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Is my impression of undergraduate research sound?

  1. Jul 8, 2015 #1
    So I'm sitting on a happy GPA and an acceptance letter to transfer to a nice school for the rest of my undergrad, my dreams of a PhD looking bright, and this terror just grips me like a swimsuit out of water. I've never actually talked to a professor about how research works. I've read a lot about it-especially the million threads on here-but I've never asked someone about it.

    Here's my impression of how it works. Let's assume I get into an REU or a professor says, "Hey, you're a smart lady. Let me show you my lab." My dreams are realized and I'm in the grit of real research. I take just the right amount of time to absorb everything I can about what's going on in this project. After that point, I either get involved in collecting the data by helping perform the experiments, or I look at the data and try to extrapolate some meaning from it myself. I know the latter will probably be the responsibility of the grad students, but hey a girl can hope. I then make some sort of contribution to the write up of the results, and god-willing I get named as an author.

    Ok, so that's if everything goes well if I'm not horribly mistaken in something. But I don't know how anything in that ideal scenario changes as things evolve. I don't even know how to make all that stuff go in my favor. How do I make a contribution enough to get authored. Does it matter what I research at all, or should I pick something and stick with it. Do I bring brownies to the lab to make people like me? I just don't know.

    I know there's a lot of uncertainty in this post, but it'd be cool of someone to just put all of it at ease and make me feel like I'm on top of the world again. Or you could just be significantly less cool and point out that there's no answer to my questions. Which is less cool by about five orders of magnitude. Just sayin'.

    Regardless, thanks for any support. I normally read old posts for stuff like this but I can't find any details on these questions in the first several popups of the title tab suggestions. You guys are awesome.
  2. jcsd
  3. Jul 8, 2015 #2
    Work hard. Be nice. Don't make excuses. It will probably work out.

    Different groups have different standards for including undergrad authors. Chance plays a role as well as effort.

    But people who work harder get luckier.
  4. Jul 8, 2015 #3
    This response is only less cool by two orders of magnitude :P

    No but seriously, thanks. I just get nervous when I see people post here and elsewhere about publishing 3 papers or more as undergrads and I'm just like, "AAAAH HOW DO I EVEN!" It's a little unnerving.
  5. Jul 8, 2015 #4


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    I wouldn't worry too much about the people who manage to publish three papers as undergrads. In my experience, most of them have either gotten lucky enough to be involved with a project that was very lucrative in terms of publication, had very generous mentors, or don't actually know what a peer-reviewed publication is. That's not to say that there isn't the occasional except who is driving her or his own research, but the key word there is exception.

    As an undergraduate your research contribution to a project can vary considerably. Some will essentially write computer code. Some will take a bunch of measurements without really understanding what's going on. Some will have the opportunity to explore their own ideas.

    I think the real key is to dive in and explore. Ask questions. Talk to senior undergraduates or graduate students if at first professors are too intimidating. If you get involved with a project and like it, stick with it. If you find yourself wondering if there's something better, make sure you fulfil any commitments you've made and then try something else. Part of being a student is exploring your options. Usually, professors don't expect huge commitments from undergraduate students.

    Oh and the brownies... not required, but you won't make any enemies with them.
  6. Jul 8, 2015 #5
    Don't worry about it. Your professors won't expect you to know what research is like. I've been doing research with a professor for about two years (in electrical engineering) and it's a lot to take in at first, but professors are usually able to guide you in the right direction regarding getting acquainted with the process and the particular things being studied.

    It can be a radically different experience for a lot of people, so the best thing you can do is show up and show a strong willingness to learn and improve.
  7. Jul 8, 2015 #6


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    Depends on how good they are. Nowadays they have to be low calorie and taste good.
  8. Jul 9, 2015 #7


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    It is worth keeping in mind that doing research is difficult and as an undergraduate student you simply don't have much relevant experience. Here in the UK the usual estimate is that it takes a new PhD student about a year working full time (no courses) to reach a point where he/she is independent enough to make an "independent" contribution to a project (and perhaps 2+ years if the project e.g. involves fabricating samples in a cleanroom). By "independent" I here mean that you have enough experience to be able to figure out what to do when something unexpected happens, as opposed to just following step-by-step instructions.
    Now, the system in the US is obviously different since you have an opportunity to get some of this experience as undergraduates; but presumably the same thing applies: you need to spend x amount of hours in the lab before you have enough background to make ad independent contributution as a researcher, and x is a large number.
    This does in no way mean that your contribution is not valuable. It simply means that you will need a lot of guidance and most of what you will do will be relatively simply tasks.

