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Researching with a Professor

  1. Jan 5, 2010 #1
    There are many threads that talk about the importance of Undergraduate Research (for Grad school apps),

    but I just have a few questions, that maybe someone with experience could answer.

    1.) What use is an undergrad to a professor?
    To me I don't see what we could do for them that they couldn't just do themselves or get one of their grad students to do... If you have worked with a professor as an undergrad what did he expect of you? Did you just twiddle your thumbs and get in the way? (I am really afraid of this happening).

    2.) What skills would maximize a professors desire (or perhaps minimize his frustration)
    with taking on an Undergrad? Programming ability? Would being handy with your um. hands help in a lab setting?

    3.) How should one approach or e-mail a professor? Tips? Words of advice?

    4.) Are there any research areas, specifically, that are conducive to a lot of grunt work?

    All of these of course vary from one professor to another, but just some general help to
    reduce my apprehension with approaching professors :)

    Thanks for any replies!
  2. jcsd
  3. Jan 5, 2010 #2
    Everybody's slightly different in what they expect, but generally they expect you to be able to do stuff and get things done and tell you to read a lot of things. Most of them would either chew your head off, get snarky, or ignore you if you twiddle your thumbs.

    One of the profs I sort of do projects under is totally unavailable and not so helpful, but he's much the same for his grad students. He expects you to get your work done on your own or he wasn't gonna give you the time of day, though he does buy stuff as needed if he's convinced it's necessary. He's got a ton of students working on all sorts of projects, but he's big on STEM undergrad stuff so there's always some relatively simple project floating about too.

    Another professor basically assigned me a pet project of his that his other students couldn't do (it's a coding intensive psychology project) and gave me a bunch of stuff to read, then set up meetings where I could ask a thousand questions. It's very much lather, rinse, repeat with all the new things I have to read and the coding mods I need make. And he's been understanding about how long it takes, though he did change the project on me a bit halfway through. From what I've seen, he mostly pairs the undergrads with a grad student mentor, who usually has his or her undergrads run subjects. This is also a big research group, so there are lots of projects that all fall under the umbrella psych topic.

    The lab I work for has two professors who are very hands on and involved and work as a team. It's a really small lab with a dysfunctional family environment. There aren't many grad students, so undergrads get assigned to all the same work, or more work if the grad student proves useless. Since I've been there longer then anybody else (undergrad or grad), I've been bounced through almost every project in the lab. My adviser tolerated months of semi-accomplishments and tons of questions and still has time for even more questions, but he seems to trust me anyway. I've got a project with a set of goals and I have to make presentations on it occasionally to a scientist who actually understands my data. Both professors generally expect students to perform to at least their basic competency.

    Depends on his research. It'd be great if you've taken the math and or science necessary to understand the research. Coding skills are a plus if the lab does a lot of coding, same with basic competency with tools. Experience would be a plus, so if you're applying for a robotics lab it's useful if you've already done something with robots.

    Professors are human too, so treat them as such. Be polite, respectful, and concise. Try not to waste their time, so be prepared.

    All of them. Seriously, for every 10 minutes spent on shiny new stuff, it's hours of making the shiny new thing work properly most of the time under most conditions.
  4. Jan 8, 2010 #3
    Ah! I am so sorry story645 haha. I didn't realize someone replied. My email is on the fritz.
    Regardless, your response is basically what I was looking for.
    I was really just curious how an undergraduate participated in research.
    I will have to ask around and hopefully find a professor who will
    "tolerate months of semi-accomplishments and tons of questions and still has time for even more questions".
    To be honest I may have just started this thread because I am sort of scared of professors
    I will have to remember that they are humans too.

    Thanks for the reply.
  5. Jan 8, 2010 #4
    The younger ones (late 30s-early 50s) tend to be the least intimidating, though they're all a bit scary around when grant proposals or presentations are due. Just remember that it's usually not about you, unless you broke the very expensive equipment or are asking a question that shows you've done absolutely no work (like not even google.)

    Keep your ears open and speak up in class. You want to make an impression, preferably a positive one. A lot of the professors I know either actively recruit or use students from their classes.
    I've gotten research opportunities a number of ways: A TA recommended me to my psych adviser when I asked her about research 'cause I stood out in class. A professor I ended up not working with pitched a research project to me 'cause he thought I was competent and knew I was doing psych research and it was a psych/comp sci fusion project. I got involved in a bunch of robotics projects (and even got a small grant out if it) by joining the robotics club, which is a test bed for the adviser's research crew.
    My research job was the most random of the lot. I was waiting in the comp sci for a meeting to finish and started talking to a professor sitting there. The one I currently do research with walked in and the one I was talking to told me to talk to him 'cause he always has money. So I took down the name and office number and later showed up at the office.
    Last edited: Jan 8, 2010
  6. Jan 10, 2010 #5
    I love how a 50-year-old professor counts as young!
  7. Jan 11, 2010 #6
    I have similar concerns, so I thought I'd post my questions in here.

    I want to try to do research as soon as possible, and maybe secure something for the summer. But I'm a freshmen, and I've only finished 1 semester of college. Also, I want to do theoretical physics (in grad school and beyond), so I don't have as great an interest in experimental physics.

