Research Experience for Graduate School

  • #1
Hi,
I am a physics major in my second year . So far, i did not do any research and with the current coronavirus situation, getting into a research program in my university is unlikely (since most of them are experimental). I had some questions about the research experience of graduate school applicants (mainly for top US and Canadian schools).

In your experience, what level of research experience gives an applicant a reasonable chance of admission in graduate schools? or in other words, what would be the "acceptable" level of research work in undergrad?
Do most of the top graduate schools decline applicants with little to no research experience and work?

Should I get worried for not doing research in the summer of my sophomore year? What can I do to improve my chances in this situation?

Please share your experience I would appreciate it.
Stay safe everyone!
 

Answers and Replies

  • #2
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I think they really look at your GRE scores, your grades and your extra stuff like papers and research if any in that order. In a sense, applying to graduate school is like applying for a job. Admissions will see that you have the right scores in the GRE and pass your application on to the profs who will look at your grades and your statement of interest to decide if you are a good fit for their research programs.

I think @Dr. Courtney could provide some more insight here from his experience.
 
  • #3
Dr. Courtney
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Hi,
I am a physics major in my second year . So far, i did not do any research and with the current coronavirus situation, getting into a research program in my university is unlikely (since most of them are experimental). I had some questions about the research experience of graduate school applicants (mainly for top US and Canadian schools).

In your experience, what level of research experience gives an applicant a reasonable chance of admission in graduate schools? or in other words, what would be the "acceptable" level of research work in undergrad?
Do most of the top graduate schools decline applicants with little to no research experience and work?

Should I get worried for not doing research in the summer of my sophomore year? What can I do to improve my chances in this situation?

Please share your experience I would appreciate it.
Stay safe everyone!

Most of the top grad schools decline most applicants. Research and its importance in applications is hard to quantify. The most important thing from your research experience is winning a glowing letter of recommendation from your research supervisor. I've known students greatly exceed expectations in acceptances because of letters of recommendation saying they were their best research student ever.

But for now, you need to get the needle off of zero. Several students I know get research opportunities by blowing away their professors with performance in class. If you're the best classroom student a prof has seen in a couple years, you will have their full attention when you knock on their door or email them to ask about research opportunities. If you can't manage that, then you need tangible skills: programming, electronics, instrumentation, etc.

But an application is a whole package. Research is more important than a double major, but not worth sacrificing much in terms of your GPA. You won't know your GRE score until late in the game - late Junior or early Senior year. So you should be working hard toward research accomplishments in the meantime. Getting research opportunities tends to be easier in programs with only a few physics majors relative to the number of faculty. If you're not a good enough student to stand out and get a research opportunity, then it's unlikely you'll be a strong candidate for a top grad school.
 
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  • #4
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The point of undergraduate research is not to tick, boxes. Nor is it to get better letters, although it can certainly do that. It's so that you can learn if you even like doing research before going off to grad school to face six or seven years of it.
 
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  • #5
Choppy
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I wouldn't stress about not having research experience in your second year of university. It's great if you can get it, but there are many reasons why a student wouldn't get it. Circumstances as they are right now, I'm not sure many students anywhere are going to be gaining much in the way of research experience this spring/summer. But even current pandemic aside, there are a lot of students who need to work while going through school or who have family responsibilities that prevent them from pouncing on research opportunities as they come up.

That said, it's important to get *some* research experience at some point during your undergrad years. Often this comes as a senior or honours thesis project. But that's not the only way. Lots of professors will hire undergraduates to work for them over the summer. The experience does not need to come through any formal program. Bonus points come if you can do it by bringing in external funding.
 
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  • #6
Thanks for all your comments!
on average, what is the research experience/achievements of a successful applicant of the top phd programs like?
What other factors can be helpful in my application to balance the "relative" lack of research experience and work?
I know that having publications for example is not a "requirement", but I just want to know if 4 semesters and one summer is enough time to gain a competitive level of research experience.
It appears that people who get research positions early (no matter what level of research they started with) are always ahead of people who don't earn them.
I just want to have a realistic expectation for the level I should aim for, in regards to graduate schools.
Thanks again and stay safe!
 
  • #7
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The point of undergraduate research is not to tick, boxes.
on average, what is the research experience/achievements of a successful applicant of the top phd programs like?

