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Research Woes

  1. Jul 12, 2005 #1
    I started my new paid research position as an undergrad today. I must say that I am quite nervous about it. I am still on a learning curve, and I am not sure how to fulfill all the expectations of my professor. Today, I was given a fairly medium problem to work on, except that I couldn't figure it out at that moment. I was scared and nervous. What if he kicks me out? I want to work more independently, and not go to the professor for step-by-step instructions. I mean, why would he hire me if he knew how to do everything by himself? Is it just me or does everyone feel somewhat intimidated during their first days at research?
  2. jcsd
  3. Jul 12, 2005 #2
    Talk to some of the grad students and find out if the prof is an a-hole or not. Some profs are, but there are decent ones out there with reasonable expectations that are interested in your personal progress and development. Hopefully this prof is one of the good guys.
  4. Jul 12, 2005 #3


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    Do what I do when my boss gives me a project that I'm unsure about. Say, "OK, I'll get to work on it," then go back to your desk, take a deep breath, and try to work it out on your own. If you get stuck, you can always go back to him later and say, "I've been working on this project you gave me, but I just needed to clarify one or two things ..." and then ask your question. If nothing else, you will be able to ask much more intelligent questions if you have taken the time to think through the problem on your own.
  5. Jul 12, 2005 #4
    There's another undergrad that I know of, so there are no grad students I suppose. Anyways, I have been told that this professor is nice, but I cannot help, but think that inside, he thinks that I cannot do anything, like I am useless or something. I know that I am capable of understanding stuff, but it takes time to get used to my subject. I will be working in front of a computer most of the time, trying to write a program, making simulations and stuff. Hopefully, when it comes to the programming part, I will be up to par with his expectations. If I don't, I might as well throw an apron on.

    That's a good way to start I suppose. I will probably start continuing that. I will check out a lof of books as reference materials.
    Last edited: Jul 12, 2005
  6. Jul 12, 2005 #5
    I would honestly hope that the prof doesn't have high expectations for an undergrad. Even grad students can take anywhere from 1-3 years (even more!) to get up to speed where they have a good grasp of what they're doing.

    I certainly don't have high expectations for any of the undergrads we hire for the summer, and I'm pretty sure our postdocs and profs feel the same way.

    I think that in many cases, the main reason for hiring undergrads is not some high expectation of production, but kind of to sell them to your particular field of research, by giving them a taste of it, and also out of a sense of tradition and obligation - giving undergrads a chance to get their feet wet and pad up their resumes before applying to grad school.

    Case in point: one of the undergrads we had last summer did in one summer what an experienced grad student could have done in 2 weeks. In the end, it wasn't all that much. Yet, I don't think anyone felt particularly critical of her performance because honestly, that was to be expected.
    Last edited: Jul 12, 2005
  7. Jul 12, 2005 #6


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    Yep, I'd say the expectations aren't that high and if you don't ace it completely most don't hold it against you - you're not even supposed to run & own the show at this point. At least the experience we've had if the undergrad can get anything done it's a big plus :biggrin: , but if he/she struggles a bit that is actually what is expected ... actually I give credit to the guys who make sure they get ahead with what they're doing by not being too afraid & proud to ask and so forth - even if it means some more tutoring & guiding to some extent (getting stuck or doing something not really required is the worst can do ... if in the end you can show you've produced something you've aced it IMHO & experience).
  8. Jul 12, 2005 #7
    what did this undergrad do that took all summer?
  9. Jul 12, 2005 #8
    My first undergraduate research experience was just like that. I had all these high expectations of what I was going to accomplish, and since this was through an REU program, we had to share our progress at the end of a ten week term. I was the only theorist there, and was also the only one who hadn't made great progress on the work. I felt pretty bad.

    Then I had a friend of mine (who introduced me to this professor) talk with me (I was too embarassed to sit down with the professor and talk about the experience myself) and he told me about his first research experience. He was basically there to write a computer algorithm to compute the eigenvalues of a matrix. It took him three months, and he had extensive programming experience.

    I can honestly think of one undergraduate who has made a lot of research progress, and he's such an outlier that I discard him when talking about undergrads because he was basically at the level of a graduate student by his second year of college.

    Don't feel bad, just keep pushing.
  10. Jul 12, 2005 #9
    Basically fiddled around with some computer code.
  11. Jul 12, 2005 #10
    My first undergrad research experiment was good at hte beginning but i messed it up at the end becausde of a stupid person in my programme...told me that i didn't have to work as hard as I was with the prof because he did it the year before...ARGH biggest mistake of my life...I grew so lazy and addicted to games that summer...

