Declaring specific sub-field/subject?

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Declaring specific sub-field/subject?

Postby geshi » Tue Dec 15, 2009 6:56 pm

Sadly, this is my second time applying to graduate school, and I still don't understand this concept. On a lot of profiles, people are listing they applied for something (let's say condensed matter experiment). Where exactly do you specify such a thing? In a few of my SOPs, I mentioned some faculty members whose research I find interesting. Does this count? I also remember seeing on some applications where you could select a field of interest. Sometimes I left this blank, but not always. Is this where you specify what sub-field you want to study?

Also, if you specify a field, do they accept you conditionally? Does it really affect how they view your application?

To be perfectly honest, I don't know what I want to study in graduate school. Quantum chaos would be a good field for me, but there's not a lot of that around. So I've been trying to settle for some AMO research involves NLD. I've also mentioned plasma experiment in one of my SOPs. I just don't know how some people know what they wanna study before going to grad school. There's so much physics I've yet to even see. I only audited the condensed matter course at my school because my school won't let you take more than 4.5 credits a semester. My dept also never offered an optics course while I was there.

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Re: Declaring specific sub-field/subject?

Postby dct64xx » Tue Dec 15, 2009 8:11 pm

From what I gather, I think most people talk about that in their SOP. And for those applications that have 'field of interest' sections, people indicate it there too. I don't think it's anything "official", really. As far as I can tell none of the schools hold you to what you write (or what you select on the forms). I think it may affect how they view your application though. From a Cosmic Variance blog post:

Is it true that the standards are different for theorists and experimenters?
Typically, yes, although it might be different from place to place. Because a lot of undergrads haven’t been exposed to a wide range of physics research, a large number of them want to be Richard Feynman or Stephen Hawking or Ed Witten. Which is great, since we need more people like that. But even more, we need really good experimenters. Generally the ratio of applicants to available slots is appreciably larger for theorists than for experimenters, and schools do take this into account. Also, of course, the standards are a little different: GRE’s count more for prospective theorists, and research experience counts more for prospective experimenters. And let’s be honest: many schools will accept more prospective theorists than they can possible find advisors for, in the hopes of steering them into experiment once they arrive.

So should I claim to be interested in experiment, even if I’m not?
No. Think about it: given that schools already tend to accept more students who want to do theory than they can take care of, what are your chances of getting a good advisor if you sneak into a department under false pretenses and have to compete with others who came in with better preparation? It makes much more sense to go someplace where they really want you for who you are, and work hard to flourish once you get there.

Do I need to know exactly what I will specialize in?
Not really, although in certain circumstances it can help. Professors like to know that someone is interested in their own area of research, and might push a little harder to accept someone whose interest overlaps with their work; on the other hand, most people understand that you don’t know everything after three and a half years of being an undergraduate, and it can take time to choose a specialization. In particular, at most American physics departments (unlike other countries and some other disciplines), it is generally not expected that you need to know ahead of time who your advisor will be when you arrive, or which “group” you will work in.

Here's a link to the full article, it's quite good: ... te-school/

I'm in the same boat as you though, I don't really know what area I want to go into. For most of my SOP's I just listed a few fields I might be interested in and a few faculty members whose projects I liked, and said I'm generally interested in theory.

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Re: Declaring specific sub-field/subject?

Postby geshi » Tue Dec 15, 2009 8:58 pm

Wow! Thanks a bunch! That article is incredibly helpful. This does make me feel a lot better about my SOP and the fact that I was usually vague about what I wanted to do. Some schools I might have selected something like NLD if it was an option. I'm relieved to know that all it really does is maybe give you an edge.

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