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Not sure where my research interests lie in undergrad?

  1. Feb 14, 2015 #1

    I am currently studying astrophysics in my undergrad. I am concerned with the fact that I do not know what field I want to explore during grad school yet. I am in my junior year and will probably finish my undergrad in five years due to double majoring in math as well. I realize I have huge interest in nuclear astrophysics and cosmology. While I currently am conducting research in nuclear astrophysics, I feel I may discover that my interests are in cosmology more. Would switching research interests in my undergrad be detrimental to grad school? I am concerned as some of my fellow classmates are dead set on what they wanted to do since entering university. I did not have this mindset as I wanted to explore my interests and now I feel I have narrowed my interests down to these two areas.
  2. jcsd
  3. Feb 14, 2015 #2


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    Many students go into graduate school only having a very general idea of what they want to focus on for their graduate research. There's nothing at all wrong with switching research interests during undergrad, and in many cases it's even a very good thing. If you've been doing research in area x and ended up sticking with area x because it's what you started with...you may never find out that you like area y even more. It's good to have a broader exposure to the field in general.
  4. Feb 14, 2015 #3


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    You can even change your mind in grad school. I started out thinking I was going to do low-temperature physics, and ended up in experimental particle physics.
  5. Feb 14, 2015 #4


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    How would that work? You spend maybe one year as graduate student, change your mind and you have up to 2 more years to do what you are supposed to need 3 years to do. What happens to time and money? What are the administrative policies or arrangements?
  6. Feb 14, 2015 #5


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    In the US, few grad students finish a Ph.D. in three years!

    For me, the first two years of grad school were mostly coursework. Many grad students (like me) started without having lined up a research topic and advisor in advance. We were generally expected to do this by about the end of the second year. Before that, we worked as teaching assistants if we hadn't yet found someone to do research with.

    During my first summer, I worked for one of the low-temperature professors, because I had been thinking about that field. (The university had a special program to fund summer research following the first year, specifically so students could try out a field before committing to it.) He noticed that I was seriously into programming, and apparently thought my skills in that area might be more useful to one of his colleagues/friends in experimental HEP. The following fall, the HEP guy asked me if I might be interested in working with his group. After talking to a couple of the other grad students in the group, and getting an overview of their research and facilities and what kind of programming work they did, I decided to go with them. I think in the spring, I worked as a mixed teaching/research assistant, and at the beginning of the third year became purely a research assistant. Sometime that year I put together my dissertation committee, did my preliminary exam, and became a Ph.D. candidate.

    Altogether it took me seven years after starting grad school, to finish my Ph.D. I could probably have cut a year off it, but my research group had enough work to do that they didn't mind keeping me around.

    Of course, things probably work differently at different universities, and change over time. I finished my Ph.D. more than thirty years ago.
  7. Feb 14, 2015 #6


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    Not at all.

    One of the points of an undergraduate education is to help you figure out where your specific interests and talents lie. I think a lot of people go into physics because they are inspired by popular science books - A Brief History of Time, Fabric of the Cosmos, etc. But you can't possibly be expected to know what aspects of the field are a good fit for you before you learn about the field. So as you delve beyond the superficial popular concepts and get into the details of physics, your strengths become more apparent and your intersts are fine tuned.

    Sure it's great to have field-specific research experience. It's also great to have an uncle on the adissions committee. But neither are a detriment if you don't have them.
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