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Being involved in research without knowing everything about the topic?

  1. Aug 5, 2013 #1
    So I was at an astrophysics summer program and one of the professors offered to help, as he has connections at this university near where I live, if I ever wanted to research/intern there. I know some people at my high school who have done similar things, so I was pretty excited. Trouble is, I don't think I'm capable. Most of my intro physics is pretty solid, and I know a little EM at the griffiths level, but that's it. One option is to wait a while and study some more, as I am only entering my sophomore year. I could probably a good deal of GR in the meantime. Not nearly enough, but much better than where I am now.

    However, I've heard lots of "research experience" opportunities for undergrads in their first or second year, and there are high school students interning at universities. How do they do it? Is it generally just menial labor, such as entering data into a program, etc? I've even heard of high schoolers going in which research ideas of their own, although that is generally in fields like biology.
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 5, 2013 #2
    I think you should discuss this with the professor. Tell him how much you know, and ask him whether that's enough to do research. If he says that suffices, then you should be good to go.

    That said, it's not true that you need to be an expert in the topic to start doing research in it. A lot of research time is going to learning relevant topics. And in fact, you will see that doing research will help you learn the topics much better. So just because you don't know "everything" yet, doesn't mean you can't do research.

    Of course, you need a certain minimum knowledge. But you should let the professor decide whether you have this or not.
  4. Aug 5, 2013 #3


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    No one knows everything about the topic, and no professor can expect an undergrad, much less a high school student, to know much of anything. No, you're not going to teach yourself GR over the summer. That's not a realistic expectation. If you can get an internship, go for it. The professor will know they have to teach you what you need. Keep in mind since that's a huge time drain on the professor (it can take you all some to accomplish something that would have taken them a few hours) anyone offering to take you on is doing you a huge favor, and one they are not compensated for. Take any offer very seriously.
  5. Aug 5, 2013 #4


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    There are a lot of internship programs set up specifically for high school programs, and it will usually be assumed that you don't have a very extensive knowledge of physics, beyond the introductory high school level. I'd definitely talk to the professor about it, and express your concerns though.
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