<sigh>
 
  • #8
StatGuy2000
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Thanks for all your comments!
on average, what is the research experience/achievements of a successful applicant of the top phd programs like?
What other factors can be helpful in my application to balance the "relative" lack of research experience and work?
I know that having publications for example is not a "requirement", but I just want to know if 4 semesters and one summer is enough time to gain a competitive level of research experience.
It appears that people who get research positions early (no matter what level of research they started with) are always ahead of people who don't earn them.
I just want to have a realistic expectation for the level I should aim for, in regards to graduate schools.
Thanks again and stay safe!

Without disclosing any personal information, I happen to know where you are studying, and one advantage of the university you are attending is that there are many opportunities available for pursuing undergraduate research.

If you had been doing well academically in your physics courses, I would suggest e-mailing your professors expressing your interest. I would also suggest looking at the NSERC USRA and see what is available there.
 
  • #9
StatGuy2000
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Most of the top grad schools decline most applicants. Research and its importance in applications is hard to quantify. The most important thing from your research experience is winning a glowing letter of recommendation from your research supervisor. I've known students greatly exceed expectations in acceptances because of letters of recommendation saying they were their best research student ever.

But for now, you need to get the needle off of zero. Several students I know get research opportunities by blowing away their professors with performance in class. If you're the best classroom student a prof has seen in a couple years, you will have their full attention when you knock on their door or email them to ask about research opportunities. If you can't manage that, then you need tangible skills: programming, electronics, instrumentation, etc.

But an application is a whole package. Research is more important than a double major, but not worth sacrificing much in terms of your GPA. You won't know your GRE score until late in the game - late Junior or early Senior year. So you should be working hard toward research accomplishments in the meantime. Getting research opportunities tends to be easier in programs with only a few physics majors relative to the number of faculty. If you're not a good enough student to stand out and get a research opportunity, then it's unlikely you'll be a strong candidate for a top grad school.

@Dr. Courtney , let's say, hypothetically, that a student is studying physics at a large, well-respected school with a prominent physics program, at roughly at the level of the University of Michigan, or Berkeley. Would students in these programs struggle more to stand out and get a research opportunity, as opposed to those attending at a much smaller school?
 
  • #10
Dr. Courtney
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@Dr. Courtney , let's say, hypothetically, that a student is studying physics at a large, well-respected school with a prominent physics program, at roughly at the level of the University of Michigan, or Berkeley. Would students in these programs struggle more to stand out and get a research opportunity, as opposed to those attending at a much smaller school?

Probably. I do know early research opportunities are harder to come by at Ohio State and Georgia Tech than at Texas A&M and University of Georgia. It's extrapolating somewhat to extend that to U of M and Berkeley.

But I think the important indicator of "size" is the ratio of physics majors to active research physics faculty. I also tend to think that formal research "capstone" requirements work against opportunities for better students to get involved in research early. Supply and demand. Formal research capstones create an oversupply of mediocre students who need research advisers.
 
  • #11
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I had "only" 2 summers (8 weeks each) and my Honours thesis for research and managed acceptances to every program I applied to, including top programs. And I'm sure there were people who did research for longer who got rejected. There really isn't some long length of time you need to meet, it's more about what you got out of that experience. 5 years in a lab where you essentially wash glassware is worth far less than a few weeks in an intensive program.
 
  • #12
I had "only" 2 summers (8 weeks each) and my Honours thesis for research and managed acceptances to every program I applied to, including top programs. And I'm sure there were people who did research for longer who got rejected. There really isn't some long length of time you need to meet, it's more about what you got out of that experience. 5 years in a lab where you essentially wash glassware is worth far less than a few weeks in an intensive program.

Have you made any publications out of those summer programs?
 
  • #13
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I had one out of my first year, but no one asked about that. They were more interested in my (unpublished) Honours thesis. My current PI has only just now read that paper, 6 months into the PhD.
 
  • #14
Dr. Courtney
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5 years in a lab where you essentially wash glassware is worth far less than a few weeks in an intensive program.

Being stuck doing menial labor in a lab for 5 years is a hypothetical possibility, but not one any students I've known have encountered. I would tend to recommend moving on if no interesting research possibilities arise after 6 months or so if one is not performing activities that grow a useful skill set for later research. The experience of all the students I've known has been that labs are eager to open doors to greater responsibility for undergrads who prove themselves to be dependable.

Sure, lots can be done in an 8-10 week summer program or something similar. But accomplishments are still related to the integral of effort over time. Most significant undergrad research experiences require more time, since undergrads usually require some time to build the needed skills before using them to complete a research contribution.
 

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