How to get into undergrad research

In summary, a student majoring in applied physics is seeking advice on how to get into research in order to receive a good recommendation for graduate school. They are unsure of how to approach professors and whether or not to wait until after finals to contact them. They are also unsure of what to say in an email and during a meeting. Other students suggest talking to professors in person and attending class regularly, as well as seeking out summer research opportunities through the NSF. The student expresses frustration with attending class and not feeling the need to meet with professors outside of class. They also mention feeling guilty for not attending class regularly and not getting much out of it when they do attend.
  • #1
StatusX
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I'm currently an undergrad majoring in applied physics (though I plan to go on to pure physics in grad school). I'll be entering my junior year next year, and I know it's important to get into research so I can get a good reccomendation. But I'm not exactly sure how to go about it. Do I just email a professor I've never met and ask if I can meet him? Should I do that now, with only a week before finals, or wait until the beginning of next year? Should I have ideas ready, and if so, where do I get them from? I'm really lost, and I appreciate any advice you guys can offer.
 
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  • #2
I would talk with some professors that you had classes with or some advanced undergrads. Get them to offer suggestions on who you might like to work with. Possibly, get them to introduce you to these folks. You might want to read up on what research is going on there.

Go ahead and wander over to the professor offices and introduce yourself in person. Why wait until next semester? (Do wait for finals to be over.) A prof may give you a headstart [or even a summer job] before the summer starts.
 
  • #3
I don't really know any grad students, and I'd prefer not to deal with my professors. My advisor told me to go ahead and email someone who's doing interesting work, but I'm wondering if this is the best way to do it, and if so, what kinds of things to say in both the email and the meeting (eg, ideas, experience, etc.)
 
  • #4
Don't your professors have office hours? That's not a bad time to go if you're shy about emailing for a meeting. Unfortunately - you might not have the time to yourself since other students may show up.

As an undergrad, you're not going to know anything substantive, and any decent professor should know that and not have high expectations about your prior knowledge. You don't want to work for a jerk anyhow. Sometimes profs do have web pages you can browse. It might be good to find some papers they've written as well - but chances are you won't understand them anyhow.

It's almost always better to talk in person rather than by email. If you are shy, now is a good time to try to work on overcoming that shyness by talking to some profs in person.
 
  • #5
In terms of summer work, next summer you should look into REU's. These are summer institutions set up by the NSF at universities (I'm assuming you're in the U.S.). Find out information on these now and start writing app's and stuff when you go home for christmas break. When you come back from christmas break is when the deadlines usually start moving around.
 
  • #6
Actually, I meant I just don't want to deal with the professors who teach the classes I'm currently taking. I don't go to class often, and I'm pretty sure they resent me for it. It's not that I don't have a work ethic, just that the lectures are boring and it's much easier for me to learn out of a book. I don't have a problem with meeting a new professor, but obviously I'd have to email him first. I'll just do that today or tomorrow and come back if I have more questions after I schedule a meeting.
 
  • #7
That is a very bad way to go through your major, I would start going to class from now on.
 
  • #8
Just out of curiosity, why? If I'm learning the stuff, getting good grades, and not asking these teachers for references, what does it matter?
 
  • #9
You should go to class simply because you might learn something incorrectly, or because you will not understand it as completely as well as you could if you attended class. You also would not have this problem of not wanting to go to professors whose class you have not been attending. Also, consider that to get into graduate school, you will probably try to get recommendations from at least some of the professors you have had for class and what will your absences make them think of your work ethic?
 
  • #10
StatusX said:
Actually, I meant I just don't want to deal with the professors who teach the classes I'm currently taking. I don't go to class often, and I'm pretty sure they resent me for it.

They probably don't even know you exist to tell you the truth unless its a sub-20 seat class. Also, you really need to get to know your professors because recommendations are an important part of the grad school application. I got to know my departments chair after the first few weeks of attending college (he was coincadently the instructor for my introductory mechanics class's lab).
 
  • #11
A great deal of "research" these days involves groups of people working together. Part of going to class is learning how to work with others... not to mention that I (personally) learned a lot from my other classmates and my professors.

my $0.02
 
  • #12
I keep hearing that, that you should go meet your professors outside of class, go to office hours, etc, but I have no need to. You get punished for understanding the stuff because you don't have any questions to ask, and they don't get to know you. What, do I just make up questions about stuff beyond the class material, with the obvious intention of making an impression? And yes, there are around 20 people in the classes.

And just for the record, I try not to miss more than one day a week in two of my classes (I never go to the other two), just out of a general feeling of guilt I get when I don't go, but I never get anything out of it when I do. I either already know the stuff from reading the book or I'm too tired to learn anything and spend the hour trying to stay awake.
 
