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Is it a problem to have interests that are too "niche"?


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Is it better to express strong interest in one specific area/mentor, or to temper that by saying you're willing to compromise and try other things, even if you think you'll be less happy? 

This question has been hanging over my head for a long time. I'm not incapable of compromise, and I can enjoy research that isn't hyper-specific to my passions, but I feel like straying any farther from my true interests is just going to make it harder to achieve them in the future. Feel free to answer the above as you see fit, or if you're feeling generous, my situation is below. Thank you!






I'm considering applying to MS programs this fall, and PhD programs farther down the line. And while I believe my upcoming application will be strong (GPA: 3.77, GRE: 168V/167Q, an upcoming senior thesis), I'm very concerned about the issue of research fit and relevant experience. My research experience is rather different from my goals (mostly human neuropsychology/EEG, a summer of visual neurobiology, no evolution or marine bio), and I failed to get into a single REU in my area of interest this summer, so I'm left supremely nervous about my prospects.


I'm interested in placing neuroscience into its evolutionary and natural context: namely, the way an organism's ecology affects the evolution and function of its brain and sensory organs. Visual neuro is a bonus, but I'm interested in other sensory modalities, and non-sensory topics, as well. I also have an unyielding love of marine biology, which is very much intertwined with my love of evolution, and want to pursue research focusing on evolution in marine environments. This last point may seem superficial (I hope not), but it really lights my fire and I can't let it go.


There are definitely people who study this sub-sub-subfield, but they're not overabundant. They're also scattered all over the world, and going international scares me from a funding perspective. Sample of one, but the only person I've seen on here who shared these particular interests didn't get accepted anywhere, and cited their niche interests as a likely cause. And when I see people say that you shouldn't apply to any schools with fewer than 3-5 potential PIs you'd like to work for, it shakes me. That would leave me applying to almost nowhere. I feel like I'm leaping off the edge of a cliff, I have no idea how to proceed.


Any advice?

Edited by mockturtle
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I too have a "niche" research interest (epigenetics of animal welfare issues) and, like you, had a hard time finding PI's. I applied to three schools in Canada (I'm a US citizen) with one PI from each school that I would like to work with.

The thing is that you may have to work out a compromise and think, "okay, this is similar enough." If I didn't do that, virtually no one was going to fit my research interests. Even so, once you establish a relationship with a potential PI, hold onto it. What I did is that I spent a summer in my top choice PI's lab last year. When it came to applying, that PI chose me out of 20 candidates (according to him) that wanted to work in his lab. He also nominated me (I didn't ask him to do it) for a scholarship (and did receive it). I'm a research assistant in his lab until I start grad school in the fall.

As for the other two PI's, one went on sabbatical and the other accepted me, but there were issues with being international and the PI being able to fund me.


The point is, it's not necessarily a bad thing to have a specific research interest--you just have a couple more obstacles to go through to do what you love. As for not having an marine bio or evolution experience, I wouldn't worry too much about it (I didn't have any epigenetics experience). The point is that you can do research, which is what matters most when looking at research experience.


I'd say go for the schools that you would not regret moving to and that have 1-2 PI's with the same research interest. Some people might say different, and you may take my story with a grain of salt, but really, what do you have to lose (besides waiting another year)?

