Changing concentrations once in graduate school

  • As many already know, studying for the physics GRE and getting accepted into a graduate program is not the final hurdle in your physics career.
  • There are many issues current physics graduate students face such as studying for their qualifier, deciding upon a field of research, choosing an advisor, being an effective teaching assistant, trying to have a social life, navigating department politics, dealing with stress, utilizing financial aid, etc.

asymp_tote99
Posts: 3
Joined: Fri Oct 26, 2018 3:22 pm

Changing concentrations once in graduate school

Postby asymp_tote99 » Wed Jul 24, 2019 11:38 pm

Hey People!
I was wondering how easy it is to change the concentration once you're in grad school. So for example, if I apply as CMT, and then later try to switch to HEP-Th, will this even be possible. I'm assuming it is kinda hard at the top tier universities, but does anyone have a rough idea of what the scenarios could be like?
Also, itd be great if you could explain how this works at your home institution, how easy it is to switch between sub-fields once in graduate school.

Thank you!
Cheerss!

kronotsky
Posts: 27
Joined: Thu Nov 01, 2018 10:29 pm

Re: Changing concentrations once in graduate school

Postby kronotsky » Thu Jul 25, 2019 12:44 am

asymp_tote99 wrote:Hey People!
I was wondering how easy it is to change the concentration once you're in grad school. So for example, if I apply as CMT, and then later try to switch to HEP-Th, will this even be possible. I'm assuming it is kinda hard at the top tier universities, but does anyone have a rough idea of what the scenarios could be like?
Also, itd be great if you could explain how this works at your home institution, how easy it is to switch between sub-fields once in graduate school.

Thank you!
Cheerss!


It depends a lot on you and your background, and every school does it differently. Ultimately, it is at the discretion of the department what you are allowed to do, and the department is composed of its professors. And, perhaps most importantly, you have to find someone with whom to do a project in the other field.

Also, about the top tier universities: my suspicion is that it is actually easier as you move up the prestige ladder, for the following reasons: (1) most students who enter these programs are well-prepared and therefore desirable, (2) most of these institutions have large faculties and it is therefore less of a crapshoot to find someone who's willing to work with you, (3) many of them offer first-year fellowships or rotation systems which support students who are not sure what they want to do yet. And more reasons along these same lines: top tier programs have lots of resources and want their students to succeed (not merely to provide research support for their advisors). I have friends in the Berkeley, Harvard, and MIT physics departments who have made jumps from one field to another (even to other departments!) without much resistance. It is worth pointing out that doing this requires some assertiveness on your part - but you should get some anyway if you want to do well in academia.

asymp_tote99
Posts: 3
Joined: Fri Oct 26, 2018 3:22 pm

Re: Changing concentrations once in graduate school

Postby asymp_tote99 » Thu Jul 25, 2019 1:08 am

So does it make sense to actually apply to the program I have my best shot at and then later try switching. What degree of risk does it carry?
Meaning, if I have a good shot at XYZ for Example in HEP but not cosmology which is what I actually want to do , do you think I should apply for HEP and then once I get in, lookout to make the switch?

rjones21
Posts: 6
Joined: Mon Aug 06, 2018 11:47 pm

Re: Changing concentrations once in graduate school

Postby rjones21 » Thu Jul 25, 2019 1:04 pm

I would be careful, particularly with trying to switch into HEP Theory. It is my understanding that HEP theory is probably the most underfunded field, and thus the most competitive to get a spot in (I'm sure this is the reason you are trying this in the first place). But this means that the limiting factor for acceptance is likely funding, which means that trying to switch into the field will be hard.

That being said, schools like MIT, Harvard, etc. might have the funding for this to not matter...

geekusprimus
Posts: 7
Joined: Sat Jun 08, 2019 1:10 pm

Re: Changing concentrations once in graduate school

Postby geekusprimus » Sat Jul 27, 2019 8:18 pm

Something worth noting: I met a postdoc about a year ago who explained that his institution had a particular issue with this. Students would apply and express their interest in the nuclear physics group, which was less competitive and therefore easier to get admission for, then "change their mind" and switch into a different group, typically something like particle theory that would make admission extremely difficult. It was apparently bad enough that the physics department at this university issued a statement requesting that prospective graduate students not say they're interested in the nuclear physics group unless they had a genuine interest in nuclear physics.

I imagine this is not exclusive to this particular school. If I applied to the University of Rochester, for example, saying that I wanted to study experimental condensed matter physics, and then "changed my mind" to study optics, it might rub some people the wrong way; they're a good but unremarkable school in everything except AMO physics, particularly optics, where they're highly renowned and commonly accepted as one of the best. I can't speak as to what the repercussions might be, but I could see frustrated professors in both CMP and optics refusing to work with you unless you can make a pretty strong case for yourself.

Unless you are absolutely sure that your interests have changed (which typically means something happened that you can point to, like a class, a seminar, or participating in a research group), you're 100% sure that the school you're applying to institutes some sort of lab rotation for first-year students, or you're 100% sure that no one at that school will care, it's not something I would try to do, especially as a trick to game the admissions committee.

muonneutrino
Posts: 17
Joined: Tue Aug 23, 2016 9:41 pm

Re: Changing concentrations once in graduate school

Postby muonneutrino » Sun Jul 28, 2019 7:53 am

It's certainly possible to change your concentration, but there is something to keep in mind. Most schools (at least partially) base their acceptance numbers in each concentration off of how many professors in that area are looking for students. Due to this, it may be more difficult to find an advisor after switching concentrations as the supply/demand get skewed.




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