    SO when someone tells you to slow down...unless there a doctor don't listen...as for your expectations of the profs expectations..just work as hard as you can and for long hours if you don't mind...Most profs like it but don't demand it...but ifyou're willing to do that then it tends to be better.
  12. Jul 12, 2005 #11


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    When hiring undergrads, this is expected:
    But it does not mean the same thing as this:
    It means profs know you're only an undergrad and have a lot of learning to do before you can do things completely on your own. Usually by the time a summer student gets really good at doing what they need to do without having to watch over their shoulder every minute or have them run to your office every half hour for something, the summer is over. :frown: The best we can do is hope they'll return over the winter recess or the following summer when they can be more helpful and independent.
  13. Jul 14, 2005 #12
    I was in a situation exactly like yours a couple of weeks ago. I just finished my junior year of high school and I have been doing a lot of independant chemistry work and thought I would love to work in an actual lab.. just for the experience and all. I started contacting different professors who were doing research interesting to me and a professor at RPI offered me a position in his lab. I thought at first I would just sort of be there to clean glassware or something but I would be able to pick up different things as I went along, but then I found out that I was going to get paid.. Well jump ahead, I have now been there for 3 weeks and I have my own hood to work in where I am working on organometallics and I am working with 2 post docs and a grad student. I contribute at group meetings and all my worries about not fullfilling the professors expectations were wrong, if you try to act and work the same or more than everyone else, you will not "get kicked out" or "look stupid." My advice, always be the first one into the lab, the last one out, offer a hand with anything others are doing because it will just help you learn various techniques and skills. Try to read up on your research field and become familiar with the chemicals. Overall it is a great experience and try not to worry, have fun, its chemistry!

    - Alex Caps
  14. Jul 14, 2005 #13


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    when i went to harvard on a research visiting appointment, i was so intimidated at first by all the smart people i couldn't even think. i just sat at a table sort of mentally shaking whenever i saw a prof, unable to concentrate. i just thought: "what am i doing here?"

    those feelings are unfortunate but normal in any new challenging situation. they go away after a while. it is perfectly ok, and even expected, for you to go ask questions when stuck. everyone feels dumb at first. when you start doing something you will feel better.
  15. Jul 14, 2005 #14


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    Hmm. I wonder, if a person is a grad student in another department (like math or physics) and wants to work for a bio department - what can he/she contribute to the workgroup?
  16. Jul 14, 2005 #15


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    Last summer, one of my colleagues hired a computer science student to help write programs for recording behavioral data more easily than what she was already using. Our department is also currently looking to hire someone with a computer science or engineering background to work as technical support in our microscopy and image analysis facilities (I don't recall if the position opening has been officially announced yet). We decided we can teach them the biology they need to know to do the job, so getting someone who can really understand or quickly learn how the equipment functions is more important.

    But, anyone with any science background can find some work to do in a lab. You don't learn the stuff we do in a typical undergrad program anyway, so everyone, even grad students, come in knowing nothing other than their basic biology fundamentals until we teach them (I would prefer if they had more chemistry background, actually).
  17. Jul 14, 2005 #16


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    Look at it that way: the prof could have asked you to download files, organize folders, clean out his computer desktop, etc., etc., right? And I am not suggesting that any of these tasks is necessarily a downer, as long as they're part of a meaningful project; but he got you started with something cerebral, right? I think that in itself is a good sign. If you are unsure of the prof.'s expectations and you think that this is a hinderance, then you should not be scared to ask him to clarify.
    Do profs know how to type? I bet anyone can put letters in some order on a screen, but does that mean it is efficient to have them to type their own papers, forget to save, come back the next day and start what they think is the same paper but what turns out to be another brilliant piece on a subject not completely unrelated to the one they wasted the day before? No, it is not, and that's why there is (usually) professional assistants who can type speedily and flawlessly, at least in comparison to professorial staff.

    But suppose this prof is a superman, that he can solve medium problems and solve difficult problems and type them up and babysit and cook and repair TV sets and speedboat and invent the next generation gizmo and advertise it and sell it and negotiate product placement agreements with the Walmarts and discount stores, and probably do many other things that would take the rest of the week to enumerate here in their entirety better than anyone else in the populated sectors of the Universe; also suppose he is especially better in solving difficult problems than anyone else in the aforementioned spacetime coordinates. Given a finite amount of time, is it efficient for him to try to accomplish anything and everything in which he is the best, hands down? Or would it be a better use of his time to concentrate on what he can do best relative to himself, and leave every other task to someone else? I think anyone can answer this one.
    My first year was a big headache -- let alone the first day. :grumpy:
  18. Jul 17, 2005 #17
    I am quite okay now. I was 'iffy' about my first week at research, but I am over it now. I am a Physics/Math major, any my research involves programming. Yes, I am in the process of learning a new computer language; actually I already have. I mean learning Fortran is not as bad as I thought it'd be, but the compiler is showing me no love. I am aware that it's natural to feel out of place at first; I mean I still have a lot to learn and it's a pity that all of the information cannot be fed to my brain instantly without me having to put much effort into it. That's a callow idea though. Most importantly, I hope to work hard and do something useful during the summer.
  19. Jul 17, 2005 #18
    May I ask what you are doing with ForTran?
  20. Jul 18, 2005 #19
    I am well aware that Fortran is sort of an old school thing. But, my professor is used to it, so he insists that I should learn it as well. I am using Fortran to write a simulation program of faults.
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