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As I thought about my response, I realised there are really two entangled issues which I will attempt to separate in the following:
First, I think having a sub-sub-field in mind at the graduate school application stage is way too narrow. It sounds like you have thought about your goals and I'm sure that you made a well educated decision to specialize in this sub-sub-field. So I feel a little bad saying this, but I also think it might be important to keep in mind: At this stage, even with a couple of years of experience under your belt, you might know what you like, out of the things you've done, but you still have only scratched the surface of your field (and even sub-field). Deciding that your chosen sub-sub-field is the only thing that will make you happy may be premature.
I'm saying this because I got the same advice. I did a co-op work program during my undergrad degree so when it was grad school application time, I already had almost 2 years of full time research experience (in a variety of subfields too)! I thought I knew exactly what I wanted to do in grad school and beyond: study the physics near-Earth asteroid orbits, which was what I was doing with my undergrad thesis. My advisor said the above to me and basically told me there was a whole giant world of planetary science out there and although I know I love asteroids, there could be so many more things out there that I would also enjoy that I don't even know about.
Now, I don't work on asteroids at all because I did find something fascinates me a lot more: giant planets around other star systems! I'm still using a lot of the same skills and expertise I learned from asteroids (the laws of physics are the same in our system as other systems!). I'm very happy that I followed my advisor's advice and tried more things. Asteroids still hold a spot in my heart and I keep up with the literature and even attend some sessions on asteroids when I'm at planetary science conferences. Also, even though the whole point of a PhD is to become an expert is a very very narrow thing, it's generally to your advantage to have strong foundational knowledge across many fields. It will help you understand more talks in your field, and eventually, it will be a desirable trait for hiring committees.
So, I'm suggesting you keep a more open mind when it comes to grad school. Again, I know you probably have a lot of past experience and have thought about your goals a lot in order to come up with such a well defined and concise sub-sub-field, but being this narrow can really limit you: not just at applications but also your own development as a scholar. Grad school is just the start of your academic career and why begin it by closing doors on all the other sub-sub-fields? Most scholars do work on many different sub-sub-fields over the course of their career so I would suggest you just find as many areas of interests as you can find and explore. People do change their areas of focus over the course of their career--most faculty members I know are not doing the same sub-sub-field as their PhD work. And in the current job market, it helps to be flexible and able to fit into as many job descriptions as possible. If the opportunities for grad school in the sub-sub-field are limited, it doesn't bode well for postdoc and permanent position openings.
The second thing I wanted to address was writing about your interests in your SOP (the first part of your post). This might depend on the field, but my advice would be to definitely not strongly express interest in only one very specific area or one lab/mentor. There are almost no benefits to be this specific and lots of negatives. If you appear to only have one potential PI and that PI is not taking students (or is taking someone else), then you might end up rejected. Also, having such strong interests may make you appear naive and unprepared/unknowledgeable about the field as a whole.
Also, the tone of the phrase you wrote ("temper that by saying you're willing to compromise and try other things, even if you think you'll be less happy") is not a good way to approach this in the SOP either. I know you will certainly write and present it in a different way in your application, but for the reasons I wrote above, I encourage you to not view it in this way and to not allow this perspective to subconsciously affect the way you write and talk about your interests and other sub-sub-fields.


Instead, my advice for discussing your interests in the SOP is to first identify your goals in graduate school. Tell the committee why you want to be there and what you hope to achieve. There are a few ways to frame your goals. I chose to frame it as a set of skills I wanted to develop in order to become an independent planetary scientist.


Then mention your specialized interest as an example of a way you can achieve these goals. This will show that you have put a lot of effort into thinking about what you want but it will also not limit you since you are saying your sub-sub-field is one potential grad school path, not the only one. I think framing it this way is also better than saying something like "I really want to do X, but will also do Y and Z" because then you just sound wishy-washy / eager to please. Stating one specialized interest as an example shows that you have thought about your goals but also signals that you are open to other projects without sounding indecisive.




I hope this advice was helpful! I know some of this does read as if I am dismissing your passion for your chosen sub-sub-field because it's "just undergraduate research". But reading your post reminds me a lot of how I felt about graduate programs when I was first applying 6 years ago. Obviously we are not the same person though so maybe some of the above is too much of projection of myself onto you. But I hope at least you are able to get something useful that you can apply to your own situation out of this :)

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Just something to remember, a PhD doesn't have to be your ideal project. It's a training project. So, as long as it teaches you the skills you need for your later career you'll be in good shape. Ideally, it should be something close to what your ideal is, of course.

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A few thoughts, some of which have already been expressed above. First, I don't think deciding this early on on a very narrow sub-sub-subfield is a very good decision. It's still very early in your career and interests often change with time and experience. You don't want to put yourself in a situation where you can't grow because you've not left yourself any room to do so.


