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How can I get involved in research as an undergrad?

  1. Sep 18, 2010 #1
    Hey,

    First time poster here! (Though I must admit that i have been here before.)

    I'm a first year engineering and physics student (currently enrolled in the usual prerequisites, calc, chem, programing, etc -- no physics until next semester) at a public university called the University of North Dakota, which is primarily known for its aviation, and not-so-much for it's physics/engineering research.

    Having said this [to make it clear that a) i'm not at an ultra-competitive research institution, and, b) there is not an abundance of research opportunities, though I'm sure there are plenty], I am profoundly interested in finding a position as an undergrad researcher/research assistant (for many reasons, at the top of the list: letters of recommendation for transferring to Purdue, letters of recommendation for getting into the Navy's Nuclear Propulsion Officer Candidate program, and of course the experience).

    My problem is of course that since I am not in any physics courses yet, I have not met any professors in the physics department. I went to see my chem professor during his office hours during the first few weeks of class to ask him about a discrepancy in our textbook's nuclear chemistry chapter, and we ended up talking about some research he worked on the previous summer. He's the chemistry department head, so I do have at the very least one professor/contact who could lend a helping hand/opportunity.

    Does this more-or-less kill my chances of getting involved in research this semester (physics or otherwise)? and is it generally unorthodox for students in their first semester to get chosen for research, what about second semester?


    Any answers to any of these questions would be much appreciated, and any additional insight or information regarding research/applying for research/etc. is of course welcome.

    Help a guy out! -_-
     
  2. jcsd
  3. Sep 18, 2010 #2

    lisab

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    Welcome to PF, anonymity!

    Your contact with your chemistry professor shows how important face-to-face contact is in getting involved with research. I'd advise you to talk to your physics advisor and find out what professors are doing in their research. When you find one whose work is interesting, drop by on their office hours and chat about it. If you can, read some papers the prof has written, before you go.

    You should check with the engineering department about opportunities they offer, too.
     
  4. Sep 18, 2010 #3
    Would it be more or less frowned upon to seek out a position in an area that i don't find to be of intrinsic interest (chemistry)?

    I don't really care much what I do, so long as i can start doing SOMETHING. As having experience in something (even completely unrelated) would make me more appealing when something comes along that i am genuinely interested in (physics/engineering) and which i have more preparation/background in (ie, when I have some general calc based physics courses under my belt).

    If I read a few papers my chem professor published and asked him what he's currently working on and if he's in needs an undergraduate assistant, do you think it's remotely likely that he would toss me a bone?

    On a side note, it did seem like he liked me to an extent, i mean, he didnt kick me out the door after I asked my question or anything, and we had a pleasant conversation about his research, my major, etc.
     
  5. Sep 18, 2010 #4

    Andy Resnick

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    Personally, I prefer to hire a student for summer research when that student is interested in something specific.

    I have had students approach me (which you should definitely do- go knock on some doors, you won't get bitten) with the exact same 'line' as you: "I just want to do something, I don't care what it is..." and honestly, I don't like hearing that. Not because it's bad, per se, but more that it indicates the student is not likely to take ownership of their project.

    So: DO (1) look at the faculty websites, see if there is something interesting, (2) knock on that person's door and explain what and why you are interested and if you can work for them this summer, (3) find out how you can get paid (i.e. sources of summer research funding)- ask the other students, and (4) identify *more than* one faculty member, since there is competition and no guarantees in life.

    DON'T: (1) knock on doors 2 weeks before summer starts, (2) tell the faculty member that you don't really care what you do, but you want to get material for your resume, and (3) expect anyone to be interested in you unless you give them a reason.
     
  6. Sep 18, 2010 #5

    lisab

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    I don't think it's wrong if you worked for the chemistry prof, not at all. Your goals are an education and to get involved with research, so you'd be achieving those. And you're right, research experience is valuable regardless of the exact field.

    You might tell him that if he ever allows undergraduates to get involved in his research, that's something you'd be interested in, and see where that goes.

    Also, when you say 'undergraduate assistant', are you referring to a paying position? At the university I went to, undergraduates earned credit for research but it was very rare to get paid for it. But your university could be different.
     
  7. Sep 18, 2010 #6
    No I just didn't feel right saying "researcher" because that title is most likely not entirely accurate in describing the jobs/tasks that i would be doing as a freshman.

    I think that it works out a lot like you described; students get enrolled in some form of independent study or research course.

    @ Andy:

    Thanks for you reply (and to you as well lisab).

    It's not that i don't care what i do, but rather i likely am not qualified, or at the very least would be of absolutely no value to a physics professor in that i have only taken general high school physics. I am very interested in power systems and fusion/fission/nuclear reactions' biproducts in general, but my lack of expertise/contacts within the physics and engineering departments (seemingly) defeats any chance of getting into work with either discipline (in addition to my lack of a college GPA).
     
    Last edited: Sep 18, 2010
  8. Sep 19, 2010 #7
    Hey Andy, do you ever take on students during the school year for unpaid research experience? Or just give them some busy work to gather some skills? I'm in a similar position as the OP. I'm a freshman, taking Calc I and Physics I. Thanks.
     