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  • #13
I had the same problem as you as an undergrad - not really getting much out of some of my physics classes, so I didn't attend them. Nor did I like schmoozing with profs in their office hours. I had to bite the bullet in some cases and take a couple lab-based classes that I thought would potentially have more professor-student interaction.

From a practical standpoint - you'll need 3 recommendations for grad school. What is your plan for getting them? All three of my recommendations for grad school were from profs that I interacted with outside of the classroom, though I did take classes from 2 of them.

Also - at some point - there's got to be at least one class worth attending that is interesting.
 
  • #14
StatusX said:
I keep hearing that, that you should go meet your professors outside of class, go to office hours, etc, but I have no need to. You get punished for understanding the stuff because you don't have any questions to ask, and they don't get to know you. What, do I just make up questions about stuff beyond the class material, with the obvious intention of making an impression? And yes, there are around 20 people in the classes.

And just for the record, I try not to miss more than one day a week in two of my classes (I never go to the other two), just out of a general feeling of guilt I get when I don't go, but I never get anything out of it when I do. I either already know the stuff from reading the book or I'm too tired to learn anything and spend the hour trying to stay awake.

As juvenal has said, unless you are satisfied with getting a plain, generic letter of recommendations, it is vital that you make yourself known to your instructor/professor beyond just blending in a class. This is especially true if you intend to go on to graduate school, or if you intend to get a decent employment.

.. and I'm not saying that if you're in intro physics, that you have to go bug the instructor all the time. But if you're in an upper level undergraduate classes, presumably you should have some interest in some area of physics. Find the professor that work in that area and talk to him/her about it. This need not be the same person who you are taking a class with.

Consider this as a "training" ground, especially if you intend to work in this field. You will find that physics is a VERY human endeavor that requires you to interact with a lot of people with a range of ... er... quirkiness. It is never too early to learn how to interact with other physicists.

Zz.
 
  • #15
While I'm asking all these questions, let me just throw this in. Right now I'm leaning towards something in aerospace. But I don't want to design aerlions or model wing shapes in a wind tunnel or anything like that. I want to go into theoretical physics and work on the most advanced, speculative propulsion technologies. Is this a real job, or just something I read in popular mechanics? And if this is an actual career, what field do I specialize in? Aerospace engineering? Physics? Who should I do research with?

By the way, I secretly want to go into pure theoretical physics, but I don't know if I'll be able to do it, or at least get paid to do it. So I want to get as deep into physics as I can, rather than getting a superficial, statistical/applied physics background like a normal engineer would, so I can leave both of these options open as late as possible. Is there any way to do research in theoretical physics (string theory, etc) as an undergrad?
 
  • #16
Could someone please answer my last question? I really want to get in touch with a professor to get started on some research, but it'd be nice if I could get involved with someone in the field I'll be working in. So I need to know what that field is. Thanks for the help so far.
 
  • #17
I know nothing about the aerospace stuff, but as for undergrads doing theoretical research - it's pretty rare, I believe. You might be able to do something computational.
 
  • #18
StatusX said:
Is there any way to do research in theoretical physics (string theory, etc) as an undergrad?

No. The fact that you are even asking this question betrays your lack of understanding of physics. You need to complete the upper-division courses in mechanics, electrodynamics, relativity, quantum theory, and statistical physics plus a big chunk of mathematics -- differential equations, complex variables, advanced mathematical methods, and then a couple of years of stiff grad level courses in mechanics, quantum field theory, differential geometry, etc. before you're even in a position to understand what's going on.

Coming back to your original question. You don't need to go to class, and if you're going to a research university, the instructors probably don't know you exist or couldn't care less if you attended class or not. But you need to make contacts. If you email an active professor you don't know, he won't give you five minutes. You have no real background yet. The only way is if you chat to professors in the staff lounge, or attend seminars where you can make the odd comment or ask the occasional question. Even then, any professor of your acqaintance will ask you to spend several years acquiring a proper rigorous education.
 
  • #19
StatusX said:
I don't really know any grad students, and I'd prefer not to deal with my professors. My advisor told me to go ahead and email someone who's doing interesting work, but I'm wondering if this is the best way to do it, and if so, what kinds of things to say in both the email and the meeting (eg, ideas, experience, etc.)


Email them, say you're interested in their work and would like to get involved. Ask to meet with them. Pretty simple.
 