Second, even if you are absolutely positively sure that this sub-sub-subfield is the way to go, putting yourself in a situation where there is just one person you could possibly work with is very dangerous, for several reasons. You may discover that the two of you don't get along on a personal level or that you have different needs from an advisor than this person can provide, or the advisor may at some point leave (be denied tenure, or be hired elsewhere), or may have health issues, etc. Putting your entire education in the hands of one person gives them too much power. What if there turns out to be some messy politics behind the scenes? You absolutely don't want to get caught in a power struggle where there is only one person on your side, or alternatively one person with all the power who is acting not in your best interest. 


Even if it all goes well, at some point you'll need to form a committee and you will therefore need to find other people with some reasonable overlap with your interests, and similarly when you go on the job market (academic or otherwise) you will want to have LORs from multiple professors. Which is all to say, being only able to talk to one person is not a good idea.


Finally, I think this idea that the PhD project needs to fully match your interests is not very realistic and not very helpful. You want to develop at least some relevant skills for whatever job you want to have next, but frankly I would choose a good advisor with an imperfect match in interests over an advisor who I don't get along with very well with very compatible interests any day. Sometimes it's hard to know ahead of time who you'll get along with, so it's very important to have several options that could be a reasonable, albeit perhaps imperfect match.



As far as being too specific in your SOP goes, I think a good compromise is to choose schools with one expert in your particular area and 1-2 other people who are imperfect but reasonable matches. In your SOP you could then elaborate in more detail on how this one person really matches your interests very well, but you should frame things in a broad enough way that makes it possible to also demonstrate fit with these other potential advisors. This is part of a general strategy of demonstrating fit with each department you are applying to, which generally requires showing how your interests overlap with more than just one person. I'm not too familiar with your field but if there is anything like rotations, you may have to identify more than one lab you could join before you make your final choice, so you want to make sure it's clear that such options exist for you and you've thought them out.

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Thank you all for your thoughtful replies! 


A lot of this is why I'm not applying to PhD programs just yet. I definitely need a hot dose of perspective before I'll be informed enough to truly commit to a subfield, and I absolutely concede the point that I'm a goofy undergrad with time to grow. But I'm not sure how better to get that perspective, apart from trying out what I feel to be my goal!


(This is why the idea of a MS appeals to me, for the record. The potential breadth of study, and chance to try more things than if I went for a post-bacc job.)


I don't want to give off the impression that I demand utter perfection from my graduate studies, or that I can't handle anything less. I'm interested in evolutionary neuro without the marine bio, and sensory/behavioral neuro without the evolution, marine sensory biology without the neuro, and so on. I'm preparing my undergraduate thesis in social neuropsych for goodness' sake, and spending this summer in a lab studying the development of motion selectivity, and I'm enjoying doing both.


But when I tell people my interests, often what they say is "well what are you doing in an EEG lab, then??", and "the identity of my undergraduate research topic doesn't matter!!" falls pretty flat as an excuse. When I look at the profiles of PhD candidates in the labs I'd like to join, many of them were doing research incredibly similar to their current work as far back as undergrad. I'm not sure what else to do but get on their track, ASAP.


And maybe it's crazy, but I've definitely heard that the work you do in grad school can come to define your entire career whether you like it or not. So the thought of compromising *too* much scares me for that reason.

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A research-based MS will certainly allow you to be exposed to more research topics. But it's not the only way to achieve this, and it might even be a bad way to get this (especially if you have to pay your own way through the MS).


As fuzzy mentioned, some fields might have rotations or something similar. In my program, we don't have lab rotations but we do work on two distinct research projects in our first year and don't commit to a thesis topic until the end of the second year. What most of us have been saying above is not that you have to get enough experience to decide on a specific topic before applying, but to be more open-minded in your application. 


