Switching from Nuclear Engineering to Physics

In summary: I want to be prepared for that.In summary, I am trying to find out what people think about me trying to do physics phD, and how I can improve my chances.The person is an expert summarizer of content. They wrote a summary of the conversation for us.In summary, the person is an expert in nuclear engineering and they are trying to figure out what to do next. They are concerned that they might not be viewed as an attractive candidate for a physics PhD because they did not focus on research in nuclear engineering. They suggest that you do a master in physics first to make yourself more attractive to the admission committee. They also suggest
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(It became really long as I wrote, so I put my main questions at the bottom, so you can skip to it if you want)

Hi guys,

I got BS and MS in Nuclear Engineering. Research for undergrad, I did intern/design class at Argonne running monte-carlo simulation, so modelling neutronics and burnup of a reactor. Research for master, I ran simulations for experiment facility which is down-size scaled version of a nuclear safety design(decay heat removal), so mostly related to fluid dynamics and heat transfer. I graduated on 2015, and I had to do my mandatory military service for 2 years for my country after graduation. And now, I want to go to do phD in physics instead, and wanted to hear some opinions from more people.

I took GRE general and physics subject test(got 860 but maybe will take one more time to get something above 900) and TOEFL, didn’t contact yet but have a good list of people to ask for recomendation letters, above 3.5/4.0 gpa, so at least I have the minimun requirement for application. But I am having trouble on where to apply(I’m not even sure what level that I am at, so not sure where to set my bottom limit for the safety schools), and picking subfield. I know it’s not the ranking of the school, but finding professor who I’d really want to work with(which I have few now), but as a stranger in the field of physics and does not know anoyone who are deeply involved in physics research, it is hard to even find out which professor does what kind of research, so at least I want to avoid I get rejected everywhere I apply. Like only applying to princeton, mit, harvard, stanford kind of top schools wouldn’t be very wise, even if they have plenty of professors I’d want to work with.

I’ve been searching around, and I think I am mostly interested in particle or high energy phenomenology, especially with dark matter and/or topics related to QCD. I also found some numerical stuffs related to lattice QCD and some astro stuffs like neutrinos and plasma(Not interested in fusion energy side of plasma btw) interesting. But I don’t think I have a very good idea about all those topics yet, so I think I’d have to try them out when I get into grad school, and then I’ll be sure what I want to do.

Now what worries me is that, as I said before, I focused more on fluid and heat transfer in my master, so maybe I won’t be viewed as an attractive candidate for those field to the admission committee. I did double majored in physics for undergrad, and so I took most of the core courses, like classical mechanics, EM, quantum, plasma(plasma was an overlap class in between NE and physics), so hopefully this helps me a bit. I don’t really have any change to hae research related to what I am interested at this moment, so the only way that I can think of to make myself more attractive candidate to the admission committee would be trying to get 990 in physics gre.

So, this is where I’m at. I now know I want to do physics, which is good that I figured out what I really want to do, but not sure what’s the opportuity that I currently have and where I can proceed from here. I’ll summurize myself a bit:

1. Do you think it is practical for an NE major to get into physics phD program, possibly in HEP phenomenology? Or actually, as an undecided in subfield? I want to choose after I actually study and get involved in each subfields.

2. What can I do to increase my chance to get into physics phD program? Maybe I should do a master in physics first, but most of the programs I found say they don’t take masters, they just take phD students.

3. Any suggestion on good school or professor that I can look up for?

If you have any opinion or suggestion that will be really helpful. If you see anything that I am thinking it wrong, please point it out, so I can fix it. Thanks a lot for reading all this.

In addition, if you ask what kind of career I am looking for, I’m thinking career as a researcher of some kind, hopefully professor because I like teaching too, but doesn’t matter even if I can’t be one as long as I can do research somewhere. Then I realized I won’t be that happy doing research in nuclear engineering(my advisor told me once I should be happy about the topic so I can voluntarily do research 12hours a day if I want to do phD), so I want to go into the world of physics. Some will say there will be more opportunities in engineering, but I’ll go for something I like.
 
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A lot depends on the quality and reputation of your BS and MS granting institutions and the quality of your recommendation letters. A BS from West Point and an MS from GA Tech would put you in a stronger position than lower ranked schools.

The specific courses on your transcript already also play an important role as people reviewing your application consider your chances at passing their PhD qualification exams in a reasonable time. If your BS is from a school where Nuclear Engineering is in the same department as Physics and you took most of the standard undergrad physics courses, you're likely in better shape than if your transcript is more specialized Nuclear Engineering courses without post-intro courses in E&M (two semesters), Classical Mechanics, Statistical Mechanics, and Quantum Mechanics (two semesters).

Even if we had all the information that would included on your application (transcripts, recommendation letters, test scores, research history), assessing your potential when applying to graduate school is an inexact science. A GRE and GPAs from unknown schools is much less to work with. One approach might be to put together an extended resume (or short CV) and email it to potential graduate research supervisors. Silence is hard to interpret. But if they email you back and express interest, you are not aiming too high. For those who don't email you back, you can try and contact the graduate students on the interesting projects.
 
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Likes Jjo5

1. What prompted you to switch from nuclear engineering to physics?

I realized that my interest and passion lie more in the fundamental principles and theories of physics, rather than the practical applications of nuclear engineering. I wanted to delve deeper into the mathematical and theoretical aspects of the physical world.

2. Is there a significant difference between the two fields?

While both fields involve the study of matter and energy, there are some key differences. Nuclear engineering focuses on the design, development, and operation of nuclear systems, while physics explores the fundamental laws and principles that govern the behavior of matter and energy.

3. What skills from your background in nuclear engineering are transferable to physics?

As a nuclear engineer, I developed strong skills in mathematics, problem-solving, and critical thinking. These skills are highly applicable to physics, as both fields require a strong foundation in mathematical concepts and the ability to analyze and interpret data.

4. Are there any challenges you faced in transitioning to physics?

One of the main challenges I faced was adjusting to the different focus and approach in the two fields. In nuclear engineering, the emphasis is on practical applications and engineering principles, whereas in physics, the focus is on theoretical concepts and mathematical models. It took some time for me to adapt to this change, but I found it to be a rewarding experience.

5. What career opportunities are available for someone with a background in both nuclear engineering and physics?

Having knowledge and skills in both fields can open up a variety of career opportunities. Some possible career paths include research and development in the field of nuclear physics, working in the energy sector, or pursuing a career in academia as a professor or researcher.

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