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I am applying to school for a degree in food science and am looking at potential schools and advisers. I've stumbled upon a particular subset of food science that I really want to get into, but only seems to be currently pursued by a couple professors at a certain University.

If, for some reason I am not admitted to this University, or the professors conducting research in this field do not accept me in their labs is there still the possibility of gearing my studies towards this type of work? If my graduate studies advisor had similar research focus, just not exactly the same, would this increase my chances of getting to work in this area? Is it worth it to mention your interest in this field while contacting potential advisors, even if it does not relate to the reason you consider the professor a good match?

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    It will vary from professor to professor. Some will be comfortable branching out, some will not. This is something you will want to discuss with potential advisors after being accepted, e.g., during a university visit. Something to keep in mind is how this will affect funding. They may be willing to branch out, but can't fund you with their existing funding sources. – mikeazo May 17 '16 at 2:28
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    @mikeazo: your comment is spot on. Would you consider expanding it a bit (maybe on how to "sell" the OP's intention to a professor working in a different specialization) and posting it as an answer? – Stephan Kolassa May 17 '16 at 6:19
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    One possible problem is that your advisor may not know much about your topic of choice and can only provide limited help. – Davidmh May 17 '16 at 8:02
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    If you can establish communication with one or more of the professors working in your target area, you could ask them to suggest people and departments who might be open to research in their area: "I'm really hoping to be admitted to your department and work with you, but can you suggest some alternatives in case that is not possible?". They know who shows up to their conference presentations and asks them interesting questions. – Patricia Shanahan May 18 '16 at 10:34
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Say you're a professor reading the application of a prospective student who wants to work on topic X, which is not your specific interest (your interest is Y). You may be thinking along any of the following lines:

  • "I'm doing Y, and I have lots of interesting research ideas around Y. I want students to help me explore these ideas in Y, so I won't supervise a student in X."
  • "I'm doing Y, and I can supervise students in Y reasonably well. But supervising a student in X for the first time would require a substantial extra investment of time and effort on my part, and I'm not able to offer that right now."
  • "X is really interesting. It would be useful to develop expertise in X. But currently I only have funding for Y (and PhD offers in our field are always funded), so I can't take on this student unless they are fully funded by an external fellowship."
  • "X is really interesting. It would be useful to develop expertise in X in this research group. I'll take on this student even though I have no interest in or expertise in X." But then this advisor may turn out to be an ineffective advisor for this student.
  • "X is really interesting. I don't have any expertise in X specifically, but I do know about the closely related field Y, and I think this expertise would enable me to effectively supervise a student in X, so I'm willing to take on this student." (It may or may not turn out to be true that expertise in Y will translate to effective supervision in X.)
  • "X is a major up-and-coming topic, which is why I just hired that postdoc with expertise in X to start this fall. With her help, we could definitely get a PhD student started in X."
  • "I wouldn't take on a student whose main topic is X, because that's not my primary research interest. But if the student was working on my topic, Y, I would be open to also pursuing X with him as a side project."

Since you don't know which of these apply, if you contact this professor, it would be a good idea to indicate that you would be very happy working on Y (if that's true) in addition to your interest in X.

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