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I want to apply for PhD program in mechanical engineering at Stanford. Furthermore, I want to conduct research in the area of computer vision and computer graphics with application to robotics, manufacturing and mechanical industry. However, there are not any professors in mechanical engineering department who conduct research in this area, most of the relevant professors are in Computer science or electrical engineering.

Is there a way to highlight my intent to conduct interdisciplinary research with a professor outside mechanical department in the Statement of Purpose without negatively impacting my chances to receive an offer of admission? Is applying for PhD in mechanical engineering but not intending to do research with a mechanical engineering professor viewed negatively?

Thanks!

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(slight edit to clarify my perspective after reading Buffy's answer)

Is applying for PhD in mechanical engineering but not intending to do research with a mechanical engineering professor viewed negatively?

In my opinion, you're asking the wrong question. Don't ask how the admissions committee will view this, ask if you should even be considering doing this at all. And, in my opinion, you should not. And here is why:

If you are a student in mechanical engineering, you must have an advisor in mechanical engineering. You can have a co-advisor who could be from a different department. You can have committee members from a different department. But if you're in ME, your main advisor must be in ME. That person has to sign off on your dissertation. I don't think it is a good idea to have an advisor who has zero knowledge or interest in your research topic.

The advisor-advisee relationship is less of employer-employee and more like husband-wife. For example, let's just say you want to have 4 kids and live out in the country. What do you think marriage would be like to someone who wants zero kids and wants to live in downtown New york city? It will not be a happy marriage and will probably end in a painful divorce. That's what it will be like having an advisor who does not share your research interests (you can search this site for many examples of students who are in this situation).

Maybe there is someone in the department who is not currently doing what you want do, but would be interested in getting into that area. If so, go for it. But if not, if there is no one in the department who is interested in research that you want to do, then either apply to another department, apply to a different school, or find a different research topic.

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If I read your question correctly, it seems that you want to do interdisciplinary work. That is highly valued in some places, even if it is a bit unusual. But to make it happen requires that you have an advisor who is on-board with the concept and that you have sufficient additional resources across the fields of study. This might mean a co-advisor. And if you have more than one, then they need to agree on a lot of things for it to be successful.

I can't speak specifically for Stanford, though it is places like that where is is more likely to be acceptable.

But you should explore with them, and perhaps with some individual faculty members there how feasible it is and how much support you could be offered.

I therefore disagree with the answer here of Daniel K. But don't underestimate the difficulty of setting up the circumstances in which you can be a success.

That said, there are a few students who are so self motivated and prepared that they need only very minimal guidance from their (nominal) advisor. If that is you, then it is more likely to be successful, but just as difficult to arrange initially.

In your SoP focus on the interdisciplinary aspects and on the value you see in potential outcomes. Acknowledge that you know it is a big plate, but stress your preparedness to assume the burdens. And, again, a place like Stanford is a pretty good prospect.

Alternatively, of course, you could do the same sort of thing in a different department, provided that the cross discipline support can be arranged.

  • hmm... maybe I interpreted the question differently than you did. Perhaps I can clarify my perspective in my answer. – Daniel K Nov 4 '19 at 1:15

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