For example, you should identify the sub-field (instead of sub-sub-field) and then take a look at the best schools in that sub-field (or maybe even the best schools in your field). Usually the top institutions will have a lot of interesting stuff going on and there's no reason to stop yourself from applying to the best schools in your sub-field just because they don't have exactly the work you want to do. You can use conversations that you will have with scholars over the next year to determine what else you could be interested in and thus the best school for you when you pick your grad school next spring.


And as fuzzy hinted at, there's a lot more to picking the best program for you than simply best research fit. I have also said before that I think it's much easier to change your own interest than to change your advisor. Your time in grad school (and potentially your future career) can be influenced by your relationship with your advisor so I would never sacrifice good working relationship for the sake of pursuing a particular topic. 


Overall, what I (and I think others) are trying to say is that:


1. Apply to schools in your chosen sub-sub-field but don't limit yourself to that


2. You don't have to try out everything before getting into a PhD program. Use the school visits and the process of picking a school to find out what else is going on. Apply to the best schools in your field / sub-field and find out! That is, maybe you will pick a specific topic/sub-sub-field when you pick which school to attend, but it's better to make this specialization in your school-choosing phase, not in the application stage.


Also, if you can try to make it to a big general conference in your field/sub-field this year, you should do so! Come listen to what else is going on in your field/sub-field. A big annual professional society conference is probably one of the best ways to get a pulse on what kind of stuff is happening all over your field/sub-field.




As for questions like "What are you doing in XYZ lab then??", I'd focus on the transferable skills. One of my undergrad research was in medical imaging lab. The research questions and topics are unrelated to what I'm doing now, but the technical skills are the same. I learned useful image processing techniques in medical imaging that I now apply to astronomical imaging.




It might be more field dependent but I see most faculty moving away from their grad school work as they mature beyond their PhD. Many postdocs will do their first project as an extension of their PhD work and near the end of postdoc #1 (or starting postdoc #2), they will branch out more. My supervisor is a new faculty member and my project is one of the major branching out away from their PhD's sub-sub-field. Also, as I said in the last post, being flexible and having a lot of different research interests is important as it will allow you to be more productive. When you complete a PhD, you are expected to be a super specialist in that one research question. But when you are looking for jobs, departments want faculty who can be experts in their sub-field, and have many different lines of research in many different sub-sub-fields. And as fuzzy said above, diversity of research even at the grad school level is important in case the unexpected happens (lose advisor, get scooped, funding cut, etc.). 


I would not be too worried about straying away from your original ideal project. Even if you never get to do that sub-sub-field, how do you know you won't find another sub-sub-field you would enjoy just as much or even more. In general, I think to be a successful academic, you need to be able to identify the interesting research questions in your field and jump on them at the right time. You can't do this if you constrain yourself to a single sub-sub-field. 

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Hmm, I have a slightly different perspective than some of the comments here. I do agree about flexibility, and I do think that you should - in an ideal world - go into a PhD program where there is more than one person you can work with potentially. But I also think 3-5 is an unrealistic expectation for most departments. 2-3 is a good sweet spot; if there are more, that's great, but you don't have to look for more.


The other thing is that you have to think about those 2-3 people broadly. It's unlikely that there are 2-3 people working on the exact same thing in a department, but they may be working on similar enough things that you can approach your interests from different angles. For example, there may be the Perfect PI who is working on evolutionary neuroscience in marine mammals, and then two other PIs - one who is doing evolutionary neuroscience and the other who is doing sensory neuroscience, both in humans or other non-marine animals. If you are okay with the prospect of working with one of the other two, then you're golden. How far afield you are willing to go also will influence that.


Beyond, that, though, I think you should follow your passion. I think it's okay to be interested in a sub-sub-field now if you are open to change (which it sounds like you are). When I first started grad school I was interested in a sub-sub-field as well, one that I eventually ended up straying away from. Having that passion and fire doesn't mean that you will be uninterested in other things or unwilling to change, but you can frame it a certain way in your statement. For example, I used two connective statements in mine that emphasized my larger interests (HIV prevention in ethnic minority adolescents and young adults) and then my sub-interests (how sexual media consumption influences sexual behavior in African American adolescents). I got picked up by a mentor who did the former but not the latter. There are ways to indicate flexibility in your statement without abandoning your sub-sub-area.