    Undergraduate courses give you the background you need to do physics. They do NOT teach you how to do research, that is what a PhD is for.
  9. Jul 9, 2015 #8
    I'll share my experiences from having been an UG research assistant for over a year now (keep in mind I'm in EE).

    Professor's don't expect too much from you, most are happy to see an interested UG and just want to provide an environment for them to learn/grow (well the good ones anyway). I would say don't expect the prof to pay you (some might) and to seek out your own funding from your school's UG research office.
    From the very start I was involved in a hardware evolution project. In the beginning I wrote a python script to solve an ODE and spit out a C header file with the data for our evolution algorithm. Later on I was asked to do a field survey and work heavily on the previous work section of the paper, I also helped run simulations (from home, gotta love remote PC control). I was lucky enough to be given 3rd author (prof was 4th), but that isn't a sure thing always a lot of times you're lucky to get an acknowledgement which is what I probably should have actually gotten. I was able to present our work at a UG poster event which was an amazing experience where I got to meet some cool people.

    I've gained a ton of RA/TA experience, I've edited two masters theses, a book chapter, and a grant proposal. It feels great when a paper you work on editing comes back "accept with no changes" from the journal reviewer...bet it feels even better to be that 1st author :P I've met many visiting faculty and attended useful seminars...that helps a lot with networking for grad school admissions.

    That sounds cool and all, but as you can see we UG typically play second fiddle for sure...most of us, myself included don't have the skills to do meaningful work at the cutting edge of science. We're still in the UG material mindset, a lot of the stuff in our mind is old foundational material...not always what's being published in journals.

    The thing is to take it easy and try to absorb as much as you can, read as many papers as you can. Also realize that the point of this experience isn't to blow everyone away, but to really find what you like and more importantly what you don't like. There were a few topics which I thought I loved but after having worked on them I hate them! I'm glad I found this out now because it helps me narrow down what to do in grad school.

    Eventually, if you feel your ready you should try to branch out on your own (under the guidance of your mentor/prof). I told my mentor that I wanted to work on my own paper and asked for his guidance. He set me up with good resources and I was on my way! Until I realized I still didn't have good original ideas...so I read and I read, tons of papers that I thought were relevant to what I wanted to work on. Eventually while reading one paper I had light bulb moment and realized I could improve on this work I had read...we're shooting for IEEE journal but if we don't make it then I'm gonna use it for a UG thesis. I've learned more in a month working on my own paper than I've learned in a semester long class!

    That's my experience up until today and I've loved every second of it. UG research has definitely changed my academic career in a huge way. It's not without struggle, it takes a lot of time from your courses, doesn't always pay competitively and you may not even get a publication at the end! But who cares, life is about learning and learning as much as you can, so don't be afraid just go out there and kick some ass!
    Last edited: Jul 9, 2015
  10. Jul 9, 2015 #9
    We've got one student that has the Midas touch, every project he touches yields a paper that gets accepted quickly by the first journal it is sent to, most recently Review of Scientific Instruments. He'll have five peer-reviewed papers as first author by the time he graduates from high school (four now). We try and get every student we mentor on at least one paper, so we've given some consideration to what makes this student stand out in terms of publication productivity:

    1. He works long, hard hours even when he's not "on the clock."
    2. He works independently and reads volumes of background material.
    3. He picks projects that are conceptually on the simpler side (within his understanding), but that other students shy away from because of the experimental challenges.
    4. He's learned to analyze the data and write the first draft of papers himself, including understanding each journal's requirements.
    5. He's very smart: strainght As and likely a 140 IQ.
    6. He's not afraid to learn new things (programming/analysis tools) for a project.
    7. Each project builds on, and is a bit harder, than the last.
    8. He prefers publication to presentations and competitions (science fairs, etc.)

