Narrowing your “research focus”


Hi everyone!

So as the thought of grad school gets closer, so does the realization that it might be a good idea to start thinking about what you want to focus on as a research topic. But of course, this leads to many questions such as, how do you even go about narrowing your interests? And how refined of a research topic do you really need before grad school? Will my lack of a focus reflect badly on my grad applications? Does this mean I can’t apply to fellowships? Help meeee!

Not to worry, my friends! Hopefully this post will answer all of your questions and more! For organization purposes, this post will be separated into three parts!

If you would like to skip to a specific part, click on one of the questions below:

  1. How to choose your research focus?
  2. Is it a big deal if it isn’t narrowed down yet?
  3. What about grad school and fellowship applications?

How to narrow your research focus?

1. Take lots of classes in different subjects

Fun fact: I discovered that I wanted to go into an environmental chemistry discipline because of a random class that I took on a whim for summer school. This then got narrowed down to wanting to focus on atmospheric chemistry because I decided to take some more advanced classes.

Just because you entered undergrad as a chemistry major or english major doesn’t mean those are the only classes you can take. If your schedule allows, I always recommend taking as many classes in as many disciplines as possible. You never know what you’ll end up liking or how different disciplines can mix and become some incredible research topic you can pursue.

2. Take part in different research opportunities

Another fun fact: Though I liked atmospheric chemistry, I couldn’t really do any research in it at school because a) there weren’t many professors that focused on it and b) I was tied down by a thesis project and I couldn’t just up and leave my lab. So, what I did instead was I applied for a lot of different internships in atmospheric chemistry so I could get a taste for what it’s really like to work in the field. I ended participating in a NASA internship that focused partially on atmospheric science, and guess what? I fell in love.

Taking part in many different research experiences can let you know what you like and don’t like before actually committing to it for a 5 year life sentence. Whether these experiences are on or off campus doesn’t matter, but putting yourself out there is the quickest and most fun way of knowing which topics make the cut.

3. Read lots of literature in your field

This is actually advice that I was given once I reached grad school and now I share this advice with anyone that will listen. Read as many academic papers as you can! Not only does reading literature in your field allow you to become more knowledgable about your field as a whole, but it also is a nice way to determine what you’re interested in.

For instance, there are certain papers that I struggle to get through. Reading them feels like it takes hours. It’s pretty much torture… But, at the same time, there are also certain papers that are really fun to read! I find myself not only getting through them faster than the prior, but I also find myself trying to look at their references to find even more papers just like it. Now, which do you think I’ll be more likely to work on as a research project? Read literature! It’s beneficial in multiple ways!

4. Network with professionals people in your discipline

When I was trying to narrow down schools to apply to for grad school, I spent a lot of time talking to a certain professor in my field. She talked about the big buzz word topics that are being worked on currently, as well as the different directions I could go career-wise. I probably wouldn’t have found out about either of these on my own. Talking to this professor was definitely a big help and gave me much better insight into my different options. So, I highly recommend that if there are professors (or even grad students or post docs) in your field that you find approachable, go talk to them about their experiences in the field! They may be able to tell you some things that you’ll never find out otherwise!

Is it a big deal if it isn’t narrowed down yet?

To be completely honest, I find that this answer changes depending on who you’re asking. I have found some grad students started grad school knowing exactly what they wanted to study and who they wanted to work for. They advocate that you should know for sure before you apply, because otherwise you’re “wasting time” or something equally as dramatic.

I mention the above as as a warning, because when I heard this, I got very disheartened and pretty scared that I wasn’t going to succeed in grad school. However, please don’t believe that this is the majority! It’s definitely not! In fact, the vast majority of my cohort (me included) still don’t have projects of their own, nor do they have any idea what they want to end up focusing on for their dissertations. As a matter of fact, even when talking about grad school applications, I found that most people only knew that they wanted to be part of the chemistry department and work in (insert broad sub-discipline here). That’s about it. Nothing specific.

In other words, it is completely normal to not know exactly what you want to research when you begin applying to grad school, or even by the time your first semester starts! Besides, do you really think some grad admissions committee expects some 20-somethings to have their life figured out to the point where they know what they want to research for the rest of their lives? I say it’s definitely a big deal if you don’t know what your “focus” is. Don’t stress! If anything, most others are in the same boat you are!

But what about grad school and fellowship applications?

For Grad School Applications:

My have two major pieces of advice when it comes time to apply for grad school:

  1. Make sure that the schools you plan to apply to have all, if not most, of your interests covered in one of their departments on campus. This way, even if you end up changing directions later on, you have many other options to choose from.
  2. When writing your personal statement, make sure to focus on the research experiences you have, what you can bring to the table and why you’re choosing to go to grad school. Though the admissions committee may not expect you to know every single detail of your future dissertation topic, they do expect you to be sure that not only are you prepared for the grad school life, but also that you’re not applying because you don’t know what else to do.

For Fellowship Applications:

Even if you don’t have an actual project you’re working on, you can definitely still apply for fellowship! I personally applied both this year and during my senior year of undergrad, despite the fact that I had no project to my name (or any clue what that project could possibly be). How can this be done?

  • First, read, read, read! Read as many recently published papers in your field.
  • Then, narrow down the papers to ones you were really interested in (i.e. the ones that weren’t torture to read).
  • Next, re-read said papers and figure out what questions these papers are trying to ask and how did they answer them
  • Now, find the holes in their logic. Find the gaps in their research. If you need a little help doing this, check out this post to find out how to read academic (scientific) papers
  • Lastly, figure out how to answer those gaps in the research. Of course, this is the most daunting part as you are probably inexperienced on how to even approach this. For this part, I would recommend talking in depth to your research advisor or any other professor in your field. Bounce ideas of them and have them help you put your thoughts down on paper to make sure you’re going in the right track.

And, if you read all this and decide that maybe it’s not worth the risk to apply this year, there are still plenty of opportunities to find fellowships later on. I have a list of typical fellowships that grad students apply to, and I know at least one of them allows you to apply up to your second year of grad school. Of course, the best advice is to always talk to your (potential) graduate research advisor and find out what they suggest.

I think that about covers it! If you want to see some of my “less refined” pieces of advice on this topic you can check them out on my Tumblr both here and here.

I hope this helps put some of your minds at ease! Let me know your opinions down in the comments below!

Good luck ❤


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