Applications: To a department or to a group?

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Applications: To a department or to a group?

Postby 1st2fall » Fri Jul 26, 2013 2:42 am

So I am interested in a few things (perhaps too many) and will be applying to different schools with the intention of working on completely different tasks if accepted. To be a bit more specific: I will apply for Harvard primarily for their Soft Matter group but I will apply to Stanford for HEP-Pheno, etc.

Assuming I have demonstrated interest in the areas to which I'm applying and letters that support these interests (I do, as far as I can tell), is it a good idea to apply to schools in this directed manner? Should I apply more generally?
I am okay with admitting that I'm not sure what I want to do in graduate school, but I have some firm ideas about what directions I might take (and not take)...I would like to write applications that convey that, but I don't want to imply a complete lack of focus. I have three or four main interests, they are just less compatible than they could be.

In general, when you apply to a "competitive" school do you really apply to work with a particular group or to the department as a whole?
I would rather not apply as a strict candidate for HEP *anywhere* even if it's the main draw for a particular school since I don't want to be rejected outright when I would be more than happy to work in another group. Unfortunately, my biggest strengths are I can't really downplay it much.

I've heard of people being accepted into a department and told that they could do anything *but* certain things, or being accepted into particular groups or things like that. I don't have a lot of hard data to sit on, so it's a little confusing to me.

I'll mention that I'm interested in the purer, analytic parts as well as the numerical aspects of theory and I have almost no interest in experimental physics as a career.

I am also unsure how to approach safety schools since I'm not confident I will be able to meaningfully gauge the general content of schools outside the several I'm considering for more specific reasons. I want (need, probably) some safer options outside of remaining at my undergrad institution but I'm having trouble correlating schools that having two or three options for me within my fields of interest that aren't very rich and competitive.

Thoughts? I'm sure my situation isn't terribly uncommon.

I can provide more details and clarification if needed.

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Re: Applications: To a department or to a group?

Postby TakeruK » Fri Jul 26, 2013 12:32 pm

Yes, I think it's fine to apply to a school specifically for a group or research subfield and it's fine to apply to different groups/sub-fields at different schools. However, it is worth it to investigate how each program you're applying to actually works so that you can describe your interests properly. Like you said, if you are interested in X,Y,Z and e.g. School A has X and Y, you might not want to say you're only interested in X and then get rejected when you would have been happy in Y too.

You could contact people at these schools, read their websites, talk to profs/students to find out how the first year works. In many top/competitive programs, all first year students generally are funded by the department (on some sort of fellowship and TAship). So, you generally do not have to pick a specific group or advisor when you are applying and then you have a year to try things out with different people.

If you are only interested in a certain school because of a single subfield (could be more than one group in the subfield) then it's fine to exclusively discuss this interest in your SOP etc. If this is the case, then you wouldn't want to be accepted to this school and have to work on something else anyways. If you are interested in a school for a variety of interests, then you could discuss a couple of them in your SOP. You generally do not have to have an actual thesis project idea in your SOP/application!

Finally, remember that your previous strengths/backgrounds do not dictate where you will end up in grad school. So even though it sounds like your background is mostly in HEP-Pheno, if you want to do Soft Matter, you can still talk about your experience in HEP-Pheno and how this prepares you for your graduate program interests. Research experience, in any field, is valuable, and in the grand scheme of things, the differences between HEP-Pheno and Soft Matter are actually very small -- it's all Physics after all.

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Re: Applications: To a department or to a group?

Postby quizivex » Fri Jul 26, 2013 10:41 pm

1st2fall wrote:is it a good idea to apply to schools in this directed manner? Should I apply more generally?

There can be pros and cons of applying with very specialized interests. There's no universal answer if it is better... it may vary by school depending on how they review applications there, what the budget situation is that year, how many students they have in each subfield already, etc. Unfortunately, you usually won't know these things before applying. Most program websites do not give that much detail.

Since you said you're interested in Harvard and Stanford, I figure you might apply to MIT also... So I want to point out that MIT is a place where the faculty of each subfield review the applications for that subfield on their own, and make their own decisions. It is certainly beneficial (perhaps almost mandatory?) to express interest in a certain subfield and to have past experience in that subfield. I don't have proof of this... I've just read it elsewhere that they recruit students intending them to go into particular labs. (Also, I was rejected by MIT plasma despite being accepted to other top programs. I had no plasma background.) The only hint on the MIT website about this policy is "In addition, any past research experiences are extremely helpful, particularly if they are in the area(s) of the applicant's interest(s)."

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