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I'm a fourth-year undergraduate looking to apply to graduate physics program this year.

My problem is this: I don't know how to pick a study/research area for graduate school. I enjoy my undergraduate courses greatly yet I have no idea how I could develop an interest in a specific topic.

For example, I enjoyed my electromagnetism class but I know there are hundreds of research areas in that field. Moreover, there are hundreds of other research areas that I've never even been exposed to. I've tried to look at papers but many feel a bit inaccessible because they are highly technical and specialized. Often, it's hard for me to understand what's going on there.

In summary, here are the two problems that I've come up against:

  1. The topics I've studied as an undergraduate are far-removed from the frontiers of research.
  2. I don't have the prerequisite knowledge to understand many of the methods and results of papers that I read.

So my question is this:

Is there any method to effectively 'explore' research topics without having a background?

1 Answer 1

A paper is a condensation of thousands of hours of hard work. Do not feel discouraged if you can't understand a paper even after reading it multiple times. You gain more understanding with experience, but even professors find it hard to understand papers outside their own specialisation(s). They are not very different from you when it comes to understanding a subject quite foreign to them. The problem with research papers is that they omit background information which is well-known to specialists working in the same field, but almost always unknown to those outside the field.

Nevertheless, some papers may be more accessible than others. In my field (engineering), review papers are usually more accessible than regular papers. Review papers give you a taste of the state of the art without necessarily going into the technical details, and you will get an idea of the most important literatures and possible future research directions on the subject. The problem might be in identifying which research papers are review papers, because while some of them are published in review journals (close to my field this would be Annual Reviews of Fluid Mechanics, for example), some are published in regular journals, and they don't necessarily carry the word 'review' in their titles. Asking PhD students in your department may help.

When reading regular research papers, it is a good idea to read the abstract, introduction, and conclusion first before reading anything else.

Reading recently published PhD or Master's theses is also a good idea, as they are usually more accessible than the more condensed form of research papers.

Finally, popular science magazines and talks or research bulletins published by research institutes but tailored for the general public might be useful if you want to know what topics are current and who are the researchers active in those areas.