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Asking the Prof to be a research assistant

  1. Apr 7, 2008 #1
    So for those of you whom are assistants for your prof what exactly do you do? I plan to really get to know my prof this summer (summer field session for engineering physics majors) and eventually offer my services that could be of use to him. They don't mind do they? But I am scared I may lack some abilities. That is why I would like examples of what exactly yu do as an assistant, thanks.
  2. jcsd
  3. Apr 7, 2008 #2
    Also, for the profs out there, what o you expect from your assistant?
    Thanks again
  4. Apr 7, 2008 #3
    I have been working (i.e. getting paid) for my prof since summer. First I worked at the physics lab, doing stuff like soldering, hooking up cables, taking sample data and measuring signal-to-noise ratios. Nothing fancy.

    Last quarter and the one before that I worked on my professor's website for his project. Basically built it from the ground up. This quarter he gave me some code that calculates a form factor for the cavity in his particle detector (essentially how efficiently a particle can be detected depending on where it is in the cavity and at what frequency the cavity is at) and I need to figure out how it does it to make sure there's no errors in there, and then I have to update it with the parameters for the new cavity.

    So it's interesting stuff for me. I had no experience in HTML when I started doing the website, rudimentary experience in electronics, and only a quarter of C++ before doing the coding project. He wasn't bothered by it.

    Before that, I did independent research (for free) for a different prof and I worked on his muon detector thing that he was making. Unfortunately, we couldn't get the damn thing to work because of a leak, so I spent like over 2 months trying to fix that leak before I finally got the go-ahead to smother epoxy over it like I had originally suggested.

    It wasn't nearly as interesting, but it was still pretty fun.
  5. Apr 10, 2008 #4
    Sorry a bit off topic but still related to assistanship-related issue as a graduate student.
    What is it like doing a 20 hrs/week teaching assistanship, is it relatively a heavy work load?
    Is that 20 hrs/week relatively standard or below or above standard?
    In reality, is that number of hours just for formality, that is, the actual number of hours a TA typically has to commit his/her duty can be much longer if not shorter than that?
    I am supposing TA is much less preferrable than RA because with RA we don't have to follow the strict unpleasant hours of undergrad class schedule, do we?
    I am hoping for comments particularly from those of you guys/ladies who have real experience of becoming a TA.

    Thanks in advance.
  6. Apr 10, 2008 #5

    Most profs expect you to show up, work hard, and be careful in the lab. They understand that your abilities are limited by your coursework and experience to date. In one research position, the prof gave me a programming task that was a bit beyond me. When I couldn't do it, he did it himself and gave me some simpler tasks without getting mad about it. Eventually my programming skills grew and I was able to complete the more complex programming tasks he gave me.

    In an experimental lab, there are lots of mundane tasks, often involving vacuum systems or electronics. The profs don't mind showing you how to do stuff, but pay careful attention so that you don't have to be shown twice. Be willing to read the manual for equipment and use outside resources so that you don't take too much of the prof's time asking for repeated explanations.

    You don't have to be a whiz at everything in the lab, but find a few things where you can really contribute. The bottom line for prof's regarding undergraduates helping in research is that the students are a net gain for the lab. You must save the prof and grad students more time and effort than they expend showing you stuff. You must show up regularly (on time), work hard, and grow in your abilities.

    Be sure and take your prof's advice. If he wants you to take an electronics course or a programming course, do it.

    I found a lot of mercy, kindness, and patience for my lack of abilities. But I worked very hard and tried to be dependable. Consequently, my undergraduate research was very fruitful, I was included as a co-author on two papers, I had good recommendations, and graduate schools were beating down my door.

    Michael Courtney
  7. Apr 10, 2008 #6
    In my experience, the number of hours is a formality, and the work load depends on the classes you are assigned and the profs teaching the classes. Only the prof can tell you exactly what your responsibilities are, but they usually include grading most (or all) of the student work, preparing solutions for homework, and perhaps setting some time aside (office hours) to help students with homework. I think I made a pretty good impression by writing up the solutions in LaTex for one course I TA'd.

    I liked my RA because it got me into the research group where I completed my PhD research. However, I really learned a lot in my TA position because the prof was a great teacher and I used the opportunity to grow in my teaching skills by trying to understand the big picture of course design and delivery. The prof conveyed great enthusiasm for teaching physics and I was able to pick up on some of that.

    Michael Courtney
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