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Making a grad app look good if you can't stand working in a lab?

  1. Jul 14, 2009 #1
    So I posted similar thread a while ago, and it ended in me giving working at this lab a go. I've worked there two times a week since the start of the summer, and I can barely bring myself to go in. Next to my systems admin job, there is practically no reason to go to the lab. When I go to the lab, I get stuck doing grunt work, I move stuff, occasional cut stuff apart or weld it together, and yeah, it's expected, I'm a new guy. But I look at the people who have been working there for two years, and the only difference is they're given slightly bigger things to build (and so are granted full days in between the times they have to go and talk with the excessively condescending guy in charge of the lab). So this seems to be confirming to me that I don't want to be an experimentalist.

    So what can you do to make your grad apps look good if you're aiming to be a theorist? I don't have the best GPA, because I spent the first 2 years of my B.S. double majoring and overloading myself, so I need something. Any ideas?

  2. jcsd
  3. Jul 15, 2009 #2
    I don't remember exactly (it has been 7 years since grad school applications), but I never remember having to state I want to become a theorist or an experimentalist. Do your grad school applications require this? It seems odd. I don't think there is a double standard for admission as a theorist vs admission as an experimentalist. There are forum members here who have served on grad school admissions committees, so they might give you some more information.

    I actually knew I wanted to be a theorist but I think that is beside the point. Your first 2 years (approx.) in grad school are spent taking the core courses. Everyone takes them. So, this distinction between theorists and experimentalists is minimal until after your core courses are established. Some schools even force you to do research rotations in which you spend a quarter or semester checking out the research of a different researcher to give you an overview of their work and if you are interested.
  4. Jul 15, 2009 #3
    I guess the more important thing though, is that I need something to make my apps look good, but I can't stand working in the lab to get research experience. Is there anything else, or should I suck it up and keep going to the lab?
  5. Jul 15, 2009 #4
    I misunderstood your question. Very sorry.

    How much time until you need to apply for grad school? Are you likely to find another research position? Can you find a research position with a theorist? What is the stipulation for your employment at the lab?
  6. Jul 15, 2009 #5
    I'm going into my 4th and possibly last year (though, if I can get my university to ignore a good deal of my useless AP credits, I won't be bumping against the 180 credit limit of my financial aid and can possibly stay an extra year, pick up another degree and bump up my GPA a bit).

    When you say research position with a theorist, how would I go about doing that? I mean, do theorists really use UG RA's? And for what?

    Stipulations for employment at my lab? There aren't really any.
  7. Jul 15, 2009 #6
    Sure theorists use Undergrads. I worked for 2 years with a theorist as an undergrad. I am not going to lie to you- you will still be doing grunt work. I ended up doing a lot of parameterizations of experimental data (curve fitting), checking over calculations, coding simple subroutines, debugging code, etc. This work was all done for free, I was not paid. You are an undergrad and that means you most likely lack any experience with physics research, most likely are not all the comfortable with high level physics, and lack the experience of graduate course work. This all means you get stuck doing the grunt work. It really doesn't matter if you are an experimentalist or a theorist. The only difference is what kind of grunt work you get stuck doing.

    How to do you go about finding a position? Well, read up on the work all the theorists do in your department. Then go and talk to them about it. Then ask if they have any work an undergrad might do. And hope somebody has some work for you.

    And if I was you, I really wouldn't write off experimental work yet. It sounds like your lab is in the building (or rebuilding) stage. There is a lot of labor that goes into setting up a lab and keeping it running. It also seems like you don't like your supervisor (is he the professor doing research or is he just that, some supervisor for the lab?). So maybe it is more a conflict of personalities than it is you not liking experimental work. Just a thought.
  8. Jul 15, 2009 #7
    I'm not expecting anything more than grunt work, it's just "build a table" is the sort of grunt work I don't like :) And yeah, they're in the building phase and the supervisor (just some supervisor for the lab) and I do have a personality clash, so it's possible that I shouldn't write off experimental, but still, I have yet to enjoy any lab classes I've taken and when I talk to some of my class mates, what they're doing in labs doesn't sound much like fun either.

    Also, is there anything besides doing research that I should give a try?
  9. Jul 15, 2009 #8


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    Programming work is big for undergrads. I spent two summers as an undergrad working for professors and both times pretty much all I was doing was writing code. I think that's more or less the extent of what you can do as an undergraduate researcher in a theoretical field. (Of course, the programming experience will be useful throughout your career :wink:)
  10. Jul 15, 2009 #9
    This is definitely not accurate. I am currently at the end of my 3rd year of a 4 year undergraduate course in the UK, and am doing my degree project in theoretical physics (specifically graphene condensed matter physics). I do no programming at all, and work in analytical theoretical physics, looking at elegant exactly solvable problems. I have been part of a research team who have solved 3 or 4 problems, including solving for a potential previously unknown for Schrodinger equation, and a few potentials for the 2D Dirac equation. It is suprising how many exactly solvable problems there are, that can be solved using only undergraduate knowledge + some extra work and studying.
  11. Jul 15, 2009 #10


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    Okay, so there is other theoretical stuff you can do. But in general it's more likely that an undergraduate doing non-experimental research would be writing code than doing math.
  12. Jul 16, 2009 #11
    Programming work is probably the safer course. At least you will have something you can put on your resume that might get you a job -- programmers are always in demand. I had a research post where I tried to find analytic solutions to plasma flow equations. No joy. Fortunately I was also seeking numerical solutions. Joy! Plus I could put programming languages X, Y and Z on my CV and never had a problem finding a job again. If you actually find an analytic solution for a potential previously unknown for Schrodinger equation then you will get lots of applause from your colleagues & maybe even a career in physics. But if you don't (the most likely scenario!) then you aren't left with much to put on your CV. Your knowledge of C++ (or Fortran/Algol/Smatalk/Java) will look good on your CV, even if your modelling didn't pan out.
  13. Jul 16, 2009 #12
    what the hell are you talking about? analytical theoretical physics? 3 or 4 analytical solutions? show me a paper because each of those solutions is worth one. and i work in cm physics/graphene/buckypapers so i would've heard about something like this...
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