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I'm currently in the first year of my MSc in an European university and as time goes on I'm thinking of what to do afterwards. One of the options is continuing on to a PhD and so I find myself from time to time browsing arXiv or some other journals in my field of interest, hoping to see a professor/group at a university doing something that interests me. While doing this I came to the realization, that in almost all cases, I have absolutely no idea what the papers are about. This isn't really surprising to me (I checked with my peers and they feel the same way), but it leaves me wondering how exactly I'm supposed to find out what topics in my field could interest me.

To hopefully explain the problem a bit better I'll take myself as an example, but I'm pretty sure this applies to a lot of other disciplines as well: I'm studying physics, most of my subjects focusing on theoretical aspects of physics. There are obviously several sub-fields in theoretical physics, but all of them are really broad and today's research seems really far away from what is thought in university classes. Most of the classes are only introductions to theories that have been refined for the last 50 years or more, leaving a huge gap between what I may be working on in a couple of years and what I know of today. So how exactly am I supposed to asses how interesting, challenging, etc. a direction in a particular sub-field is, when I almost know nothing of what is relevant in that field today? And, maybe even more importantly, even if I exactly knew what I wanted to do, how do I exactly single out the people who work in that area?

Some remarks about things that I've tried so far and the situation at my university:

  • There are almost no research opportunities at my university for students in the BSc and even in the MSc category (at least in my field of study).
  • The contact between the students and faculty is almost non-existent. I maybe have spoken to like three professors in the past 4 years for about 5 minutes (not counting the exams). I speak to PhD's a lot more regularly, but to no-one who has more experience in the academic world. I asked them more or less the same question, but the answers range from "you just kinda slip into a PhD program" to "I already knew in year one of my studies that I wanted to do XYZ, so I can't realate."
  • I talked to the "Students-Help-Office" of my university, which is basically a senior researcher from my university. His comment on the question was that he doesn't think that planning that far ahead is useful... Is this true, is one to two years of planning ahead to much in this context?
  • I've also seen this question here, but the top answer reads kind of like it's searching for the "best" place to do your PhD and less for the "best-fit". I'm not so much concerned about going to one of the best places in the world as much as I'd like to find a topic and adviser that actually fit me (obviously the other way around as well).
  • Are you doing anything now that does interest you? Or are you just thrashing about? If the latter, is that comfortable for you? – Buffy Jan 14 at 21:19
  • @Buffy Yeah, I enjoy most of my classes. I like TA'ing and I like spending time in the library doing exercises and reading up on the things from the lectures. So in general I'd say I enjoy what I'm doing now. I'm sorry, but I don't know what you mean by 'thrashing'.. Google suggests something that doesn't really make sense.. – Marius Jaeger Jan 14 at 21:26
  • I mean, just going with whatever is put in front of you without discernment or particular focus. Taking what is giving, rather than going after something in particular. Note that I have a reason for exploring this. I'm not being insulting. – Buffy Jan 14 at 21:31
  • @Buffy We are given a lot of choice when it comes to classes that we have to take. I did choose all of mine focusing on basically two aspects of physics (theoretical particle physics and computational physics), so I thinks its fair to say that I have a general idea in what direction I would want to go, at the very least there are certainly things that I know I don't want to do. – Marius Jaeger Jan 14 at 21:47
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If you read random papers on arXiv without having research experience or knowing how to choose, your chance to find something that awakens your interest is very little. Normally, this problem is solved by doing some research during your Master's program. You say that there are very few research opportunities for students at your university, so become active and try to get one of those few. Depending on your study program, there might also be the possibility to do a research internship for credit at a company or research center.

Even if you do not manage to find one, there should (hopefully) be a Master's Thesis at the end of the program. That should include enough research.

At Master's level, you will do research under a supervisor that will point you to literature and guide you on how to find more. You will get a feeling of whether you actually like research, and whether you want to spend 3-5 years doing it as a doctoral candidate. You should also hopefully get a feeling of which topics you like to work on.

I am actually quite surprised at the comments from your professors: I have never heard anything along the lines of "you just kinda slip into a PhD program", and this does not look like the kind of advice a senior academic should be giving to a student. They are probably right when they say that planning two years ahead is too early, especially if you have no experience with research.

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  • Thank you for your answer. There is a master thesis at the end, planned to take up about a semester or two, full-time. I wasn't really thrilled by the response to 'slipping into a PhD' either.. It just doesn't seem to be really useful. – Marius Jaeger Jan 14 at 21:53
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Perhaps it matters less than you think. Some people are absolutely driven to work in a very specialized domain. Others, at the other end of the scale, are just attracted to academia. I was somewhere in between. I knew I wanted to be an educator and I knew I wanted to work in mathematics, but, beyond that, I wasn't especially committed to any one thing.

The more I studied the more I reduced the options, but still had several open to me at the point I chose an advisor. I let him guide me to some interesting problems that led to my degree and eventual career in academia. It was fine. There was no need to choose within a very narrow range at the start.

This was in the US, however, where things are a little less compressed. In UK and EU a bit more is expected, but I think (hope) that there is still room to work with an advisor to find a problem (or two) that are interesting enough to start and will become more interesting with time. Perhaps your interests and goals are a bit like mine. "I don't want to do this. I want to do something like this other thing." That may be enough.

But the key is to find an advisor with whom you are mutually compatible and from whom you can take a bit of direction at the start. The rest can follow. It takes a lot of commitment, but that commitment can develop over time.

In fact, people who are too "narrow" at the very start, may have trouble later when it turns out not to be what was expected. Find an advisor who has enough time and ability to advise you well.

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