I'm applying to phd programs after being out of school for a couple of years working as a software engineer. The problem is that all my research and work experience has been in machine learning, but I'm not that interested in this field. Not only so, there's too much competition in this area for me to get into a good program. What should i do?

  • 2
    Look for professors who are interested in applying machine learning (ML) techniques in their areas. Aug 30, 2021 at 2:35
  • These are two different issues. If you do not mind doing an AI-oriented PhD, there are some programs that are interested in the SE aspects of AI - how to design AI architectures for convenient use etc. They are not common, but this does exist. You also can bring in your industrial experience, some programs are interested in applications. However, if you really do not much care for AI, well, then it's simply supply and demand. Find a program that covers what you are interested in. Chances are there will be fewer applicants, too, in non-AI fields. Aug 30, 2021 at 2:36
  • 6
    what field do you want to do a PhD in?
    – cag51
    Aug 30, 2021 at 4:26
  • What degree(s) do you hold, and what country are you interested in? With a BA/BS in the US there is no real issue at all.
    – Buffy
    Aug 30, 2021 at 19:26
  • @Buffy only bachelors
    – 123movies
    Aug 30, 2021 at 22:03

2 Answers 2


Why do you think you are pigeonholed? Many people will do a PhD in a different area than their undergraduate (masters). People will do postdocs and become professors in different (but related) departments than their PhD degree. Assuming your undergrad is in any hard discipline (engineering, math, physics, cs, etc.) you can basically do a phd in any hard discipline.

When applying to a PhD program you are going to be evaluated based on your potential, not based on what you've already done.

  • I don't know if that's true. What will make a professor want to take on a student who has no experience in his area? And from waht I know the qualifications of a grad student is way different than undergrad. potential was what they were looking for in undergrad. grad is looking for concrete evidence that you can do research in that specific area
    – 123movies
    Aug 30, 2021 at 22:03
  • The answer is correct. I completely changed fields for my PhD, from ecology to cardiology. Professors understand that the most fertile area for growth is where one field meets another. A student with skills that people in the field do not usually have is very useful to have around. You're not the finished article as a PhD student, you're still learning, that's why you're still called a STUDENT. It's not about knowing everything about a subject. It's about being able to contribute to it.
    – E. Rei
    Aug 31, 2021 at 12:30

With a bachelors in the US, starting doctoral study doesn't have you pigeonholed at all. In fact, if you have some research experience in pretty much anything then you will be a good candidate, other things being equal (grades, letters...).

Doctoral study (which I'd recommend over a MS, here) leaves you lots of time to choose an area of specialization. The only thing you need to be clear about is the general field, such as Math or CS, say.

The early program is filled with advanced coursework and probably only an introduction to research. The first hurdle is (most places) comprehensive exams. Only then do you need to be real specific and choose a dissertation advisor.

The situation is a bit different in some lab sciences where you need to join a lab earlier, but form most fields you are a "free agent" for at least a couple of years.

I advise doctoral study since you can get funded as a doctoral student (as a TA, perhaps) and have tuition forgiven. That isn't as likely for an MS student.

But since you've been out of school a couple of years, try to reestablish contact with old professors who can verify your skill and dedication.

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