  • #20
Sounds like your school isn't a research institution so the professors are probably very accessable. The fact that they are actually teaching the undergrad classes infront of the class means that they do want to get to know you and enjoy the experience. Just talk to ANYONE about what you want to do and they'll give you some better advice then people on here can (because you can immediately ask follow up questions and form long-term relations). As everyones said, its absolutely essential to get some contacts if you want to go to a good grad school (or more importantly, one with a professor whos famous in your field of interest). I personally must have gotten lucky because i indirectly (through another professor! See, got to talk, even casually) found out one of the professors at my university works on the DØ project at Fermilab. My professor said that its important to try to work with someone who has connections (like this other guy might, i haven't foudn out yet) such as him in your field or something related because if your good and the guy is rather well known, he'll "parade you around the country" which will go a loooong way as far as getting to where you want to go for grad school.

Anyhow, like everyoens pretty much aluding too, if your not sociable with your instructors, its pretty much like sabotaging your own future.
 
  • #21
I am an undergrad in freshman honor physics and am doing some theoretical research I guess you could call it. I was searching the Internet and found out my professor has doing a summer research project on teaching and using general relativity to calculate orbits around stuff like black holes and white dwarfs and what not. I still have another month of school and am already reading up on math and background for it and it will be pretty rigorous. It's all about making yourself known, talk to your teachers and ask them questions.
 
  • #22
I have similar problems, although i am quite outgoing, go to all classes (both lectures and problem solving classes), i have a hard time going down and talking to the professor after lectures to make myself known. There's always a good chunk of the most brainy students down there talking to him, so if i got nothing to say really i don't feel like going down there and making up questions. Obviously if i DO have questions i go down and talk to him.

Btw I'm only a first year student but i will need recommendations if I'm going to go as an exchange student to USA, and i'll need them within the next few months.
 
  • #23
bombadillo said:
No. The fact that you are even asking this question betrays your lack of understanding of physics. You need to complete the upper-division courses in mechanics, electrodynamics, relativity, quantum theory, and statistical physics plus a big chunk of mathematics -- differential equations, complex variables, advanced mathematical methods, and then a couple of years of stiff grad level courses in mechanics, quantum field theory, differential geometry, etc. before you're even in a position to understand what's going on.

Obviously I don't mean cutting edge research. I'm asking what kind of research the people who know they want to go into theoretical physics do when they're undergrads.
 
  • #24
you can usually do a paper or project for a particular class.
As for doing lab work in theoretical physics you hav eto talk to a prof...
if your marks are stellar and your really enthusiastic about the work, and you know a little,a professor might take you on but don't hope too much
 
  • #25
neurocomp2003 said:
you can usually do a paper or project for a particular class.
As for doing lab work in theoretical physics you hav eto talk to a prof...
if your marks are stellar and your really enthusiastic about the work, and you know a little,a professor might take you on but don't hope too much

How does one do lab work in theoretical physics?

Zz.
 
  • #26
StatusX said:
Obviously I don't mean cutting edge research. I'm asking what kind of research the people who know they want to go into theoretical physics do when they're undergrads.

"Research" that isn't cutting edge, i.e. something new, doesn't deserve the name. You may be confusing research with, say, doing a project on some topic, maybe reading some journal papers, then writing a synopsis and/or giving a survey talk. Though from you've told us so far, you're not at the stage where you can do this. You don't have to believe me: take the bull by the horns, and go and communicate your enthusiasm and determination to an active faculty member, i.e. one who is pursuing a his/her research program, and is publishing. See if you have any luck; I may be wrong.

mewmew said:
I am an undergrad in freshman honor physics and am doing some theoretical research I guess you could call it. I was searching the Internet and found out my professor has doing a summer research project on teaching and using general relativity to calculate orbits around stuff like black holes and white dwarfs and what not. I still have another month of school and am already reading up on math and background for it and it will be pretty rigorous.

Excuse me if I'm perplexed: reading up on math is "doing research?" Are you at a level where you can do tensorial calculations with ease? Do you already have a rigorous background in modern differential geometry and GR, say at the level of Misner, Thorne, and Wheeler's Gravitation, or Hawking and Ellis' The large-scale Structure of Spacetime? Do you have an unsolved problem you're tackling, or a conjecture you're trying to settle? Why are you debasing the word "research?"
 
  • #27
bombadillo said:
Excuse me if I'm perplexed: reading up on math is "doing research?" Are you at a level where you can do tensorial calculations with ease? Do you already have a rigorous background in modern differential geometry and GR, say at the level of Misner, Thorne, and Wheeler's Gravitation, or Hawking and Ellis' The large-scale Structure of Spacetime? Do you have an unsolved problem you're tackling, or a conjecture you're trying to settle? Why are you debasing the word "research?"

