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Advice concerning undergrad research

  1. Jan 18, 2008 #1
    Hello all,

    I have been a long time lurker of this forum. But now, I need some honest feedback on an issue that I have.

    I have wanted to become a physicist since I was very young and have always been fascinated by the subject (still am). Despite my love for physics, I have recently been considering other career options. The reason for this is not that I don't enjoy physics, but that I don't feel good enough to become one.

    Specifically, I lack laboratory and computer skills. I am currently a 3rd year honors physics undergrad and let's say, without going in details, that I feel that most high school students are more at ease with laboratory equipment than I am. The same goes with computing. I have had one course in programmation (two years ago) and did very poorly. Besides this course, I have zero experience in computing. To be frank, I could probably not write the simplest program you can think of. (Well ok, I could probably write an "hello world", but that's about it.) However, academically, I am quite a good student, managing a good grasp of the material (and good grades) in higher level honors physics and math courses.

    I have decided to give myself a chance before I quit physics. After all, you can only become a good experimentalist and programmer by working in a lab and programming, right? So I would like to spend the summer working on those skills. My question to you is then: who will employ me?

    Since nearly all undergraduate reasearch involves lab work and computing, I know that every other student can bring more to a reasearch team than I can. Most likely, I will be a burden to my supervisors as I struggle to learn what everybody else already knows. On the other hand, I have heard of a couple positions which do not involve much programmation and lab work. Should I apply for these positions? Or should I instead work on my weaknesses? With these weaknesses, do you think I should apply for a job or should I contact professors and offer myself as a volunteer? To those of you who are professors or post-docs/grads, would you ever consider having someone like me work with/for you?

    I would really like some honest feedback.

    Thank you!
  2. jcsd
  3. Jan 18, 2008 #2


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    Try inquiring and applying for anything and everything; some directors are closed-minded, and some are somewhat open-minded. In your situation, be willing to do volunteer jobs, since they count as experience just as much as any paid job - especially if you keep a regular schedule.

    You did poorly in a programming course two years ago; but you could restudy that course on your own and learn it better than you learned two years ago. I learned a form of BASIC during the last 7 years and wrote several nice, well functioning programs - and I did poorly when I studied BASIC in college more than 20 years ago.
  4. Jan 18, 2008 #3
    1) Will I be able to get a job which will allow me an opportunity to do research?

    You are a third-year student now and you know some math. You know how to set up differential equations and you know how to manipulate matrices. The vast majority of scientific computing consists of turning models (of stars, fluids, quantum spins - anything) into differential equations. And differential equations can be chopped up into steps and turned into matrices - and computers are very good at finding eigenvalues and eigenvectors! So you already know almost everything you need to do scientific computing!

    Of course, there is all that pesky syntax and learning about arrays and structures and computer language stuff.... On-the-job-learning is a great way to pick up programming and lab skills. But you can probably teach yourself a lot too! Get some pirated software (Maple or Mathematica would be a good start) and make up a silly physics problem to solve numerically. Can you write down the equations of motion for the bob on a simple pendulum? Now, can you plot the position of a single pendulum as a function of time? What about a double pendulum? What about n pendulums? And I bet you have quantum mechanics homework.... Can you use software to plot a wave function in a finite potential well? What happens when you change the height of one of the sides of the well? Using computational tools is a handy way to check your homework!

    As a third-year student you've probably also been forced to take some labs. They have probably been kind of horrible. :-) But doing research is not like doing a lab course. If you can use a voltmeter to measure the current in a circuit and if you are coordinated enough to solder a wire then you can do lab work.

    Supervisors don't expect you know everything when you start. But for someone to take a chance on you, you need to demonstrate that you are good at learning stuff. Great marks help. You also need the whatzit - a combination of curiosity, creativity, patience, persistance, the willingness to figure out what you don't know on your own and the wisdom to know when to ask others for help. Do you have some non-physics work experience and a teacher or two who thinks you are a wonderful student? Their reference letters will make the deal.

    The practical question: do I volunteer or get a job?
    ... the best way to go about this might simply be to ask prospective supervisors if they have any undergraduate-sized summer projects that they think might be appropriate to someone with your interests and abilities. Tell them what you think is interesting about their research! Lastly, if they are willing to supervise you, they will probably be willing to pay you too. :)

    The tough question:
    2) Is physics what I want to do? Am I good enough?

    This is always the hardest problem. And it only gets harder as you get older and you have different priorities - getting a job and supporting yourself financially, or being able to be in the same city as a significant other. For now though, you probably just want to do what you enjoy. There are probably lots of little things you love about physics - the satisfaction of solving a tough problem or the social element of studying with friends. You should also try to give yourself the space to do the other non-physics things that you enjoy....

    Just a comment: you seem like the type of person who likes to get straight to the right answer. This sort of drive and focus is good to have. However, research isn't all about getting to the right answer really quickly - it's more about asking interesting questions. Even if you don't have a resume full of skills and prizes, the people you work with benefit from your "style" of approaching physics. So try to relax a bit and enjoy the fun bits!
  5. Jan 18, 2008 #4
    Wow! Thank you so much to the two of you. Very insightful!

    symbolipoint, you are right that I could go back to this course and with some (a lot of) practice, could probably develop some form of useful/employable skills. The problem that arise is when comparing myself to others. An employer has every right to ask "what's in it for me in hiring you" and unfortunately, I fear that I have very little to offer at the moment. If I were an employer, I'd hire anybody but myself, lol!

    HA! You have nooo idea!

    I have done plenty of non-physics related work. Actually, for the past 10 years, I have been involved with horses: I have coached and trained dressage/jumpers in the competitive arena and have worked in the horse racing industry. But how is that marketable to a physics employer? As far as reference letters, well, I have never been the type to go up to the prof and ask questions. I would always solve my problems by searching the library or discussing with other students. I am afraid most profs only know my face...

    But anyway, thank you very much for your post, oedipa. Lots of good advice in there...
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