    But would it still be okay to ask a theoretical physics professor if I could join his group or something? I probably don't have the skills needed to help in anyway. If I joined an experimentalist's group I could probably do some grunt work but that may not interest me as much... should I just suck it up and ask an experimentalist? Could I always switch later on (like when I start working on my senior thesis, which we're required to write here)?
  8. Jan 11, 2010 #7
    I'm afraid I don't have time to read anyone elses replies(!) but since these questions are experience dependent, i'll contibute my 0.02.

    You're thinking about it the wrong way. Professors know that you're unlikely to pull off nobel prize-winning material in a short extra-curricular project. Some professors are happy to give a student the experience, it does take up some of their time - but part of their job involves teaching: simply, some will do it because they want to. Other times, professors may have work that they've been looking to get completed for (up to!) a very long time. It's always possible that, depending on the student, this can be done in a research project of this type - it all depends what the topic is. So, yes, sometimes students can be useful to professors.

    Hmm. Obviously things like programming ability are dependent on the type of project - if you're no good at programming and have no interest in learning, then don't apply to work on that project. If you're great in the lab, then say so when you're asking a professor about possible work. I would guess from a professor's point of view a desire and willingness to learn are the most important things from a student.

    Ask them after class? Email them? If you've identified a professor you're possibly interested in working with then email them to ask if they'll be looking for any students any time soon - and if so, could you meet to discuss possible subject areas. If they say no and they know of someone that is, oftentimes they will direct you to that someone. Depending on what stage of your degree you're currently at, you may also know some graduate/research students - you can always ask them if they're aware of any work going with their project supervisor, and if they could contact you if anything comes up.

    There certainly will be. You can probably find grunt work in just about any area of work, it just depends what needs doing at that particular time.

    Also, your more recent comment about remembering that professors are human is important too! Do remember that different professors have different tones, start off formal and adjust if appropriate.
  9. Jan 11, 2010 #8
    Go for it. Worst he does is say no and then you move on to a different professor. Start with bugging people whose work you actually like, as it'll probably make you happier, but *shrugs* I fell into a bunch of research I was initially disinterested in and now really care about. Research is funky like that. And yeah, you can totally switch into/out of/between groups as you grow as a student and develop skills and interests.
    Last edited: Jan 11, 2010
  10. Jan 11, 2010 #9
    On the off chance that someone can elaborate in this particular direction...

    How would you answer this question when speaking specifically about Math research? The thing that I find a bit daunting about Math REUs or undergrad research projects is this: while it's easy to imagine a biology, chemistry, or physics research program having a lot of "grunt work" naturally presenting itself, I have a difficult time conjuring up tasks that an undergrad could do in a math oriented program.
  11. Jan 11, 2010 #10
    Thanks story645. And DarrenM, I'm in the same position because I want to do theoretical physics. But I suppose part of the process involves the professor teaching you, as people have said maybe he'll give you a bunch of stuff to read and/or summarize, and you can ask questions, and write up anything you get by playing around with it.

    Also, I have one more concern: If I really get to be picky, I want to get involved with quantum gravity. But all the theoreticians at my institution are string theorists, and string theory is something I'd rather avoid... Although my interest is in that field, should I just try to join a different group? I suspect I am being way too choosy though... and it might not even matter. It's just that Smolin's book really turned me away from strings.
  12. Jan 11, 2010 #11
    I am only an undergraduate student myself, so I am not exactly qualified to answer your question. I got the impression that most undergraduate math projects fall into one of two categories: reading projects and toy research projects.

    Reading projects are just what they sound like. Students read a series of papers and/or books that will introduce them to an area of mathematics and a few open problems. With few exceptions, undergraduate students will not have sufficient background or experience to make any progress on the problems though.

    Most undergraduate math research projects seem to be toy projects that were designed to be accessible to undergraduate students. They tend to be very concrete and usually approachable by experimentation. They often draw from combinatorics, math modeling, graph and knot theory.

    As for the original question:
    I suspect that the answer is motivation and dedication. Math professors are not looking for undergraduate students to assist them with their own research. Rather, they invest some of their time into undergraduate students in the hope of making a difference for those students. The harder you work, the more you will get out of it, and the more the investment pays off from the perspective of a professor.
  13. Jan 12, 2010 #12
    I'm from a different country, so my experience may not be relevant to you...

    I got to work with a really awesome prof in my freshman summer. He got me to work on a kind of "toy" research problem related to topological defects, which probably his grad students were too bored to do, and I had to spend nearly half my time just reading up about the topic. As far as I can see, he paid me to get there and stay for two months just for that.

    I had taken a topology course in my second sem, that was probably the only "skill" that I used.
    I just mailed the prof saying "I have done so-and-so and am interested in doing so-and-so can I work with you over the summer?" and he said yes. However, this could be due to benefits from a fellowship that I get from our government.

    My project was mostly grunt work (it boiled down to calculating conjugacy classes for some nasty groups), but there was quite a bit of very interesting ideas that I got to learn about.

    Hope that helped!
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