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Need guidance about interdisciplinary degrees/programs

  1. Jun 25, 2014 #1


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    Hello all,

    This is my first post here but I read these forums a lot as a lurker. I have a Bachelor's degree in Electronic Engineering and am currently pursuing master's in energy science and engineering from an interdisciplinary department. Based on the electives I have taken, I will be specializing in semiconductor photo-devices (PV cells and PV systems including power plants) and having a minor in galvanic energy conversion and storage devices (batteries/fuel cells etc.). I have also studied to limited extent other forms of renewable energy and solar thermal systems.

    I currently intend to pursue my master's thesis in the fields of electrochemical conversion and storage (materials characterization and device testing). I am quite interested and motivated to pursue this and would like to consider further studies. Currently, I am doing the thesis work at a chemistry department and it is interesting to see the shifts in viewpoint and synergies between physics and chemistry. However, it appears that in fields like this there is no clear distinction between physics, chemistry or even engineering as research seems to be going on in either of the departments. I have had no qualms about studying "extra" (in fact, between my bachelor's and master's I have covered nearly the entire physics undergraduate curriculum except for advanced quantum and statistical mechanics (have studied basic courses in both), nuclear physics and classical mechanics). I have also had minor subjects in chemical thermodynamics, electrochemistry and surface chemistry as electives.

    I wish to study further, but I wish to know if someone of my credentials can apply to chemistry/physics PhD programs because I do not have an outright degree in either of those. It appears most work in semiconductor devices are in physics departments (a little bit in chemistry) and electrochemical work is in chemistry departments (I am currently working in a chemistry department). I *may* be able to manage entrance tests in physics, but not in chemistry as my exposure to chemistry is via physical chemistry (or chemical physics) only. Should I just avoid pursuing work in electrochemical technology altogether? Will doing that "lock" me to chemistry (which is really not my strong suit)?

    I am not sure of the career options I will have or how my resume will be viewed, as by now I have done a huge branch shift from my initial degree in electronic engineering to this. Is multidisciplinary knowledge viewed as a plus in academic community?
  2. jcsd
  3. Jun 25, 2014 #2


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    Welcome to the world of research! It often knows no bounds, and thus the need for interdisciplinary studies.

    My recommendation is that you look into Applied Physics programs (e.g., http://www-applied.physics.lsa.umich.edu/ [Broken]), or else a straight engineering program.

    Often the GRE is the only test requirement; your detailed knowledge is not tested until you take the qualifying exams, usually at the start of the second year. In many cases these are orals, so they will probe your understanding.

    You will also want to decide if your intent is to pursue an academic career, or industry.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 6, 2017
  4. Jun 25, 2014 #3


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    ^Thank you for the response. I don't have qualms about working either in industry or in academia - the main motivation for me is to gain knowledge, money is secondary though I need to have enough to live a somewhat simplistic yet decent life :) . In that sense, I would rather prefer academia as I feel it would benefit me more as I would have more opportunity to keep learning things. I do not mind teaching per se either but I must say I have not had experience of being a TA.

    Can I apply to Chemistry programs as well? And in engineering there again is a split between different departments for this kind of work. I wish to know, if I have published some papers in, for example, a chemical journal, does it not count favourably if I am applying to graduate school in physics (and vice versa)? Or does any and all experience count in such things?

    I am not daunted by the prospect of additional coursework to be honest. I just need to know if I am eligible, because in my country a person of my qualification cannot teach/work in engineering or chemistry but only in physics (so, this extends also to grad schools).

    I do feel that Applied Physics departments would be best for me, however, I also feel such departments seem to be less in number than "pure" science departments.

    I find it extremely interesting to be honest. People often ask me here how I managed to do electrochemical and thermochemical work with my background in Electronics, but nothing is impossible, I just started the coursework from scratch again and did it :) I personally do not find "pure" sciences and strict adherence to any single branch to be stimulating and interesting but greatly find interest in applied and mixed research :)
    Last edited: Jun 25, 2014
  5. Jun 25, 2014 #4
    Insofar as publishing and its effect on graduate admissions, I don't think programs are quite as parochial as in your example. The idea of research experience is that Ph.D. programs can see you have been exposed to substantive scientific research, and not just merely taken coursework. Any sort of reasonable research background in the natural sciences or engineering should demonstrate that fairly well.

    With regards to chemistry Ph.D. programs - at least for those in the U.S., you might face an uphill battle in terms of admission. (My impression for doctoral degrees elsewhere have you knowing your advisor and project when you start, so you're admitted to work with that person in his/her research group). There's generally some expectation you have some exposure/experience in the major areas of chemistry before starting, of which organic chemistry (and, increasingly, biological chemistry nowadays) is included. Based on your description of your experience and education to date, it would seem you don't quite match up well here. While it might be possible to convince a department to admit you provisionally while you demonstrate competence in that area, it is - as I like to say - better to continue being exceptional but not the exception. :)

    My broken record plays again - there are graduate programs in chemical physics where you might be a more likely admit, or perhaps an even better fit for a materials science & engineering program/department, in addition to the applied physics route you've already mentioned.
  6. Jul 7, 2014 #5


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    Thank you for the advice. I will try for Chemical Physics and Applied Physics departments, and put MSE third in that list.
  7. Jul 15, 2014 #6


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    I am sorry to bump this thread, but I would like some further advice.

    I have so far worked on a small project on thermochemical water splitting. It was mostly thermodynamic calculations and I didn't really have an issue doing it. Now, the lab wants me to also work on a lithium ion battery project. While I am interested, there is a small issue based on the preliminary material I have been given to start the work. It appears I do not have the chemistry knowledge required (i.e. I know little about intercalation or bother little about ionic radius ratios, for example), nor do I actually know the chemistry of the lithium ion battery, though I know the physics of it (charge/discharge profiles, conductivity measurements, charge transport phenomena, electrochemical things, series/parallel connections etc.).

    I wish to know if there is any good starting material/textbook anyone can recommend for a quick primer on the basic construction and details of the lithium ion battery that will get me up to speed with the chemistry part of it. While I am quite certain that the group is aware of my background as a mixed engineering/physics grad, I wish to try and self-study as much as possible before the actual start of the project.

    I thank anyone who reads this again.
  8. Jun 14, 2015 #7


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    To conclude this thread, I would like to state that I have gotten admission into a Materials Science Ph.D. program. I thank you all for your guidance and support. :)
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