Apply to interested research or to general physics program?

sullx
Posts: 3
Joined: Sun Oct 25, 2009 10:01 pm

Apply to interested research or to general physics program?

Postby sullx » Sun Oct 25, 2009 10:23 pm

Hello.

I am interested if it is wiser to apply to the specific field I am interested in at a school or to just apply to the physics PHD program with the hope of transferring in to the research I am interested in after I have been accepted.

Is it possible to do this? For example, if I applied for a physics PHD at CU Boulder could I, once accepted, pursue research and a PHD in AMO Physics? Or would I have had to be accepted to that program from the start?

I ask because I have research experience in several fields, but none of which are AMO. If I wanted to do work in AMO as a grad. student should I just apply to that program (even though my research experience has nothing to do with AMO) or should I apply to a more general program or a program that is similar to the research I have done and try to get involved in AMO once I am already accepted?

[Please understand the above situation is purely hypothetical and does not reflect my intentions for graduate school; this scenario could apply to any of the physics fields and schools.]

alkalimetal
Posts: 3
Joined: Thu Jan 08, 2009 6:48 pm

Re: Apply to interested research or to general physics program?

Postby alkalimetal » Mon Oct 26, 2009 12:32 am

Well, in your hypothetical example, you will be applying to CU's physics department in either case; you may (and probably should) specify an interest in AMO if that's what you hope to do there, or you may say that you're undecided as to what research you want to pursue, but it's the same application process either way. I would say this is likely to be the case for most fields/schools.

Many applicants don't really know what they want to study, and many think they know what they want to study but will change their minds as they learn more about other fields; the admissions committees are aware of this, and once you're in no one will care too much what you said you were interested in on your application. (Most people don't start doing research in their first year, and it's up to the individual professor who they accept into their group.) That said, it's a good idea to tell them what you want to do anyway; it helps the admission committee get a rough idea of whether everyone they admit will realistically be able to find an advisor in the field they want (and whether all the professors looking for new students have some potential recruits :).

Your lack of research experience in AMO (or whatever) probably won't be an issue as long as you can discuss the reasons why you're interested in that particular field, and (hopefully) how your prior research experiences have informed this decision.

sullx
Posts: 3
Joined: Sun Oct 25, 2009 10:01 pm

Re: Apply to interested research or to general physics program?

Postby sullx » Tue Oct 27, 2009 6:05 pm

Your lack of research experience in AMO (or whatever) probably won't be an issue as long as you can discuss the reasons why you're interested in that particular field, and (hopefully) how your prior research experiences have informed this decision.


Do you think it would up my odds of acceptance if I applied to a program that matches the research I have done, and then switching, once I am, to the research group I am interested in, even if it is outside of my original intentions?

It seems like I would have a stronger application if I applied to a program for which I have experience, than if I applied to a program to which i have no experience and only interest..

Thoughts?

alkalimetal
Posts: 3
Joined: Thu Jan 08, 2009 6:48 pm

Re: Apply to interested research or to general physics program?

Postby alkalimetal » Sun Nov 22, 2009 11:51 pm

I wouldn't recommend misrepresenting yourself on the application... instead, if I were in your situation, I would use the statement of purpose to highlight the skills you've picked up from whatever it is you did research in and explain why it is you want to change subfields. Certainly it could look a bit odd if you declare an interest that's very different from your undergrad experience, but only if you don't bother explaining the discrepancy.

Let me be a bit more concrete about that advice you quoted: I would be writing things like "My research at the LHC has given me strong troubleshooting and communications skills. [details and examples follow...] Having experienced an environment in which a single experiment has hundreds of collaborators, I now know that I would be happier working on a smaller project like the ones [such and so AMO professors] lead." Or "While my experience working on an astrophysics project has taught me [X and Y transferable skills], I believe my talents would be better used in a more applied field such as AMO.*" People like seeing this kind of self-awareness -- it's a plus when you have concrete explanations for what motivates you, what your talents are and what environments you want to seek out/avoid.

It's possible that you'd have a higher chance of getting into the department if you don't mention your new interest, but that's most likely not in your best interests. If you're set on a specific subfield, and the groups in that subfield don't have room for all the students who want to join, you could find yourself without a research advisor in the subfield you want. At one of the departments I visited, there were at least a dozen prospective students who wanted to do quantum optics, but only two research groups in quantum optics, and neither professor was taking more than one student from my year. Furthermore, in that case they were definitely biased toward students who had prior experience in that subfield. In that situation, how much has it really helped you to get into the department?


*[Edited to add:] Here I'm just trying to give you some examples of the formula I have in mind: [X research experience] taught me [Y skills], which will be useful in my graduate research, but I also learned that [aspect Z] of that field isn't for me, and I would like to work in a field like [AMO or whatever] that isn't Z.




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