Research for Undergraduate Physicists not looking to go into academics

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JohnJ
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I'm a second year undergraduate theoretical physics student. I really enjoy physics and if I'm perfectly honest I'm not certain whether or not I want to pursue a career in academics or not. However, I've had a question on my mind relating to research experience required for careers outside of physics. Will research experience be helpful in other careers? Is it a generally worthwhile thing to have done in spite of the fact that you did not end up following an academic path?

Another unrelated question, pertinent to physics research, would be a question of how difficult it is to get into some research programmes. My lecturer recommended me to look into max Planck institute, cern and OIST research programmes (naming a few). However, on looking at these sites they seem to continually reference they want students of 'academic excellence'.

I'm just curious what the criteria for 'academic excellence' are generally. At what point is it reasonable to expect you will have a chance at entering one of these programmes. Note that I fully understand that as I'm only in second year, these programmes are going to be very difficult for me to get into, I'm more considering future years of my undergrad.

Thank you!
 

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Vanadium 50
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Will research experience be helpful in other careers?

What is research?

It's posing a question, figuring out how to answer it, executing that plan (amending it if necessary) and then writing up what you did and what the results were.

Do you think this is of value to industry or not?
 
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  • #3
JohnJ
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What is research?

It's posing a question, figuring out how to answer it, executing that plan (amending it if necessary) and the writing up what you did and what the results were.

Do you think this is of value to industry or not?
True. However, I guess a better way to phrase it would be, is the time devoted to getting research experience as worthwhile considering the liabilities (maintaining high GPA, writing good applications, spending summers away from home). Obviously, it is not all liablities and will likely be a great experience, but in semester I spend little time at home with family and doing a research programme like this will essentially mean I see my family very rarely throughout the year. So it's important I do not take it lightly.
Appreciate the response!
 
  • #4
CrysPhys
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I'm a second year undergraduate theoretical physics student. I really enjoy physics and if I'm perfectly honest I'm not certain whether or not I want to pursue a career in academics or not. However, I've had a question on my mind relating to research experience required for careers outside of physics. Will research experience be helpful in other careers? Is it a generally worthwhile thing to have done in spite of the fact that you did not end up following an academic path?
Another unrelated question, pertinent to physics research, would be a question of how difficult it is to get into some research programmes. My lecturer recommended me to look into max Planck institute, cern and OIST research programmes (naming a few). However, on looking at these sites they seem to continually reference they want students of 'academic excellence'. I'm just curious what the criteria for 'academic excellence' are generally. At what point is it reasonable to expect you will have a chance at entering one of these programmes. Note that I fully understand that as I'm only in second year, these programmes are going to be very difficult for me to get into, I'm more considering future years of my undergrad.
Thank you!
True. However, I guess a better way to phrase it would be, is the time devoted to getting research experience as worthwhile considering the liabilities (maintaining high GPA, writing good applications, spending summers away from home). Obviously, it is not all liablities and will likely be a great experience, but in semester I spend little time at home with family and doing a research programme like this will essentially mean I see my family very rarely throughout the year. So it's important I do not take it lightly.
Appreciate the response!
*"Academic excellence" generally refers to high GPA, taking into account the reputation of your university and your selection of courses.

* I'm familiar with Max Planck Institutes and CERN. Never heard of OIST. A Google search pops up "Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology". Is that what you mean? You don't mention where your university is and where your home is. Have you looked for research opportunities at your university (if your university is near your home) or near your home (if your university is not near your home)? It's your choice how you balance your personal priorities (e.g., family vs. career).

* Since you have not yet decided on your future goals, research experience would be helpful for deciding on a future goal. In particular, you will need to decide on whether to stop with a bachelor's, or continue on to a master's or a PhD. An important factor in making this decision is having a good grasp of what career opportunities are available to you with each degree (this will vary a lot on where you are). Working in research programs of different flavors will expose you to the day-to-day lives of physicists in different scenarios (reality often does not match the vision that a student has).

* Even if you don't pursue an academic career, research experience would be useful when applying for a job. What will distinguish you from other candidates? Suppose you have a high GPA from a top school. So will many others. Suppose a hiring manager asks you why you want to pursue a career in X. Will you be able to give an answer other than, "I studied it in my courses, and found it very interesting."? Suppose a hiring manager asks you to relate a narrative concerning how you handled Y. Will you be able to give an answer other than, "No. Sorry, I don't have one."?
 
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Choppy
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Will research experience be helpful in other careers? Is it a generally worthwhile thing to have done in spite of the fact that you did not end up following an academic path?
I suspect you already know that this is going to depend on the specifics of both the research project and the career path you eventually follow.

As a general rule, outside of academia, having some research experience is going to be less of a factor for determining whether or not you're hired into a given position than is is when you're, say, applying to graduate school or for some kind of entrance scholarship. In the non-academic world, a lot can come down to how you market the experience.

As Vanadium 50 pointed out, research is ultimately about taking on a project that doesn't have a foregone conclusion. You have to organize and develop a methodology for tackling the problem, learn a set of skills, develop tools, collaborate with others, organize, process and analyze your data, draw conclusions, present a report, respond to critical feedback, etc. Naturally doing this under mentorship from an expert in the field will be of value when competing for a position where these skills are required or helpful.

The other thing to consider too is that this kind of experience as an undergrad will help you to decide whether or not an academic path is the right one for you. Doing research will give you a taste for what research actually involves--the reading, the repetition, the 99 times that things don't work and the one time they do, the application of that one fact you learned in lecture three years ago that you didn't think would ever be important... Some people who only do moderately well in their course work thrive when they have a problem they can own. Others have top marks and ace every exam, but flounder when they are left to forge a path for themselves.


Another unrelated question, pertinent to physics research, would be a question of how difficult it is to get into some research programmes. My lecturer recommended me to look into max Planck institute, cern and OIST research programmes (naming a few). However, on looking at these sites they seem to continually reference they want students of 'academic excellence'. I'm just curious what the criteria for 'academic excellence' are generally. At what point is it reasonable to expect you will have a chance at entering one of these programmes.

While I can't speak to those programs specifically, the point is that they're competitive. They only have N spots and so those will go to the top N candidates who apply, usually starting from the top and working their way down using program or school-specific criteria. While the criteria are likely to vary, GPA tends to be one of the main drivers, particularly in pools where the applicants aren't expected to have a lot of prior research experience. You should have an idea of where you rank in your own class (i.e. top 5%, top 25%, etc.)... you probably won't be too far off to assume that's an indication of where you would stand in a random applicant pool (although GPA can vary as some schools inflate grades more than others). Other things that matter: letters of reference, prior research experience, scholarships, and any unique and useful skills you might bring to the table.
 

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