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Specific interests required for graduate school?

  1. Nov 27, 2011 #1
    I got my BS in Physics/Math in May, but left on a 1-2 year bike trip that is delaying my applying to graduate schools. I plan on applying next fall for admittance fall 2013.
    My question is: how necessary is it to have specific research interests when applying to graduate school? I am interested in doing theoretical research, but worked in an experimental cosmology lab all through my undergrad. Most theory seems to require more than a 4-year degree to make it intelligible. So if I can't understand modern research in theory, how can I specify my interests?
    I don't like String Theory, not for any very particular reason, but it has never piqued my interest. The Foundations of QM are very interesting to me, but I'm not sure how much active research there is on the topic.
    So obviously it would be a plus for a grad school application if I could speak intelligently about why I find a specific professor's research at that institution interesting, but is that expected? Or is it normal for theory applicants to not have a clear idea of their specific interests?

  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 28, 2011 #2
    I think that it's normal to not commit to a specific professor's research group in your statement of purpose. It is a good idea to state what your general interests are and why you think you'd be a good fit for that general field. It's probably also a good idea to give examples of professors whose current work is something that you're qualified to eventually be a part of.

    You have plenty of time until your application, so I would suggest that to understand what it is that modern researchers do, that you read the background material they display for the general public and get a very strong feeling for what it is they're doing, even if you don't yet understand how they solve their problems. Some people do know what they're getting into when doing grad school applications, but many don't, so you're not alone.
  4. Nov 28, 2011 #3


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    I read this and thought of Kitt Peak or Mauna Kea - great places for mountain biking.

    Seriously, it's good practice to be familiar with the field in which plans to obtain an advanced degree. One should be browsing the journals to see who's doing what, and where the research is pushing. The MS programs are directed research (one does supervised research often related to what one's faculty advisor is doing), whereas a with a PhD, one is expected to do independent research and contribute to the field. Whenever one can, strike out on one's own research and push the envelope.
  5. Nov 28, 2011 #4
    It's very hard to know what you are getting into until you do it. I tried reading about various branches of math. This left me with an interest in graph theory and logic that I have never had time to pursue, so I don't know if it was worthwhile or not. I feel like you want to try to specialize a lot at the beginning. People talk about the unity of mathematics or physics and how you have to know different topics, but it turned out for me that my thesis only uses a fairly narrow set of tools. Of course, it may be important to know about more than your narrow specialty, but I think if you branch out too much at first, you get information overload. It's easier to retain ideas that are linked together somehow.

    So, I think it's kind of a balancing act. Maybe put your eggs in one basket, but try to take a look at the other baskets to make sure it's the right basket.

    It can be almost impossible to know what you're getting into. Things that seem completely boring and ugly now may become interesting after a couple years of study and vice versa. So, you kind of have to play by ear and go with your gut to some extent, I think.
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