Selecting an Area of Interest

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Selecting an Area of Interest

Post by evanwes » Wed Nov 28, 2012 12:25 am

A lot of schools in their online applications require you to select a subfield of physics from a list once you have declared you are applying to their physics department. I am wondering if anyone knows if selecting 'Undecided' as your choice is better or worse for your chances. I know I am interested in astrophysics theory and theoretical particles but I have been advised to keep my options open lest I be held to a higher standard. That is my rationale for selecting 'Undecided' over an option like 'High Energy Physics Theory' but I don't want this to hurt my chances of acceptance. Can anyone elaborate on this issue?

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Re: Selecting an Area of Interest

Post by hooverbm » Wed Nov 28, 2012 11:44 am

I'm in a similar boat as you. I'm very interested in doing biophotonics research at a number of schools that have just one biophotonics lab. So the question arises, should I be very specific about what I want to do? Afterall, sometimes labs aren't even taking on new graduate students, or they have a very limited number of spots. So I would say yes and no. In our case, I think it would be appropriate to list a primary and secondary research interest and go into further detail about why the specific school you're applying to is a good fit for those research interests. I think the ability to make that sound convincing puts you in a stronger position for consideration vs. someone that has a difficult time articulating what exactly what they want to do (undecided). You have a good idea, and that's great. But definitely supplement your primary research interest with other options to make it appear that you're open to other opportunities within the department.

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Re: Selecting an Area of Interest

Post by Minovsky » Wed Nov 28, 2012 5:59 pm

Some advice on the topic given by the Duke physics graduate admissions FAQ:
Duke University wrote: 4.7. Does it matter if I list my specializations in the application?
Maybe. At the beginning, we will determined the rank without your specialization. Then we will enter in consideration the specializations, and it could be filled spaces in your specialization(s). From year to year this availability of specializations can differ, and often there are no filled spaces in specializations at all.
4.8. Should I gamble on my specializations?
No, that is not recommended. We look at your personal statement and your recommendation letters, to check your “specializations”. If these are different, we would look for an explanation.
4.9. Should I say “all” specializations?
No, unless you really want to work on any specializations. Usually you would reduce your chances of being selected because you would be too generic.
I agree with the notion that whatever you declare, you should be able to back up that decision in your personal statement. Another thing to consider is that if you can't get your specialization of choice at a school, do you really want to go there?

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Re: Selecting an Area of Interest

Post by TakeruK » Wed Nov 28, 2012 9:16 pm

I would also advocate for being honest with your specialization. It's not recommended to apply to a graduate program because you want to "just do physics". Sometimes a department will only interest you because of their group in a particular subfield -- if that is the case, then you would have no benefit to being accepted into an unrelated group at the same school. Other times, you only want to work on one topic, so you don't even want to be accepted at all in anything else. I guess you could pick undecided if you truly did not care what you worked on, but that will usually hurt your application. In addition, if you felt that way, I would strongly suggest reconsidering graduate school at all!

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Re: Selecting an Area of Interest

Post by Andromeda » Fri Nov 30, 2012 6:08 am

I also don't see what the point is of hiding it- frankly astrophysics theory can be hard to get into just because there are fewer funded positions for them, and if they accept other students who are clear in their interests by contacting the professors to introduce themselves and see what the funding situation is etc etc you will be out of luck. So what's the point?

I instead think it's much much better to see who you might want to work with and contact them explaining your interests and asking what sort of funding situation they have- if they might hire someone or what not- to show your committee that you're truly interested in the field. Much better to stand out for your interests than be a wishy-washy candidate when you're not!

When it comes down to it by the way my M.Sc. university would take one or two extra theory students on the grounds that some will switch to experiment anyway. I don't think that's a particularly unusual thing to do.

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