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Preparation for research as freshman/course rigor comparison

  1. Jun 7, 2014 #1
    Hello PF! I've come here for help again. I am entering as a freshman this fall, and I really, really want to participate in a research as soon as I can. However, I am aware of my lack of knowledge in physics, research techniques and utilities and such. What can I do to prepare for research? I have taken only calc-based physics 1 so far.

    And I am in a very large state university, and although I LOVE it here, at some point in time I am planning to transfer to a more competitive university in physics. How would class material compare between a large state university and a top university known for rigorous coursework (say, Cornell for example)? I wish to prepare for it as well.

    Thank you in advance!
  2. jcsd
  3. Jun 7, 2014 #2

    Vanadium 50

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    At a flagship state university, it would be more or less identical.
  4. Jun 7, 2014 #3


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    I wouldn't worry about it too much. The only thing I might recommend is to read. Read up on what interests you. Then look for opportunities to participate in research. Professors won't expect you to have knowledge beyond the level you're at. Generally, when an undergraduate student is taken on, he or she is not expected to lead the research - rather to do things they are capable of doing considering their education level.

    The only potential exceptions are cases where the student has ideas of his or her own and is simply looking for opportunities to explore them. To get to that level - go back to reading.

    The difference in the core courses won't be all that different. It can't be if the program is preparing you for graduate work. What you get are differences is the peripheral courses offered and perhaps the methods of instruction. So for example to do an undergraduate course in general relativity, in smaller schools this might occur as a reading course under someone who doesn't regularly work with general relativity or simply may not be offered at all, whereas at the larger school you may get an "introduction to general relativity" course taught by someone who is intimately familiar with it. As a student making a decision about the school(s) that you will attend it pays a lot more to focus on program course options and teaching approaches that the school's "reputation."
  5. Jun 7, 2014 #4
    @Vanadium 50: Ok thank you!
    @Choppy: I am interested in the theoretical side of physics. In a research involving experimental physics, I can imagine what an undergraduate assistant might be doing, but I am having no grasp at what I might be doing in a research of theoretical physics. Would you give me a general picture of a research in theoretical physics, and perhaps introduce me a reader-friendly book in particle/quantum physics?
  6. Jun 7, 2014 #5
    Undergrads in theory often do a coding project of some sort. That's what I did when I was an undergrad.
  7. Jun 8, 2014 #6
    I started research as a freshman also and I found the biggest obstacle to be PROGRAMMING. You should try to learn as much programming as you can before you begin research because with my experience, research (especially theoretically inclined) mostly involves running computer models. I've had 4 research experiences (2 at my university, 2 REUs) as an undergrad and each of them have involved large amounts of coding. Definitely try and take an intro CS class or two ASAP.

    I had similar plans as a freshman... to transfer to a "stronger" program after my first year. I ended up getting a research position which caused me to stick around. I don't regret it one bit. Although the competition at my university might not be as brutal as a more highly ranked program, I've managed to do quite well and even stand out amongst my collegues at my current state university. That is the good thing about going to a less competitive (but still solid) school for physics; you have the opportunity to really stand out amongst the crowd. Just make sure you have plenty of opportunities to explore research wherever you end up.

    Bust your tail and you'll do well wherever you go.
  8. Jun 8, 2014 #7
    @jbrussell93: Thanks for the continuous encouragement! Programming seems to be the jack-of-all-trades skill to have wherever you go into. Do you suggest a certain language that might be preferred in a theoretical field?
  9. Jun 8, 2014 #8
    Unfortunately, I don't have the experience to speak authoritatively on the subject of programming, but I will speak from my experiences so far...

    It shouldn't matter too much which language you choose to start with because they are all structured more or less the same way. I started with C mostly because it was the first programming class that I took but if I had to choose one to start with it would have to be PYTHON. Although I haven't used it much, younger programmers definitely seem to use it a lot. I have heard it called the "future" of programming. The most user friendly language I've programmed with in my opinion is definitely MatLab, especially for calculations/plotting.

    The most popular for theoretical physics (people can correct me if I'm wrong) seems to be fortran code. It's just so darn fast. Most of the so called "legacy code" that I run into, although I'm not in theoretical physics, is fortran code. It's a good idea to at least orient yourself with fortran.
  10. Jun 8, 2014 #9
    @jbrussell93: Ok, I likely won't reach a proficient level before I run into my first research, but I will do my best to learn fortran. Do you mind if I can ask you for advice from time to time?
  11. Jun 8, 2014 #10
    Oh ,I was not trying to imply that you should be proficient by any means. Heck, I'm still not proficient... It's good that you are being proactive but don't sweat it if you have difficulties understanding the programming. It's something that you will slowly pick up as you use it more. I used to hate programming, but the more familiar I became with it by using it, the more I began to really enjoy coding and appreciate its power. The problem was that I hadn't taken a formal course and had a bunch of lingering holes in my programming foundation. Taking a structured course will really help make sure you get the basics down and then you can build up from there. (*not advised* - I [painfully] made it through 2 research experiences before I took my first programming course)

    Sure, any time :thumbs:
  12. Jun 8, 2014 #11


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    Just remember not to get in over your head! I made that mistake and it was not fun, to say the least.

    By the way I go to Cornell and one of my closest friends goes to Berkeley and there is virtually no difference between the courses or the course rigor. Granted Berkeley is in a league of its own but I don't have friends doing physics at any other state colleges.
  13. Jun 8, 2014 #12
    @jbrussell93: Alright awsome :D :D

    @WannabeNewton: Haha yeah I at times get overly eager, usually followed by overwhelm. Then do you think if I did well in calc-based physics 1 and 2 at a large state university, the problem solving skill I used in those classes can also be utilized in the same classes at the likes of Cornell and Berkeley?
  14. Jun 8, 2014 #13
    playoff: If coding is completely new to you but you want to try and learn it in your spare time you could also try codeacademy.com. The site's format is nice because it allows you to work on pretty cool projects while you learn coding. I worked through the javascript course sequence 2 summers ago and essentially taught myself all I needed to know for my school's Intro to Programming course. They have a track for learning python: http://www.codecademy.com/tracks/python
  15. Jun 9, 2014 #14


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    You could always see for yourself. Berkeley uploads a lot of the HW problems, usually with solutions, that it uses for its honors mechanics, honors EM, and honors waves courses. Unfortunately Cornell doesn't do that but the honors physics courses here are the exact same as those at Berkeley. The reason I mention honors physics courses, as opposed to regular physics courses, is, at least at Cornell, an overwhelming majority of the students who plan on doing physics with the prospect of eventually doing a physics PhD/research take the honors track.
  16. Jun 9, 2014 #15
    I would say familiarise yourself with calculus and/or linear algebra if your basics aren't up to scratch. The gap will naturally be much larger if you're transferring to a better university. I'm not familiar with the US-style honours system – in my school honours just means you write a senior thesis – but the vast majority of physics courses are heavy on calculus and a few, like quantum mechanics, will require a strong foundation of linear algebra. From the high school perspective I would advise you to focus on the basic single variable calculus stuff; being good at things like integration like parts will take you a really long way in your undergraduate years.
  17. Jun 9, 2014 #16
    Alright, thanks for the advices!
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