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Can you submit a NSF Grad Research proposal that's OUTSIDE your planned area of study?


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I'll try to be brief. I'm a female in physics applying to grad school this year. I took 4+ years between by Bachelor's degree and now to raise my kid, so I've been out of physics for a little while (though I've been tutoring, taking classes here and there, and doing some research to keep up my skills).

The research project that I've been working on the past year is only marginally related to physics: it's biological modeling (more applied math than bio). Now, I have ZERO interest in biology--I actually want to do theoretical statistical mechanics--but this modeling project seemed to be a good way to augment my numerical/programming skills, as well as maintain my math skills (PDEs, etc.). Also, since I wasn't currently in a grad program, I had a very, very difficult time finding someone who would let me join his/her research team. I couldn't be choosy, so I accepted this bio modeling project.

The results of this work have been good; we just submitted a paper, which I hope will be accepted for publication before grad school apps are due.

Besides grad school, I'm also applying for the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship. The project I want to propose for the NSF GRF isn't actually what I want to ultimately study in grad school; it's another bio modeling project, one I think I could do very, very well (like, not just good, but also done using a different approach from current methodologies).

Do you think proposing this bio modeling project is risky? Or should I go for a very physics-y physics sort of thing?

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It'll definitely be easier for you to write on a topic with which you're familiar. Since you've done work in the area, you'll probably be able to draw much more from your biological modeling experience than delving into a wholly-unfamiliar topic. I'm pretty sure the NSF just funds the researcher, not the research, so you should be fine if you end up getting the grant. I'm just an undergrad in a somewhat-similar situation, so take this with a grain of salt. And good luck!


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I have to disagree with rising_star. I used to work for a theoretical biochemist and happen to know that biomodeling can tie in very closely with theoretical statistical mechanics. (My former advisor's PhD work was in statistical mechanics--he just found a way to apply it to drug design.)

Also, I have heard that it doesn't matter what project you propose in your research proposal--you can research anything you want for your thesis. The point of writing the fellowship proposal is so people can evaluate your knowledge of literature and critical thinking skills.

I say go with what you know. Just call it "biophysics"...

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