"re·search *(r-sûrch, rsûrch)
n.
1. Scholarly or scientific investigation or inquiry. See Synonyms at inquiry.

2. Close, careful study."

Why do you have such a bad temperament about this thread, you are so negative and condescending to people trying to learn. And no, reading up on math isn't my research, as I said I am reading up on it before the research starts, and tensor analysis is part of my reading. This is just reading to get me up to the level of being able to learn and somewhat understanding the material we are going to cover. I think you are the one that is debasing the word research as you don't grasp the basic concept of the term.
 
  • #28
Zapperz: not experimental work...but lab work. ie some professors have a computer lab in which students are performing simulations...that is lab work in theoretical science. Not all labs are experimental. Guess you've never seen a non experimental lab.
 
  • #29
neurocomp2003 said:
Zapperz: not experimental work...but lab work. ie some professors have a computer lab in which students are performing simulations...that is lab work in theoretical science. Not all labs are experimental. Guess you've never seen a non experimental lab.

OK... just to make sure we are clear in this and to prevent misunderstanding in the future, we call what you described as "simulations", not "lab work". You just HAPPEN to do your simulation in a "computer lab" (a misnomer if you ask me). There's nothing that says you can't do it on a laptop while having coffee at a Starbucks (I certainly have done that). On the other hand, you can't do many physics experimental work at your local neighborhood Starbucks.

I'm not insisting that I have a monopoly on what is defined as "lab work". However, I think even you can see how such a thing can be very misleading when applied to how you are using it. Numerical computation, which can be a vital part of both theoretical and experimental physics, are never considered to be "lab work".

Zz.
 
  • #30
its called lab work because its assigned by a professor for their lab...whether your performing an experiment, collecting data, analyzing data, researching papers or doing simulations. This just isn't a term for physics it goes across all sciences. And from what i remember Numerical Computations are considered labwork, but it might depend on the size of your simulations...ie VR is labwork and so is astrophysics simulations(the doors that say do not enter simulations in progress)
I don't know the size of simulations that you've programmed but some simulations cannot be done on laptops.

As for going to starbucks to code yes you can,but only for snippets of code...when you truly want to run your simulation you will need a network or powerful computer setup like sharcnet(from cdn). Sorry the term eludes me because my brain is shutting down.
However you can also do the same thing for experimental work, not the actually implementation but the thought process and analysis. There are very few professors that i knew who wouldn't go for coffee and talk about an experiment.

Also note that some experimental labs also have programmers doing simulations in them...Ie Psych labs where there is VR and Cogsci research..as well as astrophysics labs. Maybe its a countrys terminology but in Canada we just call them labs.

Oh yeah and the term should not be confusing because the term is associated with doing work for a professor.

btw What would you call a computer science/sftware eng professors lab?
 
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  • #31
neurocomp2003 said:
its called lab work because its assigned by a professor for their lab...whether your performing an experiment, collecting data, analyzing data, researching papers or doing simulations. This just isn't a term for physics it goes across all sciences. And from what i remember Numerical Computations are considered labwork, but it might depend on the size of your simulations...ie VR is labwork and so is astrophysics simulations(the doors that say do not enter simulations in progress)
I don't know the size of simulations that you've programmed but some simulations cannot be done on laptops.

I've written a 20-page quantum monte carlo code in C to find the band structure and calculate the activation energy of a catalyst surface used in the petroleum refining industry. It required 1 500 MHz stand-alone computer 2 1/2 days to finish a complete job. Would this be "large" enough for your consideration?

.. and I didn't have a laptop then, but I could have easily run it on my current laptop from a starbucks - I may have to LIVE there and wait for a complete run to end, but that isn't the point, is it?

As for going to starbucks to code yes you can,but only for snippets of code...when you truly want to run your simulation you will need a network or powerful computer setup like sharcnet(from cdn). Sorry the term eludes me because my brain is shutting down.
However you can also do the same thing for experimental work, not the actually implementation but the thought process and analysis. There are very few professors that i knew who wouldn't go for coffee and talk about an experiment.

I'm sure you know that "talking" about an experiment is nowhere near being the same as doing the experiment. Any experimentalist can tell you that (and one is trying to do just that right now).

Also note that some experimental labs also have programmers doing simulations in them...Ie Psych labs where there is VR and Cogsci research..as well as astrophysics labs. Maybe its a countrys terminology but in Canada we just call them labs.

Oh yeah and the term should not be confusing because the term is associated with doing work for a professor.

btw What would you call a computer science/sftware eng professors lab?

