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Physics Does the topic of undergraduate research matter?

  1. Apr 1, 2016 #1
    I have worked with a professor within my Physics department for almost a full school year now on electron scattering simulations. I run some programs on my computer and analyze them with ROOT. This work has been rewarding as I have learned a lot, but I recently got offered a position in a Lab.

    I did not apply for this position, but rather a Chemistry professor asked me after his class if I would be interested in joining his lab. His research is on Multivariate Calibration in the field of Analytical Chemistry. He employs a handful of undergraduates and they often go to conferences and they have some publications.

    The Chemistry Lab offer would have me doing a bunch of coding, analysis, and mathematics. This lab would give me work during the summer as well as during the school year, but my Physics research job does not have funding for summer work. That is because the job is funded through the departments school funds, which are not as high during the summer. Also, my Physics job is 1 on 1 with a professor and I do all the work off of my laptop.

    The Chemistry offer is an amazing offer, but I do love my work with my current physics job. I plan on going to graduate school to study neutrino or astrophysics (my school doesn't do astro). So, does the topic of my undergraduate research work matter? Which job would be better to get?

    If this is of any help I am wrapping up my second year at Uni.
  2. jcsd
  3. Apr 1, 2016 #2


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    Yes and no.

    I think a lot of undergrads put a lot more weight on this than they really need to. I think what matters most is that as an undergrad considering graduate school you get *some* kind of research experience. This helps you to develop some basic skills that you don't get from lectures, it lets you see what doing research is really like so you can develop an idea of whether or not it's the kind of thing that you'll want to dive completely into for the next several years at least, it helps to develop relationships with professors and other students, and in some cases it can lead to publications or conference abstracts which can bolster your application to graduate school or for scholarships.

    Obviously, if you happened to be lucky enough to get a position doing the same kind of research that you'd like to do as a graduate student you can have some advantages, but these are usually in that you start to climb the learning curve in your chosen field a little sooner. I don't think it translates into a specific advantage over students who've done research in other fields when it comes to graduate school applications. One possible exception is when you end up working with the group or professor you want to eventually do graduate studies with.

    As to your specific decision, there are probably a few factors to take into consideration. First, as an undergrad, it's important to explore a lot. So if all things are equal, it might be worth trying something new. But it's also important not to burn any bridges. Consider what kinds of commitments you've made to the professor you're currently working for. Is he or she expecting you to stay on for the next year? (If so, that just means you need to have an honest conversation - not that you're locked in.) You also want to consider where you're at with a project. If you're on the verge of a publication for example, I'd stick with it, because publications can make a big difference to graduate admissions, and starting a new project likely means that you'll have to climb another learning curve before you see any fruit.

    Finally, the offer of summer employment is nothing to sneeze at, particularly if your other options for summer employment would earn you an equivalent amount of money or less.
  4. Apr 1, 2016 #3
    I met with the Chemistry Professor today and he wants a commitment until graduation. He said I should have a few papers, posters, and a possible talk by then. All his undergraduate students working for him have a few first author papers.

    I love my current job, but I have been questioning if the work I am doing is going anywhere or if it is just to give me experience. If I were to choose to leave this position how would I do so without ruining the relationship with the Professor, for he gave me an opportunity when noone else would. I was turned down by numerous professors prior.

    What should I do? The Chemistry position is amazing, but also much different than the casualness of my current position.
  5. Apr 1, 2016 #4


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    It sounds like a choice between two good options.

    If you do decide to take the chemistry job, I'd be pretty up front about that with the current professor - make sure that you follow through with any commitments that you've already made, let him know how much you appreciate the opportunities that he's given you, but that you have an option that comes with a summer job and you really don't want to pass that up. If he has any experience with supervising undergrads, I'm sure he'll understand.
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