  9. Sep 19, 2010 #8
    I'm not sure if I missed something, but if you haven't taken any physics courses, why do you think a professor would be willing to give you a research project or help him with his research? Think about it, what could you possibly do? Now, it might be different if you had some other skills (like programming), but it's really difficult to justify in your situation. However, if your chemistry professor is willing to let you help since you're already taking chemistry, then I say go for it. It's not like you're stuck with the one guy for all four years (or two years I think in your situation).

    I'd say worry about the physics after you've taken at least mechanics. You might have better luck during the summer with your physics professor (or someone else in the department).

    Also, I recommend going online and looking at the faculty in the physics department. You'll find that there may be a decent department with a few really good researchers who may not necessarily be on the map in terms of ranking but can help you out a lot. Once you find a professor who's research interests you, go to the department and knock on their door and say something like, 'Hi, I was interested in physics research and I found your research most interesting,' and so on. The worst that could happen is the professor will say you're not skilled enough yet.
     
  10. Sep 19, 2010 #9

    Andy Resnick

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    Again, this is a very self-defeating attitude.
     
  11. Sep 19, 2010 #10

    Andy Resnick

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    Sure- I had a student hang out during spring break last year. Create your own opportunities- knock on doors, ask questions.
     
  12. Sep 19, 2010 #11
    Thanks for the (mostly) constructive help. I ended up reading through all of the engineering and physics department's research pages last night and there was actually a lot more research, particularity in nuclear physics and hydrogen production, then i would have expect. Did the same for my chemistry prof, who is actually doing some really interesting work on something called electrochemical remediation. I'm going to essentially do what you and andy prescribed for both my chem professor and a few physics profs; knock on a few doors, preferably after i read some of their actual work (what i have read so far has only been overviews), and see if they're willing to take a chance.

    As for your (mildly) condescending opening sentences, I addressed my lack of experience in a previous post, and in addition to the fact that this post would not exist if I had excessive experience, your comment was not in the least helpful or necessary...put two and two together before you start putting people down.
     
  13. Sep 19, 2010 #12
    Oops. Didn't mean to offend, now that I look at it though it seems a little stupid.
     
  14. Sep 20, 2010 #13
    Interesting :)

    Two questions for you Andy Resnick, if you don't mind:

    1) Could it also come across as wrong offering your time and effort? Well the principle is of course very nice, but it might come across a bit presumptuous? Maybe it's just that I have a hard time imagining the specific things I could do, assuming the undergraduate student is actually involved in the physics and not just used for typing out things etc. Well I suppose it doesn't hurt to ask, but my question: does it hurt to ask? :p

    2) Importantly: really, ask more than one professor throughout the year if you could do something in the summer? What if they both happen to let you know you're welcome, then you'll have to turn a professor down after going to him asking for his help! Doesn't seem like a good thing to do? Am I wrong?
     
  15. Sep 21, 2010 #14

    Andy Resnick

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    No.

    No.

    No.

    2) Importantly: really, ask more than one professor throughout the year if you could do something in the summer? [/QUOTE]

    Yes.

    If you have multiple professors chasing you when there is a large talent pool available, then you shouldn't be concerned with seeming presumptuous.

    Yes.

    See above.
     
  16. Sep 21, 2010 #15
    Well I was actually in that situation myself. I was much more interested in astrophysics than condensed matter theory and I had to tell one of the professors that I wanted to do research in the other. I just thanked him for his time and for helping me out (since he was the first I went to) and that I'd found a project I was really interested and excited about. I think it went over well, I don't think he got a bad impression or anything.
     
  17. Sep 22, 2010 #16
    Good news!

    I found someone to work for within the mechanical engineering department. It's a paying job and he's completely fine with me having no solid academic foundation in physics or engineering. It's more or less a job, which more or less entails setting up shop.

    I've got an interview a little later this week. What kind of questions can I expect? What can I do to maximize chances of getting chosen (he said that there's three or four other people that have applied thus far, and the deadline is tomorrow.

    @ Andy:

    What sort of things would you ask a student? What sort of things would you be looking for?

    The fact of the matter is that i'm gonna go in and show him what I have to offer, but any other information could not hurt.
     
  18. Sep 22, 2010 #17

    Andy Resnick

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    Glad to hear you got a 'bite'. I ask students why they are interested in my research, what their expectations are, and after taking them on the $0.50 tour and outlining my expectations, I ask them if they are still interested. This is important- I do not expect the student tp have any relevant experience, and except for extenuating circumstances I am suspicious of any claimed skills- which is ok, since my role is to get the student onto a firm foundation.

    So far, the student responses have very neatly fallen into either "I dunno, I just want to do something" or "I want to do x,y,z and I want to learn i,j,k." From that, I can tell who wants to take ownership of a project.

    I'm curious about your interview experience- if you like, PM me and let me know- good luck!
     
  19. Sep 22, 2010 #18
    Sounds good.

    Thanks everyone for your feedback; I think i have already fallen in love with this community = O

    -case closed-
     
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