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Other Narrowness of field of research?

  1. Mar 24, 2016 #1

    I'm still a freshman undergraduate, so it's very early to decide what field of physics I will spend most of my time working in. However, I'm wondering how narrow one's research has to be -- for example, is it feasible to do work in both atomic physics and nuclear physics? How about throwing condensed matter into that mix? Does that answer depends on the nature of the research, i.e. theoretical vs. experimental?

    Just realized this probably should have been in career guidance, sorry about that.
  2. jcsd
  3. Mar 24, 2016 #2

    Vanadium 50

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    Whatever you do will be narrow. It might straddle some traditional boundary and be called "interdisciplinary" but it's going to be narrow.
  4. Mar 24, 2016 #3


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    By the time you get to a PhD and beyond, what you'll discover is that in order to contribute valuable research you need a considerable degree of investment in a particular problem. You need to know the basic physics behind it. You need to know what work other people have done on the problem, and what work people are currently doing. You have to understand enough about the problem to be able to convince other people that your approach to it is going to yield a result that is worthwhile. You have to design a scientific approach to the problem, work through it, and revise it (often many times). You have to write up your results and present them.

    All of this, as you might imagine, takes a considerable investment of time and effort. So the more you diversify your efforts, the less progress you'll make on any one problem.

    What tends to happen when people start to do work in multiple areas is that they have gotten very good at a small number of solution types that can be applied to multiple problems in multiple areas. They also collaborate well - contributing a narrow piece of expertise to a problem that requires multiple experts.
  5. Mar 24, 2016 #4
    Well, that's a bummer. How does one usually go about picking a field, then, given that one will not be able to try out the vast majority of fields before choosing?
  6. Mar 25, 2016 #5


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    It's not a trivial thing. I think a lot of people struggle with trying to optimize this kind of problem while being constrained to sample only a few points.

    It helps to read a lot, attend departmental talks, and to talk informally with your professors and graduate students about the projects they are working on. You can also explore through undergraduate research opportunities and senior thesis projects. Usually by about fourth year most students will have an idea of what general direction they want to go in. Sometimes all they've done is eliminate some possibilities and that's okay. I think often as you move through undergrad, you tend to discover certain strengths - some people really enjoy coding, others like hand's on work, etc. Looking for a project that plays to your strengths and what you enjoy tends to be a good strategy.

    And not everyone gets it right the first try. Some people can start working on a PhD project and realize they have no passion for the field they're in. In that case they can usually change projects, if something else is available.
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