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Problems to find a PhD in physics because of specialized topics

  1. Oct 26, 2014 #1
    Hello, I hope my title is clear enough but I will detail my problems below.

    I am interested in almost everything aspects of physics (theoretical, fundamental, applied, experimental, not against some numerical simulations too...) and almost every field too. I have more background in quantum physics, condensed matter physics and nanotechnologies, so I have no intention to apply for cosmology PhD for example.

    But even with a restriction to nanotechnology and condensed matter physics, there seem to exist infinite subfields extremely specialized. So I have mainly two problems:

    1) I truly do not know what to choose and what I should write in motivation letters because for every PhD offer I must find a different motivation which I am not sure myself about. Thus I cannot answer questions during an interview such as: "Why do you want to apply for this position and not another in related field?" (e.g. cold ions versus cavity quantum electrodynamics for applications in quantum computing...)

    2) I feel I don't have the background for anything, that there will be another candidate to fit better the position (I did several little projects on very different topics but no big projects very specialized so far). Should I read a lot on the topics before applying and mention it on my CV even if I will have no proof that I understood the books or scientific papers? And for experimental positions, is it possible to succeed without previous experience? (one cannot trully learn experimental physics with books some months before going on a PhD project)

    I have a master degree in applied/engineering physics.

    Thank you in advance for any answer, if people have already met this situation.
  2. jcsd
  3. Oct 26, 2014 #2


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    Typically that is not a big issue, especially in the US where a master degree is not required to start a PhD. Where should the research experience come from?

    If you want to see many fields at once, experimental particle physics could be interesting. The whole chain of hardware component development, testing, integration, detector construction, readout systems, data analysis, simulation of physics and the detector and finally the physics analyses - it is all done by the same groups. No one works on all parts, but it is typical to work on more than one project, with close collaboration with several others.
  4. Oct 26, 2014 #3
    Ok thank you for your answer. It would probably be in Europe rather than the USA. Here, I usually see that a master degree is required and experience research (in the field) is very welcome. But your message gives me some hope that it is possible to start from "nothing".

    I take note of your suggestion, it seems interesting because you are not doing the same thing all the time, or just listen to instructions and apply them without thinking.

    Now, lots of questions come to my mind...

    Do you know if it is possible to do both theoretical and experimental work during a PhD? Or is it too much work for a single person?

    In fact, for me, the ideal scientist would be developping theories and then set up experiments himself (or with his group) but I usually see very distinct groups: one working on theory, the other (at the other side of the world) working on the experimental part.

    I am afraid to be "stuck" to a single field and a single aspect (in the optimistic case where I would be accepted to a PhD project in the first place of course). Does it happen quite often that after experimental PhD one goes to theoretical post-doc or vice-versa?

    I also would like some challenge but before trying I do not know if I will be able to provide nice insights for research. Should I take the risk? I think I am clever but I have never been involved in very challenging projects probing the limits of human knowlege... I think that's what would motivate me the most (more than a specific field or the experimental/theoretical aspect of the project), but I cannot know a priori if I am done for that.
  5. Oct 26, 2014 #4


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    I'm from Europe, too, but most here are from the US so that is my standard assumption.
    Experience in the field is always very welcome, but for a PhD position it does not have to be too specialized.
    A PhD student should learn to do independent research - your supervisor will tell you how to start, and help you when you get stuck, but in the long run the goal is research without constant help.
    Those two are not always separated. You can even get a PhD in experimental physics without touching an actual experiment.

    That rarely works. Maybe in completely new fields. Otherwise it is just impossible to know all the details of everything.
    Multiple aspects are possible, but even then the aspects will be small parts of the whole system of the corresponding field.
    At least in particle physics, I think theory->experiment is more frequent than the other direction, but both directions are not so common.
    Hmm.. you can try to find some smaller project to start. Summer student positions are for students without a master, but there could be something similar for you, no idea.
  6. Nov 16, 2014 #5
    Hello, thank you again for your answer. I have another question related to the fact that I am not very specialized.

    For an interview or a skype interview, what should I plan to say? Are there typical questions? I am afraid they will ask me what I can bring to the group that another candidate would not have. But I don't really see what to answer to such questions. Obviously, someone who has done his master thesis in exactly the same field has already proven that he can do research in the same area when this is not my case.

    So have you ever been in the same situation or oppositely, for professors, interviewing candidates who seemed motivated but with less background?
  7. Nov 17, 2014 #6


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    "Why did you choose this group / this research area to apply" is always a standard question, and can be hard to answer as there are many similar groups around.
    Experience in fields X,Y,... and the methods used there. Often things are invented in multiple areas in parallel, not always with the best results everywhere. A concept used in field X might help in field Z where the scientists are simply not aware of that.
  8. Nov 17, 2014 #7


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    there's a difference between applying for a PhD position and applying for a job.

    When you're applying for a job, you're marketing yourself as a set of skills that employers can make use of to accomplish their goals.

    As a student, you're applying for a learning/training position. You want to convince the admissions committee that you're going to be successful within their program, not that you necessarily bring more experience to the position than anyone else. When I've spoken with potential graduate students in the past (always informally, an interview is not part of the admissions process where I'm at) I've looked for evidence that the students understand what they're getting into. Have they researched our program? Do they know what we're working on? Have they thought about what project they might want to work on? What type of work would they like to do? What kinds of problems are they interested in? And then I have to assess whether those interests align with stuff that our group is working on, and with expertise that I have.

    Questions such as "why do you want to come here and not someplace else" can be answered by focusing in "what attracted you to this program." No one is going to expect you to have a single interest mindset or to start trashing other programs. In fact it's evan fair to say things like "this is one of a number of programs that I think would be a good fit for me, but I really like this city/campus/ I would be closer to home/etc."
  9. Nov 17, 2014 #8
    I think you should at least be able to describe some of the papers you've bumped into during your research from group x vs. group y, every professor I'm currently talking to I've been able to start a conversation about their work as it relates to what I've done or what I'm interested in, which seems to be greatly improving my odds of getting in where I'd like to go.
  10. Nov 18, 2014 #9
    Thanks, this clarifies a lot my mind for the interviews. But I have a problem: in any field, I do not understand most of the publications, only the general idea sometimes. For example, in theoretical physics, I understand that a physicist is trying to expand a theory to explain new phenomena but usually I get lost after the abstract. Because they are refering to a lot of previous works in the same field that I don't know.

    So do you think it is possible to do a PhD on a field where one is a beginner? For example, if I only read a brief introductory course on the topic... This is the case for all the PhD scholarship I have applied so far. I can tell I am interested in a topic because it seems appealing (it is based on a theory I like for example) but I am not really able at the present time to understand the details of the articles.
  11. Nov 19, 2014 #10
    It's possible, but your ability to get into programs of your choice with advisers of your choice will be greatly improved if you can actually communicate with them, from what I know.
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