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Physics Settling for a different field in grad school...

  1. Jun 9, 2016 #1
    I was wondering if anyone has had any experience in settling for a different field than what their first choice may have been? I am applying to physics grad school this fall, and am torn on which field to apply for. I have to choose between medical physics and high energy.

    On the one hand I enjoy medical physics, have several summers of research in the field, a published paper, and the potential for a highly-relevant thesis in my last upcoming year of undergrad. All-in-all I probably have a strong application ready for what is looking to be a very lucrative field in the future, and could have career options in academia, industry, or clinical.

    On the other hand I have always been very passionate about the field of high energy physics, have wanted to learn about QFT and apply it to current research, and have absolutely loved the mathematics behind it. Now that I approach the end of my degree I am kind of saddened by the prospect of leaving those things behind, as if I let myself down. I recognize that my application for HEP would be considerably weaker (I have 1 grad course in the field and could possibly argue that my research is tangential to particle physics...), and that future prospects are grim, but I still have a nagging feeling in the back of my head.

    Has anyone else experienced something similar? In particular, I want to stress that I'm not "settling" for something I don't like, but that there is just something else that I also like and possibly even moreso.

    tldr; I really like particle physics and am scared I will miss it too much if don't apply to it. Wah...
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  3. Jun 9, 2016 #2


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    I experienced something similar, although maybe the reverse issue. I started by "following my dream". I was very interested in semiconductor lasers ever since my first course in quantum mechanics. After my BS, I got into one of the top optoelectronic EE programs in the country. About two weeks after starting there, the professor who recruited me sat me down in his office and said he was "very successful" in recruiting graduate students that year and I was "free to look around". That hurt, because I guess I was on the lower end of the students he recruited.

    I thought long and hard about it and ended up changing schools and fields back to analog integrated circuit design. I'd had a paper in it as an undergrad, and two summers interning in the field. Quite a bit different from semiconductor lasers but changing was probably the best decision I ever made.

    It turned out, even though I wasn't as excited about analog design at the time, I grew to truly love it in graduate school and am incredibly blessed I get to do it for a career.

    So I guess, translating it to your situation, I went after HEP, got my ass kicked, scurried back to Medical Physics, and am really happy I did.

    By the way, if you're in the USA, HEP is in big-time decline.
  4. Jun 9, 2016 #3


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    If you're not really motivated about the field you'll be pursuing in grad school it will be a difficult slog indeed; on the other hand, given the nature of your current research it will difficult to put together a good application package to get into a good particle physics program, the absence of which may limit research opportunities, job prospects etc.

    Think long and hard before abandoning medical physics. A job and career are very good things and increasingly hard to come by. You can always pursue HEP informally.
  5. Jun 9, 2016 #4


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    I don't agree that your application would be necessarily weaker for HEP than for medical physics, unless you've taken an undergraduate physics stream that was geared towards medical physics and was somehow watered down compared to a regular physics degree. You don't need to have research experience in your chosen field. Sure, it helps. But for the most part, admissions committees are looking for *some* kind of research experience and evidence that you'll be successful if admitted to the graduate program.

    The main issue as I see it is one of choice. You have two fields that you can see advantages in, but you can't do both of them. So the choice is left up to you. One way to make that kind of decision is to apply to multiple places and see where you get in. That will at least make the choice real - at the cost of doubling your application efforts.

    Perhaps if it helps, I am a medical physicist, and I have a lot of friends/acquaintances who got into the field from other areas of physics. I think there's the occasional person who daydreams about doing work in other areas, but for the most part those who left other branches to get into medical physics are happy with the decision.
  6. Jun 9, 2016 #5
    Thank you very much for the anecdotes guys. It's definitely a scary process applying for these things and I think I just needed to hear a few reassurances that the path I've chosen is solid.

    Re: Choppy - Off topic, but are you aware of any areas of active research in medical physics that may be especially "mathematical" in nature? I recently read one of M. Van Herk's papers on deriving margins for the different target volumes and was quite excited by the prospect of him using volume integrals to do it.
  7. Jun 10, 2016 #6


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    The imaging side of medical physics tends to be very math-intensive, at least from my point of view. Look up image reconstruction, filtering, de-noising, deformable image registration, or computer-assisted disease detection and diagnosis, for some examples. There can also be a lot of mathematics in modeling disease progression and response.
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