Could undergraduate string theory research backfire on me when applying to graduate school?

hermitcrab47
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Joined: Thu May 21, 2015 10:59 pm

Could undergraduate string theory research backfire on me when applying to graduate school?

Postby hermitcrab47 » Mon Apr 25, 2016 9:13 pm

I'm about to start an undergraduate research project with a string theorist. It occurred to me though, that despite the initial "wow" factor from an undergraduate working with string theory, some graduate schools (especially the more experimental ones) might not want to accept me since they might think that I would be expecting to be guaranteed to do research in string theory at their school, or that I wouldn't want to get involved in anything else. What are your thoughts on this?

DarklordoftheSUSY
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Joined: Mon Feb 08, 2016 12:47 am

Re: Could undergraduate string theory research backfire on me when applying to graduate school?

Postby DarklordoftheSUSY » Thu Apr 28, 2016 7:59 pm

It actually DID backfire for me. I made the mistake of investing most of my spare time into string theory research. I ended up getting a thesis out of it, and hopefully a publication will follow shortly. Problem is that grad schools don't admit on wow factor. They admit on the ability to contribute to their already pre-existing research groups. Because my research was so unique, I am quite literally ground zero for this line of work which makes me a "research mismatch" for every school out there. I ironically ended up with research internships with NASA and AFRL, aced coursework on nuclear and particle theory in Italian during an exchange with the University of Bologna, and string theory undergrad research, but a clean sweep of rejections to graduate school.

TakeTwo
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Joined: Fri Apr 29, 2016 10:57 pm

Re: Could undergraduate string theory research backfire on me when applying to graduate school?

Postby TakeTwo » Fri Apr 29, 2016 11:25 pm

Don't listen to darklordofthesusy: Graduate schools do not expect you to continue the same research that you did in undergrad. That stuff is to help you figure out what you do and don't like. In all of my visits, the schools made that explicitly clear to us.

Now if you say that you only want to do one type of research and the school doesn't have it, then there's a problem. Do what research you WANT to do in undergrad and when you apply mention what specific research you're interested in at that school.

TakeruK
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Joined: Mon Jan 02, 2012 3:05 pm

Re: Could undergraduate string theory research backfire on me when applying to graduate school?

Postby TakeruK » Sat Apr 30, 2016 12:31 am

I think both DarklordoftheSUSY and hermitcrab47 have good advice and their experiences are important to learn from.

As DarklordoftheSUSY's experience shows, if you cannot show how your interest fits into the department, it will be very unlikely to get you in.

But as hermitcrab47 rightly points out, no one expects you to do the same research in undergrad as grad school. To be honest, undergrad research is pretty shallow and you're not going to be an expert in your subfield even if you do your thesis on it. So, it's not like if you did an undergrad thesis in X that you would have an advantage over other students who is starting grad school for the first time in X.

Undergrad research is the time to learn basic research skills that you can apply to all types of projects in all fields. It's also the time to experiment and try things that interest you.

So, ultimately, my advice to you is that if you are interested in string theory (or if that's your best opportunity right now) then take it and run with it. When you apply to grad school, you can just make sure to explain to them what you really want to work on and if that's not string theory, it's no problem. Also, if you are a junior or younger, you probably can have research experience in other fields before you start.

In undergrad, I worked 8 months on a cosmology project. Then 8 months in medical physics. Then a senior thesis on asteroids. My masters was in planet formation and my PhD thesis is on extrasolar planets. None of the grad schools I applied to expected me to be wanting to work on the same stuff I did before and in fact, some of them mentioned to me that they were especially interested in my application because of the diverse skillset I picked up from multiple research projects.

bfollinprm
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Joined: Sat Nov 07, 2009 11:44 am

Re: Could undergraduate string theory research backfire on me when applying to graduate school?

Postby bfollinprm » Mon Sep 26, 2016 2:23 pm

The most important thing will be to make sure if you express an interest in String Theory, that the school has a string theory group that is taking students (that will mean contacting the professor(s). Outside of the traditional big schools you've probably already heard about, the list of active string theory groups includes (from memory) UC's Santa Barbara and Davis (our group--called QMAP--is now huge following 4 hires), UVA, and U Penn. Be aware that most string theory groups take 0-2 students at the same time, with 2 reserved for when the second student is stellar.

For other schools, you just need to talk up your interest in research in general--a lot of the same mathematics is necessary for CMT as string theory, for instance, so that's an avenue to explore connections with. It's even fine to say that you're sick of string theory and want to work in a biophysics wet lab. But whatever you decide, you need to have a good reason for it.




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