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Should a first-year be doing research?

  1. Jan 4, 2013 #1

    I'm a first-year undergrad at the University of Chicago. I'm having difficulty gauging when I'm supposed to get into research.

    I read some threads about the difficulties in getting into a REU over the summer- especially for students at large research universities (and the fact that I'm an Asian male). I've only had two math/physics professors so far, and I only know one of them well enough to get a recommendation. Furthermore, my lack of experience in physics research almost guarantees the failure of my application.

    I know some second-years who worked in labs without pay over the summer, and got paid positions the quarter after. But working without pay during the summer may be a financial burden on my family (rent, food, utilities, etc.). I also know a lot of second-years who haven't done any research at all yet.

    Lack of time in my schedule isn't really the issue for me- my grades were solid first quarter and if I got a lab position, I would just cut down time spent playing video games...

    There is also a math REU at UChicago which is far easier to get into and requires no recommendations. Although I'm considering a math/physics double major, what really gets me going is physics, and spending ten weeks studying differential geometry does not seem all that appealing.
  2. jcsd
  3. Jan 4, 2013 #2
    I wouldn't fret over not getting into a research program right away as a first year student.
    Right now you should be working towards getting a solid understanding of basic physics (mechanics, e&m, thermo, basic qm), pick up some programming skills, and figuring out which area of physics you'd like to pursue.

    After or during your second year I would move into a research group or apply for an REU.
  4. Jan 4, 2013 #3


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    For graduate school what is generally looked for is that the candidates have some propensity for research. This can be demonstrated in many ways including senior or honors thesis projects, volunteer work, part-time jobs, summer positions, REUs, or even involvment in clubs such as competative engineering or programming teams.

    It can be nice to get involved in some kind of project early. If you like the work, you can build on it, learn skills and even have the time to get your name on a publication or two before you graduate. But I wouldn't put yourself in a financial hole to do it.

    Getting non-research jobs over the summer can have advantages too. You earn money which can cut down on or even eliminate student debt. On top of that non-research work experience can lead to the development of skills that will make you more employable once you leave academia, or give you networking opportunities that simply won't come up in a campus lab.

    So that bottom line is research is a good think if you can get it early on in the game, but don't beat yourself up if the opportunities aren't there, because there are other, just as valuable opportunities elsewhere.
  5. Jan 4, 2013 #4
    I like the (Prof Tom Bourner) definition of research as 'the intentional sharing of new knowledge'. If you enthuse with others about what you have learned recently, then you are already 'doing research'.
  6. Jan 4, 2013 #5


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    I was able to do research the summer after my freshman year, but it was very basic stuff. I was sort of a lab squire. Someone would need this kind of tool, id run and get it. Someone needed this many wires soldered, i soldered. Someone neeeed a copped block filed, i filed. Etc etc etc. Looking back, I still was more of a burden then a help. But the experience was very valuable to me.

    I went to a smaller school than Chicago, and one of much less repute. This made paid lab gigs much easier to get. I suggest trying to find something.
  7. Jan 4, 2013 #6


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    I participated in a research project the summer after my first year of college - running programs someone else wrote over and over again for two months. I learned a lot, but mostly I learned that 2 months of boring work 40 hours a week does not get you mentioned in any way on the eventual paper that resulted from it. Something I have made up for by including all my students as co-authors, even for minimal contributions.
  8. Jan 4, 2013 #7
    I'm about to start my sixth semester and haven't done any research yet, and with no regrets (not yet, at least). This is due to two reasons: Firstly, I'm from another country so I've been going back during the summers. I'd much rather see my family and hang out with my old buddies while doing some self-study as opposed to doing the sort of 'research' that my peers did during their summers (mostly along the lines of what ZombieFeynman and eri mention). Secondly, I have no interest in experimental physics (I talked to a couple of professors about exp physics projects, but then backed out because of how uninteresting it seemed) and obviously did not have the background to do something in theory in my first two years. This summer however, I think I'm qualified to do at least some basic stuff and thus I'll be trying to get some theory project.

    So if you're like me, and would rather be doing something else, I'll do the 'something else'. Even if you start research the summer after your third year, you'll still be able to squeeze in two projects before applications are due: one during the summer and one during the following semester. And you'll probably do some decent work on them since you would have a better background to contribute something.

    Lastly, the math REU sounds much better than working in a lab to me. I highly doubt that you'll be doing the sort of physics (if you can call it even that) in the lab that "gets you going". From what I hear the Chicago math REU allows you freedom in terms of the topic you choose which is great if you know what you're interested in. On the other hand, I also hear that there isn't much interaction between students and professors so it may not help you get a recommendation letter. But it's not like the professor you'll be moving tools around for in the lab will be highly impressed by your efficient tool-moving abilities which will result in an excellent recommendation either. Learning differential geometry may not sound appealing right now, but think of the headstart and advantage it will give you if you decide that you're really interested in GR, or high energy physics. In any case, its still better than doing data analysis/mundane programming/moving tools around for 3 months.
    Last edited: Jan 4, 2013
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