineer (This company also went under... I had some bad luck for a while!)

2012-present - Mechanical Design / Project Engineer for a large multinational company, mostly involved with a large government contract through the US Navy (large industrial marine equipment)


I really enjoyed the research I did at the first company right after school, and have recently had to move into more of a "cubicle engineer" position due to some poor luck working for smaller companies which went out of business.

Recs: I know I can at least one, probably two, very good recommendations from PhDs I worked directly with at my first company, as one of these gave me the initial prodding into pursuing graduate school. The third recommendation would most likely be from one of my engineering managers who I worked with in the past few years (also a solid recommendation, but from someone without an academic background).

GRE: I have been studying for the Physics GRE Test to bolster my application as I know my engineering background leaves me with some gaps in what a typical Physics undergraduate student would have formal education in (notably quantum mechanics and Lagrangian & Hamiltonian formalism). I'll take the GRE Subject Test in April, but I expect to do decently well (I've scored in the low- to mid-800's on the available practice tests available under test-type conditions)

I would be interested in pursuing a PhD, but don't know if I would be better off starting in a MS program to "prove myself" or be eventually admitted into a more competitive PhD program. I'd like my research to focus on semiconductors, optics, and electrically active materials. Right now I'm leaning towards applying to several MS programs in Materials Science, and then finding research in the areas of my interest.

Obviously I'd like to apply to the most competitive programs I think I could realistically get into, but at this point, realistically I'm looking at programs that are not the top of the list. Anyone who can give me a better idea of exactly what I should expect would be great.

Is this a good plan? I lean away from a Physics program because I doubt I'd be competitive with those with a stronger Physics undergraduate background.

Is my Mechanical Engineering degree and industry experience way out of line with typical incoming Materials Science graduate students?

Should I apply directly to PhD programs instead? I'm thinking I'd have a better shot at getting into a MS program because I'll be paying for it rather than asking for departmental funding, but if my chances of being admitted directly into a PhD program are better than I think, maybe I should just go for that...

Is there anything else I can do at this point to make myself a better candidate?

Thanks!
 

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