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I am currently at the end of my Master's program in Theoretical Physics. I am now looking for PhD positions. My problem is as follows.

I have mostly chosen courses on the high energy physics (Cosmology, particle physics String etc.) and when applying for PhD, although most of the research groups focus on few problems, this is still a lot of literature (past 50-60 years worth of work), only a part of which is humanly possible to cover in a program that lasts 2 years. However, I have done my project/thesis in Beyond Standard Model Physics and this narrows it down a bit. So even when I see research positions where the groups are working in this particular field and look up their research/publications, it is still a lot of literature to cover. So when it comes to understanding what to work on during my PhD, I am still not sure if I have some original ideas as of yet in this field/sub-field. So I am not sure what exactly should I tell my future employers in my application. Is it necessary to mention what exactly I want to work on? I would like some perspective here. There are some PhD positions where it is already laid out what I will be working on.

Also, my question would be how would one go through a plethora of literature before starting to work on something by themselves. My usual approach is to read the publications/research by the concerned professors and then contemplate on whether I can extend their work in some way. TIA.

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    You don't need to come up with your own research project for a PhD application. Just saying what subfield you're interested in, and what research you've done previously, should be specific enough.
    – knzhou
    Commented Aug 13, 2021 at 20:11
  • @knzhou How does the employer then choose the candidate, wouldn't the candidates who know what they want to start working on standout among the long list of candidates applying for the position? tnx. Commented Aug 14, 2021 at 14:28

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The extent to which Ph.D. applicants are expected to have their own original ideas about research projects varies enormously by academic field, country, and individual supervisor.

  • some fields (such as mathematics, and presumably theoretical physics as well) require a lot more background before a student is even capable of identifying a sensible research project. In contrast, in ecology, an above-average finishing undergraduate student might have participated in original research projects and be prepared to propose ideas for new work.
  • the funding mechanisms in some countries & fields are much more geared to fitting students into a professor's existing research framework (these might for example be grants to support a student working on a specific project). This happens more in fields where research is expensive, where resource allocation decisions have to be made at a higher level. In this case you wouldn't have an opportunity to define your own research project anyway. (Even though theoretical physics research isn't typically expensive, this constraint might still apply.)
  • Defining one's first research project takes a lot of time, partly for background research and partly for trial and error. PhD programs that expect rapid completion (e.g. UK 3-year programs) don't necessarily afford students the time it takes to develop a research project from scratch.

Reading selected recent publications of potential supervisors is a great idea; if you can say something coherent about a particular thread of their research that you're interested in and why, that's great. (I get a lot of "I've read your marvelous work on XXX and found it fascinating", but I'm sure that most of these applicants actually have no idea - be specific and concrete!) If you can propose even general ideas about future directions you would be interested in participating in, that would be a bonus.

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  • Thank you for your elaborate answer, this gives me a lot to work with. Commented Aug 15, 2021 at 23:26

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