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How does 1st/2nd year undergrad labs compare to real research?

  1. Jan 26, 2015 #1
    i'm not sure if this is the best place to post this so if its in the wrong place i'm sorry and ill try to move it

    i've always loved physics. I've never been good at much of anything except math and science. Never could play an instrument worth a damn, zero athletic ability, and so forth, but math and science was my thing, it was the one thing I am GOOD at. It's been my dream for years to become a physicist and eventually conduct research in a lab or at an organization like CERN or NASA. I've felt like this was my goal for years but over the last several months I'm beginning to have doubts.

    I'm a first year undergrad student studying physics at my uni right now and the lab component of my classes is seriously the worst part of my week. I fully understand and appreciate the reason behind a lab component to a class, but I just hate it so much. I don't know if its the way that the class is taught or if I don't like the labs despite the way it is being taught but every week I dread going to the Physics lab.

    Couple reasons why:
    First term, we were given instruction beforehand to give us details on how we should prepare for the labs beforehand. This term however, we are given zero instruction beforehand.

    We never are given enough time to finish our labs. Last term I dont think a single lab group actually managed to finish any of the labs before time ran out. This term, our labs are half an hour *shorter* than before.

    Our lab coordinator has some strange rules which can cause some stress

    overall, its just a very very stressful period of time in my week, and I dread going to it every time. This doesn't inspire confidence in the idea of spending 10 years of my life studying physics to do more labwork, if I end up hating the actual work itself.

    My question to you guys is this:

    For any of you who have walked this path that I have always wanted to walk, what's the destination like? How would you describe your daily work compared to your memory of 1st/2nd year undergrad lab work? Are there any physicists here who hated undergrad lab sessions but love their research?

    Is the grass greener on the other side or is it this shade all the way through?
  2. jcsd
  3. Jan 26, 2015 #2

    Vanadium 50

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    I was going to say that real research is nothing like a 1st year lab - it's a lot more open-ended. But there is one thing that's common: there's never enough time.
  4. Jan 26, 2015 #3
    I'm an undergrad (and done with lab classes, fortunately) and I also do research. I hated labs, just like you do. The equipment never worked, writing the lab report was a waste of time, and the whole thing was just frustrating. Like you, it was also the worst part of my week, and I dreaded it.

    Let me assure you that I now love research, even experimental research. It's nothing like labs.
  5. Jan 26, 2015 #4

    Vanadium 50

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    You don't do low temp, do you? In low temp you spend most of your time fiddling with your fridge until one day it works, and then you take a bunch of measurements as fast as you can until it warms up. Then you go back to fiddling.
  6. Jan 27, 2015 #5


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    I have had only one significant hands-on period in my job. This was assisting with a sampling tool that goes down fuel channels in nuclear reactors.

    The experience for me was one of an almost Zen-like concentration on collecting the data. Have you ever seen the Japanese Zen thing where the master walks down the rows of meditating monks and whacks them with a two meter long bamboo rod? The tool is operated by hydraulics. The hydraulics run on a pump that is about as loud as smacking a table with that bamboo rod, and it pumps about every 5 seconds when the tool is operating. I operated the tool for about 4000 test samples. Each taking about 8 minutes. Leaning over the tank to make sure everything was lined up properly, peering at the computer screen to see that the data was collecting correctly. Dipping my hands in the tank of water to move the sample to the next location. Struggling to find the sample chip when the tool messed up and dumped the chip into the channel.

    It was a good change from my usual routine. But for me, I prefer the desk work.
  7. Jan 27, 2015 #6

    Andy Resnick

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    Undergraduate labs (especially the introductory labs) are to actual lab research as working at a fast-food restaurant is to being a chef. Undergrad labs can be excellent training grounds for basic measuring techniques, learning how to keep a lab notebook, writing reports, etc. However, undergrad labs often consist of simple recipes/procedures that must be followed exactly, and there is no room either for creativity or for problem-solving. So, while undergrad labs are an essential part of your scientific training, please don't think there is any correlation with actual research.
  8. Jan 27, 2015 #7


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    There are also some similarities between introductory lab work and real experiments: The measured data never quite fits to the theoretical model, you have little resources, you might need to do measurements you are not really interested in, you have to do a proper lab report and data analysis. Learning how to deal with those, also with the presence of equipment which might not be entirely optimal for the task at hand (euphemistically speaking), is essential for getting to grips with the real experiments, too. This is one of the reasons why the labs are done the way they are: For learning complex techniques, you need to start somewhere; optimally at a place where you still have a good understanding of the entire problem at hand.

    So even if the intro labs are to real experiments are like working in a fast-food joint compared to working as a chef (Andy: a great analogy, by the way :) ), if you have never before used a knife or a stove, you can still learn essential skills for the latter from the former, even though the fast-food work is boring and uninspiring. It does get much better in advanced labs and real experiments, of course.
  9. Jan 28, 2015 #8
    I often feel out of my conformt zone in the lab. I excel more in theory. I kind of find I lose my ability to think while I am in the lab. I am either doing stuff or thinking and imagining how science works. The multitasking of reading instructions/protocols, working accurately, keeping track of everything, communicating with the persom you are coorperating with, not mixing up samples, doing practical stuff, writing down in your lab journal, and all the whole analysing what is happening, is just hard when I do something for the first time.

    Now I don't do bad. I just feel like I am not in my element.\

    Not sure if you can relate with this but that's how I feel.
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