And yes, there's always an inherent risk in attending a program with just two or even one person with whom you can work, but we assume risk in everything that we do. Meet the PI beforehand and have a good chat with them about their mentoring style and work style, and chat with their current graduate students. Of course you can't find out everything from a one-hour meeting, but things can go south in a department where you have lots of people who can mentor you too. Only you can decide if this is a risk you want to take, particularly if that PI's research is just peeerrrrfect. (Also realize, though, that I firmly believe a good mentor who is a bit further afield from your interests, but is willing to support you, is far far better than a bad mentor who does exactly what you want to do.)


Honestly, in your case, I would go for what lights your fire. What point is it doing the grueling work of academia and graduate school if not to do exactly what you want to do?

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TakeruK, thank you so so much. I've definitely been focusing on research fit above all else, since I've seen so many people here call it the single most important factor in graduate school admissions. But it definitely shouldn't eclipse all other concerns. I'm actually working under a grad student whose advisor left halfway through her PhD, so I've seen how awful it can be if there's no obvious second choice available, but also how you can still do good research in a lab that may not be your ideal.


Juilletmercredi, thank you too! That's actually pretty much exactly how I've been approaching this so far, in terms of including PIs who study at least a few pieces of the puzzle. There are actually a bunch of schools who have 3-5 PIs in the general vicinity of my research interests, but so many of them are out of the country that it just makes the situation feel even more complicated...




I hope I haven't overstated the specificity of my research interests, however...  My list of possible PIs is 6 pages long, and growing, and I haven't been limiting myself to only neuro+evolution+marine labs. They make up less than half of my list, so I'm definitely prepared to stray from my most-preferred sub-field. I'd just ultimately rather not, if I can have my way (and not suffer for it with a bad mentor, lack of back up options, or lack of variety, of course).


Evolutionary/ecological neuro is somewhat of a niche compared to the wider field of neuroscience, but I'm honestly interested in everything from sensation (in every modality), to behavior (all of it), to circadian rhythms, to motor control, to cognition, to anatomy, and beyond. That's kind of a ludicrous portion of the field to want to study, almost like saying I'm interested in ~everything~, but I'd honestly be happy studying any of those topics provided it were through the lens of evolution or ecology. So there's already a good deal of flexibility in my interests, but the things that define them the most are also what make them niche.


Passions can change, but for what it's worth, marine biology has sort of been my favorite thing in the world since I was a child (trite, but true), and the intent to study ecology/evolution was actually what led me into college in the first place. Neuroscience was the thing that came later. I don't know if that information is significant to anyone other than me, but my point is that while neuro has kind of taken over at the moment, partially due to having the most immediately plentiful research options, I very much doubt that I'll ever be able to truly abandon the other two interests.


I know that's not what anyone in this thread is telling me to do, you guys are just advocating flexibility and I'm very much on board. I also know that people can hold valid side-interests while not focusing on them, and that it would be possible to temporarily stray away from one of those things, but return to it later when I'm large and in charge  :) It's just that demoting any of them to "side-interest" or "that field I read about and pine over from afar" feels so awful (I know that because I'm doing it right now), and since people can and do incorporate them all together, I want to at least try?


P.S: I really really hope I'm not coming off as obstinate, or like I'm misconstruing/negating anyone's advice, or anything. It's just that this specific interest comes from the integration of three, long-standing, independent, and powerful interests, rather than an overly-hasty narrowing down of one interest. It might not make this plan any more valid, and I'm not trying to change anyone's advice, but I wanted to be clear about where my confidence in this very specific passion comes from. It doesn't feel like something I grabbed onto too early, arbitrarily, or out of closed-mindedness. Maybe that's never how it feels to the person doing it, but I hope that makes sense.

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