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Research during undergrad: more is better?

  1. Jan 5, 2013 #1

    I'm in my 3rd year now, and intend to do PhD after graduation (I major in Electrical Engineering, not Physics). As far as I've known, normally grad schools require around 3 letters of recommendation, so I think I really get to know well 3 professors. That's the problem: so far only one is close to me. I have been pursuing a research project with this professor for about 1.5 years. If I go on, I think I may have a chance to get some publication. At the same time, some other professors are also interested in taking me into their research groups - a few of them are pretty well recognized in my research field.

    Although there are still 1.5 years more to graduation, the application will be open soon, since I'm already in my 3rd year. I'm wondering if it would be more impressive to the admissions committee to have been with a project for years, or to have done multiple researches.

    Besides, I'm not sure of who else to approach for letter of recommendation. I mean, who else can justify my ability to do research other than the professor that I have been with? I took a few graduate courses and did pretty well; but I don't think the professors teaching those courses will remember me or at least have a good impression, since it's just teach-listen-assignment-exam kind of thing.

    Thanks for your comments :)

    P.S.: Some may wonder why I don't just continue with the research project I mentioned to my PhD study. I like this project, but frankly, I don't see much hope for academia jobs after getting PhD here, so I intend to apply to other schools in the US / UK / Canada instead. I like doing research, but it is also important for me to maintain that liking.
  2. jcsd
  3. Jan 5, 2013 #2


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    It looks to me like you've got a choice between two good options. Staying with one group will help you to further your work in that area and as you said, could lead to a publication, which can only help you. Changing groups allows you to spread your wings and develop some new relationships.

    The only other thing that I might add is that undergrad should be about exploring possibilities. So long as you don't balk on any committments, it's okay to jump ship from one group and explore something new.

    I wouldn't do this ONLY for the potential of some better reference letters though. As long as you have one coming from a professor you've worked for or had some kind of beyond the lecture hall academic relationship with it's fine to have the others be from professors who've taught you in a class.
  4. Jan 8, 2013 #3
    Hi, thanks for the reply :)

    So would it be better if I have an excellent LoR and so-so (or mediocre) LoR's than having all LoR's being good? It seems to me that it is hard to have all kinds of research experience in just a few years in undergrad while still being impressive - but this somehow contradicts the fact that grad admissions generally requires quite a number of LoR's. Or perhaps I overthought and the requirement of 3 letters simply means more chance for the admissions committee to find out the potential of the applicant?

    Would you mind elaborating a bit more on this last point of yours?
    As for exploring different possibilities as you pointed out, yes, I also thought of that when other professors approached me. I want to expand my horizon; just that I'm not so satisfied with what I have done with the current project. Leaving that aside, I think it's probably best to think ahead about the application and so on, because it's my ultimate goal for the rest of my undergrad.
    Last edited: Jan 8, 2013
  5. Jan 8, 2013 #4


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    Of course it would be nice to have all three letters of reference from professors who have known you for years, watched you work on various research projects and who speak very highly of you. But this isn't reality for most students. Lots of people get into great programs with only a single referee for whom they have actually worked and the other letters come from lecturers.

    It's easy to fall into the trap of over-extending yourself and ending up with three letters that say, "Well, he worked in my lab for a couple of months, but didn't really get anything done."

    There's also another factor that comes into play. Professors talk to each other. If you do a really great job working for one (or a really poor one for that matter) word is likely to reach others and influence their opinions. Sure, these letters are supposed to be independent and I think in most cases those who write them try not to be influenced by external ideas, but they're only human.

    So if you're happy where you are, you're doing a good job, and it's promising as far as a potential publication goes, what I mean to say is you're not really losing anything by sticking with something good.
  6. Jan 9, 2013 #5
    hi, thanks a lot; that's very helpful :)
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