Picking a Specialization in Robotics

Hey robotics fam. This week begins some earnest personal soul-searching for where I want to apply to robotics PhD programs. I understand that I should pick a program based on the research group / staff, not on school prestige, so I want to make sure that I frame my expectations properly. I write this post to seek advice on how I should approach a PhD program. Specifically, I need to zero in on a research topic, but I’m interested in a ton of things, and don’t know how to narrow it down.

About me:

My background is in mechanical engineering (currently in an MSME program), so I’m comfortable with design, analysis, and fabrication of mechanisms and components. I have also taken courses in controls + modeling. I have worked internships in process engineering and software engineering, respectively, plus a co-op in industrial r&d for robotic additive manufacturing. I love software development and data analysis, and I have made a great personal effort over the last 5 years (while working part time in a robotics research group) to learn to be a competent programmer (best practices, algorithms, languages) without taking any formal CS classes. I can cut good code in languages like C++, MATLAB, and LabVIEW without thinking, but I am not so knowledgeable about fancy algorithms, AI, or machine vision. My only big weak spot is EE – I suck at circuits. I’m a quick study, though, and I am not afraid to teach myself new things.

Is it appropriate to frame myself as a jack-of-all-trades? I am curious almost to a fault, and I love the idea of one day working on “full stack development” of a totally new robotic system. I’m happiest when I have a screwdriver in my hand in the morning, and am programming in the afternoon. But, this does NOT help me target a grad program. Biorobotics presents awesome human-centered problems, swarm robotics is fascinating, and even fundamental robotics stuff like teleoperation and control algorithms would be fun. Is there such a thing as a “general” robotics PhD program? Or, are there any current focus areas in robotics that would fit this kind of approach?

Thanks for your advice.

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