I don't really think it makes any difference in calling a physical location a "lab". However, if you equate that as doing an "experimental work", which is the term you used, then I would ask you to show where in the practice of physics such a term is widely used? If you look in either conferences, or even professional journals, that you wish to submit your work, they certainly do not consider "computer simulation" as "experimental work". If no such categories exists (in Particle Accelerator Conference, computer simulation is a category all by itself), then more often than not, computer simulation gets lumped into "theoretical" rather than "experimental" category. I should know, I've run a couple of such conferences where that was done.

If you wish to use that term, that's fine, and I'm not stopping you. I will caution you that your usage of it will create confusion and misunderstanding. If this is not something you care about, then you are more than welcome to ignore my suggestion.

Zz.
 
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  • #32
20 page code, that's what 32-40 lines of code? 800 lines ...no that's not a lot though you mentioned that the time required to run teh simulation was. A good size project is about 5000-10000 lines of code. But you can see where I'm going...for example take a good factorization code...it can take a good 2wks to run...this is only suitable in a lab setting.

Also I never said that experimental work and computer simulations were equivalent...what I'm trying to say is that your equating the term "lab" with "experimental work" is not true.

I am equating the term "lab" with the professors research, his group and his students and the labwork that they do whether it be experiments, simulations, researching papers...etc.
 
  • #33
Reply to Original Question

While undergraduates in just about any field do not know everything there is to know about any particular area, there is a long ways to go before you know enough to really publish Doctoral-level research (and that is the way it should be, otherwise everyone would get a Ph.D.), I do believe a reasonable amount of research can be conducted by undergraduates.

Research is new information, or possibly old information rehashed, for the researcher it is new and that is what makes it research - I believe. Book reports are not research and neither are surveys of literature, unless I guess you are studying history and some sort of comparative study was being done on existing literature.

I took a Linear Algebra class at another institution that I can completely bored in, I had already taken Modern Algebra and I tutor mathematics, so the material they covered wasn't new to me. BUT, I went to class anyways, and I did miss a lot. Final grade: 99/100 in the course. Some students can do that, not go to class and understand the material. But I'm also getting ready to apply to graduate school and, after doing summer research at other institutions, realize and understand the importance of letters of recommendation and impressing professors.

Somewhere down the line you need people to speak about how dependable you are and how smart you are. If you answer questions in class right all the time, a professor that really cares might recommend for you to go to XYZ summer program or program on campus and become your research mentor, as was my case.

I could have blown off Calculus 2 or 3, Differential Equations, Modern Algebra, or any other course I've taken within the past 3 years. But, and I have classes of less than 10 students, professors really do pay attention to that and take that into consideration when writing letters of recommendation and when you ask them to do research with you.

New professors might be the best bet for you, it might be the way you might want to go. But the way professors see it, if you don't show up to class now, and seeing as past behavior is a good prediction of future behavior, will you show up to research meetings or, later on, your graduate classes?

In math, you have to work hard to find new proofs, or even to prove things that have already been proven to show you have some proofing ability. But, put yourself in your professors shoes, if that new professor asks one of your current professors how you are in class, what do you think the answer will be?

- Vanes.
 

Related to How to get into undergrad research

1. How do I find research opportunities as an undergraduate student?

There are several ways to find research opportunities as an undergraduate student. You can start by reaching out to professors or graduate students in your department and expressing your interest in their research. You can also check your university's website for research programs or attend research fairs and information sessions. Additionally, you can join a research club or organization on campus.

2. What qualifications do I need to have to participate in undergraduate research?

The qualifications for undergraduate research opportunities vary depending on the specific project and professor. However, most programs require students to have a strong academic record, relevant coursework, and a genuine interest in the research topic. Some programs may also require students to have prior research experience or specific skills, such as coding or data analysis.

3. Can I participate in undergraduate research as a freshman?

Yes, it is possible to participate in undergraduate research as a freshman. Many universities offer research opportunities specifically for first-year students, such as summer research programs or introductory research courses. However, it may be more challenging to secure a research position as a freshman compared to a more experienced student.

4. How much time commitment is required for undergraduate research?

The time commitment for undergraduate research can vary depending on the project and professor. Some programs may require students to work a certain number of hours per week, while others may be more flexible. It is important to discuss the time commitment with the professor before starting the research project to ensure that it fits with your schedule and academic workload.

5. Can I get paid for participating in undergraduate research?

Some undergraduate research opportunities may offer a stipend or hourly pay, while others may be unpaid. It is important to discuss compensation with the professor or program coordinator before starting the research project. Additionally, some universities offer grants or scholarships specifically for undergraduate research, so it is worth looking into those opportunities as well.

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