    I doubt many undergrads can manage anywhere near this level of productivity. But there are some lessons to be learned. As an undergraduate on a research project, you need to do the tasks you are given very well with great attention to detail, add new skills quickly to make additional contributions, be willing to do some of the less desirable jobs in the lab, and read enough background to understand how your contribution fits into the big picture.
  11. Jul 9, 2015 #10
    Is it safe to say that his stuff is more in the realm of independent study/projects? That's something I really would like to get into myself and how you described it is exactly how I pictured it. Or is he tag teaming with his professors and are they deeply involved?
  12. Jul 9, 2015 #11
    He definitely does well over half the work on each project, but when experiments are being run, there are always more experienced people present. But he takes the lead in study design, data collection and analysis, and writing the papers.

    In contrast, I think most undergrad contributions are less than half the total work on most publications with other parties leading in the study designs, data analysis, and drafting the papers.
  13. Jul 9, 2015 #12
    I can't stress this enough. I'm a junior and I have three publications (going on four). It's not because of me, it's because I got lucky enough to have two great mentors who publish a lot. If it were up to me, I'd still be figuring out how to spell my last name on the first page of the paper.

    Seriously, don't let your uncertainty be what stops you from doing research. I started my freshman year, having never taken a physics or programming class before. I had no idea what to expect. I hated it for the first year or so, because I had no idea what was going on, I felt as though they were throwing knives at me and expecting me to juggle them.

    Looking back, sticking through it was the best decision I've ever made. My advisors even now admit that I was incompetent at first, but that I've become one of the most dedicated students they've had. I'm still not above average intelligence, but I work hard to make up for it. Plus I bake good cookies.

    Also, a professor won't just walk up to you and say "Hey, let me show you my lab". You have to put in a lot of effort to even get involved. Send out e-mails. Stop by office hours. Give it a shot, you won't regret it :)
  14. Jul 9, 2015 #13
    That makes a lot of sense. I'm no stranger to luck playing a role in success. And I'm definitely not considering not doing research, it's more of a stress over uncertainty that bugs me.

    And I have no delusions of a professor just coming up and inviting me. I'm no stranger to the outreach and networking necessary to gain favor in groups of people smarter than me.
    Last edited: Jul 9, 2015
  15. Jul 9, 2015 #14
    Have a look at the source code here: http://sourceforge.net/projects/amoreaccuratefouriertransform/files/ElyaEItfm.c/download

    And the paper here: http://arxiv.org/pdf/1507.01832v1.pdfhttp://arxiv.org/pdf/1507.01832v1.pdf

    Think about the following questions:

    Could I have written that program? It's sort of simple and entry level for the programming skills needed to contribute to a physics or engineering lab as an undergraduate.

    Even if you would have needed a grad student or faculty mentor to help with the programming, could you have reasonably independently performed the analysis in the paper, prepared the figures, and written a rough draft? The student has 300-400 hours of work in this project, and by "independently" I mean 80-90% of the work was done without the direct oversight of a mentor.

    Also keep in mind that this paper is borderline for whether it will get accepted to a peer-reviewed journal. This student already has three peer-reviewed papers, and she chose this project instead of several simpler projects because it was developing a necessary tool and background for a much more interesting project she is currently working on.
  16. Jul 9, 2015 #15
    That's funny because I just looked at that in your signature.

    It seems digestible though-and right up my alley. That puts me at ease.
  17. Jul 9, 2015 #16
    If you have programming skills, you can likely make productive contributions in that area while you come up to speed in other skill areas, especially if you can read instrument manuals and learn how to program for both data acquisition and data analysis without bugging the graduate students too much. Highlight your programming skills on your resume, in emails, or in your networking efforts.

    The other skill I gained early in my undergrad lab experience was working with ultra high vacuum systems. Nothing here is too complicated, but you need to be detail oriented (borderline OCD) because a leak or outgassing problem is a headache for everyone. Become a trustworthy set of hands for putting the vacuum system together and getting it pumped down, and you'll soon have more important duties coming your way.
    Last edited: Jul 9, 2015
  18. Jul 9, 2015 #17
    I'm minoring in CS for this very reason (and as a backup plan if I don't want a PhD after 4 years). Thanks for the constructive advice.
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