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Research as a Freshman?

  1. Sep 5, 2008 #1

    I'm a freshman electrical engineering major at (a large university in NC) wondering if it is a good idea to start research. I went down to the office and talked to one of the coordinators, who sent me this e-mail today...

    I talked with (a professor at my school whos research interests include Nanoelectronics and Photonics including III - V Materials and Devices, Nanotechnology, Silicon Devices and Fabrication) about the possibility of you working with
    his lab in doing undergraduate research. He felt that he would be able
    to work with you and help you develop an independent project that would
    get you started. You will need to contact him to arrange a time to
    discuss your interests and the opportunity that he is offering. He told
    me that he usually has Thursdays from 1-3 pm available to meet and every
    other Friday afternoon. He is included on this email so that both of
    you will be receiving the same information and to make it easier to
    contact (aforementioned professor). His phone is (555-5555). Please let me know how the
    meeting goes!

    Have a great weekend!

    So my question to all of you is should I take it? I've never really done research before but it seems like it would be interesting and a good resume builder (if so, to what extent?). What are the advantages and disadvantages of UG research? Will research experience give me a leg up when applying for co-ops, grad school (for a terminal Masters), internships, jobs, etc? Comments, opinions, and suggestions are appreciated!

    Thank You for your time!
  2. jcsd
  3. Sep 5, 2008 #2


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    Research experience will certainly help you when it comes to applying for grad school, co-op placement's etc. The only thing to be aware of, is that to make any real progress you have to put in the hours. And if this is your first year, you probably haven't even had your first set of mid-terms yet - so it may be difficult to gauge how much time you could commit to such a project. Also, most "projects" at that level tend to be rather menial. None-the-less, this sounds like a wonderful opportunity, so I'd certainly meet with the professor and see what's involved in the project.
  4. Sep 5, 2008 #3
    It can be a good experience, but I wouldn't recommend it until you've really settled into college.
  5. Sep 5, 2008 #4


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    I wouldn't skip the opportunity to meet with this professor, but I would suggest that when you do, you mention that you would like some time to adjust to college before starting. Perhaps you could start in your second semester, after you're sure you can handle the coursework before putting something else on your plate.
  6. Sep 5, 2008 #5


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    I've always wondered what kind of research undergrads could take part in, given that they would not even have a solid understanding of the essentials of their courses until the end of the second year. What kind of job could an undergrad in his 2nd or 1st year do in research?
  7. Sep 5, 2008 #6


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    I started doing research as an undergrad a little before the beginning of my second quarter of my freshman year. Granted, my research was in biology, so it requires a little less background knowledge than performing research in engineering. It was a great experience and I really learned a lot throughout my ~4 years in the lab (plus, I got two publications out of it which really helped for grad school apps). More importantly, I would say that most of what I know about biochemistry/biophysics came through my involvement in undergraduate research. So, I definitely would recommend getting involved in research as an undergrad.

    During my first few years in the lab, I did mostly "grunt work," and I didn't really get the chance to work independently until my junior year (when I had already demonstrated to the prof and my labmates that I knew what I was doing). At first, I was primarily pipetting around solutions in order to try to grow protein crystals, a task that requires little knowledge of biochemistry other than how to use a pipettor. Gradually, they would give me other, less monotonous, techniques to learn and perform until I learned the full skill set to tackle my own project. Furthermore, the postdoc I was working with would show me some of the stuff he was doing and would explain to me how the techniques/machines would work. I think having people in the lab who are willing to teach you stuff this is really key to a successful undergrad research experience as professors are usually too busy to do this (plus, many haven't worked in the lab for years).

    Despite my praise of undergrad research, my advice would be to start slowly. There's no shame in wanting to take it easy during your first semester in college. Your first semester is a valuable to meet new people and make friends who you'll be with for the next 4+ years. I would say to definitely talk to the professor, but also note that you don't want to commit too much time until you see how difficult your classes are (definitely mention that you are a freshman). The prof will probably understand if you don't want to start right away.

    Also, taking on an independent project as a freshman with no lab experience might be a bit rough. Hopefully, you could work for a senior graduate student/postdoc who could use an extra set of hands and would be willing to help train an undergraduate. Although you would not be working on your own project, the learning curve will be less steep and you'll get more out of it in the end. Plus, if you are working on a grad student's/postdoc's project, he/she will be more motivated to help you than if you were working on your own project. Besides, if you want an independent project, you can always start one in your sophomore or junior year once you are familiar with the techniques in lab.
  8. Sep 6, 2008 #7


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    Excellent points, Ygggdrasil! I agree completely that Freshman research will NOT be a really independent project. It's more a foot in the door to help with grunt work, as you put it. As you gain experience and the trust of others in the lab, you will get more and more challenging tasks, and as you gain more coursework background, you can start developing more independent projects.

    Yes, in biology labs, there is plenty to do that doesn't require understanding the theory if you're just attentive to details and careful to follow instructions exactly. I do teach students working for me the theory, but when they are still Freshmen, it doesn't sink in the first or even tenth time. Usually, someone willing to consider taking a Freshman into their lab is aware of their limited background and has the patience to teach them (or, they may assign the student to work under a graduate student or post-doc to give the grad students and post-docs some supervisory experience...I've done this too, and then supervise the supervision from a distance).
  9. Sep 6, 2008 #8


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    Sometimes you need bodies to populate data sets, reduce data, or do other stuff that can be time-consuming and tedious. Doing clerical work in the support of a research project won't be exciting, but it can be a way to find out how these things work behind the scenes, and gain some familiarity with the subject matter, perhaps to the point where one can participate more actively in an upcoming project.

    It may not be exciting or fun, but it can be valuable experience and a foot in the door to more responsible positions.
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