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I am a rising fourth year chemical engineering student applying to graduate programs in statistical mechanics (condensed matter and biological physics) this fall. I have been working on research projects in two different research groups for the past two years, and will be submitting a manuscript (for my biophysics project) in a couple of months.

Some of the programs I will be applying to have advised students to contact the principal investigators whose research interests them before applying, while other programs do not mention anything of the sort.

I am wondering if it is standard practice for prospective students to propose a specific project (aligned with the PI's current research), or if I should simply express my interest in their work and leave it at that. Of course, if it is the former, I expect the PI to modify it as they see fit.

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It is not standard in the US, since you are not expected to know enough about the subject to make a good proposal. But if you can make a good proposal, it is helpful to do so. Just be clear in your message that you are flexible, because the PI probably already promised a funding agency that they would work on something particular, and you most likely do not know what was promised.

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    Not true in the UK. Here, as part of the PhD application, you need to write a PhD research proposal, where you need to define a clear question and outline an approach to answering it. Also, you need to state the benefits of the proposed research, and you have to show understanding of the material (e.g. that you've read the relevant literature). – 101010111100 May 23 '16 at 6:52
  • @101010111100 That's a very clear statement of what should be included in a research proposal. Thanks. – Blue_Elephant May 23 '16 at 9:03

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