Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

Gauging Expectations of Prof. for Research

  1. Aug 7, 2010 #1
    Hi all, I am about to get my M.S. in physics after next year, and wanted to spend some time doing research in theoretical physics. I understand this can be done at a distance, without being anchored to some lab instrument, of course. So: I am offering my services to professors for free, without funding, hoping to pick up some skills, and study in the meantime. I plan to live with and work for my parents for a year. Hopefully, I'll have published something after that year, and can write that on a PhD-program-application. I might even buy myself a little extra time to study for the Physics GRE.

    So...that brings me to my question: in choosing a professor to do research for...what is the differerence between:

    1) an Ivy League PhD prof researching at an Ivy League research-university (e.g., prof got their PhD from Harvard, and researches at Harvard)
    2) an Ivy League PhD prof researching at a not-Ivy League research-university (e.g., prof got their PhD from Harvard, and researches at Joe-Backwater college)

    3) a not Ivy League PhD prof researching at an Ivy League research-university (e.g., prof got their PhD from Joe-Backwater college, and researches at Harvard). This may be a rarer species, of course..
    4) a not Ivy League PhD prof researching at a not-Ivy League research-university (e.g., prof got their PhD from Joe-Backwater college, and researches at Joe-Backwater college)

    I'm imagining (1) will have crazy expectations, and I won't be able to keep up with them with a state-university graduate physics education (though I'd like to believe I could). I am therefore looking predominently for species (2), and any young professor with displayed passion and humour about their field who is species (2) or (4).

    Thanks very much.
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 7, 2010 #2
    Joe-backwater college?... lol

    I think it depends on the person.
  4. Aug 8, 2010 #3
    None of that matters. And the quality of education isn't as straightforward as you seem to think. Why shouldn't you be able to work with someone that works at an ivy league university? They're still just a person at the end of the day. You would have competition that will make it extremely difficult to get the opportunity but other than that... What matters for research is the person you're working with. It's never as simple as 'ivy league = best' at post-graduate level: different universities specialise in different things. There are hundreds of universities but thousands of subjects. Lots of very small universities do exceptional research - it depends what your subject area is.

    I don't think this is a very good plan, either. You have to be realistic. Finding a professor that will guide your research is difficult enough, nevermind trying to find one when you aren't even at a university - nevermind not being at their university. If professors want a student to work with, they'll almost always have an abundant supply at their own institution. You need to remember why they're doing it, too - professors don't help with research because it totally benefits them. It takes them time, and undergrad research output is very slow compared to what they could do themselves. Sure, there will be some numbercrunching etc it would be nice to 'out source' as it were, but that's not why we choose to supervise students.

    Choosing theoretical physics because 'you can do it at home' also isn't a good idea. Experimentalists often aren't 'wired to their equipment'. Most experimentalists I work with spend their time analysing data - albeit real-world data rather than a model. Also a lot of theoretical work will involve things like programming - which you couldn't do on your own unless you bought academic licenses for the relevant packages (if it was something like MATLAB).

    Also, 1 year to get a publication isn't a long time. I've submitted papers that have taken a year since the initial draft was finished to publish - and it can take a few months of research + a few months of writing to get that draft.

    Finally, it might even be against the institutions regulations for a supervisor to take a student that isn't enrolled at the university.
  5. Aug 8, 2010 #4
    Hi, thanks for your reply.

    You're right:they are just a person at the end of the day, and they have runny noses and gas just like the rest of us. But: I'm afraid that I may be left behind in the dust if they are simply too advanced, and have no patience for any ignorance of mine. I'm 27 and am in just my first year of physics, after a big career-switch. I probably can't work with someone who is especially brilliant. I also struggle with depression, and having too large an initial learning curve could just get me overwhelmed. I'm sure I have to climb learning curves wherever I go, but I need my research experience to be a bit more gradual.

    To corroborate what you're saying, there's this university in Albany where my friend is doing some pretty cool research. He derived the Schrodinger equation from mathematical hidden variables and some diffusion-stuff. (Don't know the details). It's information-theory, I think. Really neat-o, and that may be "Exceptional" research coming from this no-name physics department.

    It is a risk ... I may be hurting my application to a PhD program by taking a year off without a gaurantee of success and productivity attached to that year. But....do you have a Plan B esque suggestion for publishing something before I start applying to PhD programs?

    Oh, well, portability of research is not why I picked theoretical physics. I just like having nothing standing between me and simulating Reality than a pen, paper, my imagination, lotsa math, and perhaps, as you say here, a whole lot of computer code. : )

    In any event....I just am coming to the end of a summer's worth of research, and realized I did not work at a satisfactory pace because I was still learning a lot of the mindset you need for research. I want to gain more experience doing that. Perhaps, also, if I don't get something published, I could show another professor better skills, and gain at least a letter of recommendation.

    My goal right now is to just get better at research before entering into PhD program. I see taking a year off as a possibility, but perhaps that ain't as good an idea as I thought it was. Do you have any other suggestions? :-|
Share this great discussion with others via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook