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Question about being an undergraduate research assistant

  1. Jul 30, 2007 #1
    I'm a sophomore in physics and I asked my physics professor about helping him with his research in his astrophysics group. I would be involved in his astrophysics research while being a student at the university. Now I've never been a research assistant to any physics project before, but I know the research I will be conducting won't be similar to the research activity that goes on in the REU program. I also have no idea of how to approach my professor to tell him how I will assist in the Astrophysics group he has formed. I like astrophysics , I just don't know how to contribute to the astrophysics team. What should I expect to be contributing to the group as a first time student research position. As I stated before, this isn't REU where research activity is fulltime only be a small part of my schedule this fall, sort of similar to having a part time job I guess.
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  3. Jul 30, 2007 #2
    How will the project differ from an REU? (other than not being full-time?)

    You should approach the professor and ask him to suggest a sophomore-sized problem (or let you pick one of several) to work on. You presumably asked him to supervise you because there was something about his research that interested you, so you can say "I know you study large fuzzy blobs that are really far away and I wondered if you had any ideas for a related project that I would be able to make progress on over the course of next year".

    Do you know any programming languages? You will be much more useful to him if you do. Let him know what sort of time commitment you would like to make and ask him how often he would like to meet with you.
  4. Jul 30, 2007 #3
    I don't know any programming languages. I have moderates knowledge on how blackholes are formed, and how black holes dies as well as the physical makeup of a black hole. well, can you tell about what your first experience was like as an undergraduate research assistant? Do you think renewing my knowledge on blackholes and gamma ray bursts by rereading the various blackholes books I acculumating will immensely widen my role in my professor's project?
    Last edited: Jul 30, 2007
  5. Jul 30, 2007 #4
    When I was an undergrad, I did a bunch of Research. Though my research was in High Energy Physics. My first project involved doing some curve fitting to experimental data to get phenomenological cross sections for use in some codes for calculating cross sections (lasted about 3 months or so).

    My next project was to work through a paper rigorously and verify the results of the authors numerical simulations. I had to code of my own numerical model based on theirs and see if they left anything out of the paper or had an errors. I was lucky and found an error.

    Over the next year, I spent my time working with one of the senior grad students on his dissertation work. One summer I had to spend completely re-deriving the theory of his dissertation. Then coding from scratch all his work to independently verify his results. That was a long summer- but I felt very accomplished after that.

    So, you didn't mention whether you were going to be doing experimental work or theory. From my experience, if you are doing theory as an undergrad, you will spend your time doing a lot of re-deriving, reading of papers that are way over your head, working on little parts of bigger projects and sometimes doing "the grunt work."

    Your professor will likely have a couple projects in mind for you. But you should also come in with some things you are interested in and ideally you two will decide on a project that is feasible for your level of physics knowledge, is of interest to you, and contributes to the group overall.
  6. Jul 30, 2007 #5
    Refreshing your background knowledge never hurts, but you really need to just go talk to your professor and come up with a well-defined project.
  7. Jul 30, 2007 #6


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    If you have time to read a little, I would suggest that you get your hands on the last several papers the prof has published. That would give you a more specific idea of what he is doing. Then you could look up the papers or books cited in the prof's papers. If you see some specific concepts mentioned in the papers that you have never heard of, you might want to google those words and get some basic understanding about those topics. Try to get the basic ideas of what the papers are about, without worrying about understanding every little technical aspect.

    I think that what matters most to the profs is to feel that A) the student has at least some idea of what the prof is doing and B) the student is a good student and is eager and excited about the subject.

    My two cents
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