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Grad School/Beginning Research Catch-22

  1. Nov 13, 2008 #1
    I'm currently a Junior (sort of: units say senior, class schedule puts me to graduation end of next academic year) astrophysics undergraduate at UCLA and I know a major requirement in many grad schools is research experience. I talked to many professors last year and none would take me on as I had just transferred and they suggested acclimating to the school first. I attended many colloquiums, lectures, and probed others on how to get involved in research and everything leads me back to talk to professors and show interest.

    Furthermore my counselor suggested learning some programming languages to create a better candidate in myself. So I have learned, though not mastered, MATLAB, C++, and LaTeX (not really programming but gets me HUGE brownie points with professors). So this year I pursue professors again. Many are impressed that I've tried so hard to get involved but the biggest problem is that they say I have no experience!!! Absolutely true, but that's what I'm trying to get! I've even offered to enroll in programs that would pay me for the research so the professors wouldn't have to foot the bill, to no avail. So how does one cross this sort of hurdle? And it looks like I need to learn some more programming, how does one start learning IDL?
  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 13, 2008 #2


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    Have you tried applying for an REU elsewhere? There are many programs out there, and while the more competitive ones also expect you to have some experience, many do not. After a summer of that (applications are due next month), someone might be willing to take you on for an undergrad thesis project.

    Once you've learned one programming language, even just a little, you can pick up another one pretty easily. C++ should help you with IDL. There are a few intro to IDL books out there, or you can try to convince someone to teach you the basics - how to write and compile a program - and use the help files from there. Make up small assignments for yourself - I recently taught a few of my undergrads how to program in IDL, and had them write programs to calculate restaurant tips, exposure times for CCDs, reading and plotting data files, things like that. You might be able to get a grad student to help you out for a few hours.
  4. Nov 13, 2008 #3


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    Sometimes it is helpful to contact professors who may know you from class (especially those where you've done well). If they do research in which you are interested, they would be good people to ask and may be more willing to take you on as they know something about your abilities. If they don't do research that you're interested, they still may be able to get you in contact with other professors.

    I'm surprised, however, that no professors are willing to take you on. Are you looking for a paid research position? In that case, you would need research experience. In my experience (I studied biochemistry at UCLA), most people I didn't have much trouble finding opportunities to do research. Have you talked to people at the URC-CARE office? (in the Life Sciences building, but they also oversee undergrad research in the physical sciences).

    Finally, I would agree with eri about the suggestion to look for summer REU programs. Although I did not do one, they look very good when applying to grad schools, especially if you can get into a competitive one.
  5. Nov 13, 2008 #4
    I applied to several REUs last year (7 I think) with no luck, currently swamped in midterms but slowly trying to do some more. Oh and I wasn't looking for a paid position per se, I should have put some background on that. I've gone to a few professors in total "will do anything mode" even telling them I will merely volunteer, just to be in the lab, and see how things run and maybe work my way up to actually being a member. But I brought up the paid stuff because I had a professor tell me that there's a lot of overhead costs and time that must be invested to get a undergrad ready for lab work, which is why I started bringing up "outside sources" (CARE) to the various professors to cut out some of that cost.
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