Grad apps: But I haven’t done theoretical research…


So you’re in your final year as an undergraduate and you’re applying to PhD positions in US graduate programs in theoretical physics. You’ve been a good undergrad, so you’ve done your share of undergraduate research. But all your reserach experience is in experimental physics… perhaps not even in the same subfield. How do you incorporate this in your personal statement?

I’ve been asked this question a few times in the past month, so I thought it may be helpful to blog about it. I was in the same position two years ago, having spent most of my undergraduate years associated with a condensed matter experimental group even though my passion in physics is in particle theory.

First of all, yes, you should include this in your personal statement. The faculty reviewing your application care about your research potential, which means you should highlight all research experience you’ve had. If you’ve done plenty of reserach in the same field that you’re applying to, then no problem. But if not, you should still explain how your background in field A is still valuable for a student in field B.

This might not be obvious, so it requires a bit of thinking about `the big picture’ of what you’ve gotten out of your undergraduate research experience.  Here’s an example from one of my personal statements a while back:

This experience taught me the value of perseverance in research and allowed me to apply my coursework in quantum and statistical physics to experimental problems involving real materials. However, it also helped me realize that my primary interest lay in the phenomenological interface between formal theory and experiment, as I was drawn more to the challenge of constructing models that predict observed data rather than the laboratory ingenuity involved in performing successful experiments.

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