Starting a research project

  • #1
Hi all,

I'm about to start a final-year (Physics BSc) research project and would like some advice about how to select a topic.

I was thinking of working on quantum theory, and in particular, quantum foundations (very broadly speaking). As such, I've been reading a bunch of papers on arXiv (e.g Hardy's QM theory from 5 axioms) but there appears to be a common thread: I don't understand a lot of the concepts in the papers. And I believe that I need to be able to understand a good deal in these papers before I can identify problems to work on.

I have been told that this is a common problem amongst students, but I still don't know a good way to overcome it. In fact, I doubt that the courses left for me to read will touch on all of these concepts.

So my question is, how should I approach this issue? And how do I know if my research question is a "good" one?

Also, it'd be nice if someone could point out some concrete problems (and papers) in quantum foundations that might be interesting (and not too difficult, hopefully) to work on. Many thanks!

PS I do have a research supervisor, but I feel that I should at least get a rough sketch on the topics I'd like to work on before asking him for any detailed assistance

PPS Many a time when I read papers, I get an "ooh, that's interesting" reaction to certain ideas introduced, but an unable to go past that to form a concrete research question. Are there certain steps I can take to formulate a problem that can be worked on?
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Answers and Replies

  • #2
The default answer to a question like this is to talk to your supervisor. I understand... you want to walk in with a brilliant idea and several deep, meaningful questions so that your supervisor will be impressed with you. But there's no easy algorithm for defining a good research project. And really, when a supervisor agrees to take on an undergraduate student, he or she is committing to a certain level of mentorship. You also have to consider that often the supervisor will have a project (or several) in mind. So step one: talk about it with your supervisor and build up that relationship as strong as you can.

A few other tips that might help...
Consider reviewing other projects that people have done in the past. While it might be too late at this point, any student thinking about doing a thesis project next year should make sure to attend any public presentation of projects in the current year. This gives you an idea of what to expect, which projects are the most successful, and what can be reasonably done in the time period you have while balancing a full course load.

Talk with current grad students - they guys who just did this kind of thing a year or two ago. Often they will have either done, or at least seen decent undergrad projects and can help you generate ideas.

Something else that might be worth looking up are things like the 3 Minute Thesis competition, in which grad students summarize their research in only 3 minutes.

Remember to be realistic too. Embarking on a project, a lot of students want to create something amazing, but remember you have other classes, other time commitments (including taking good care of yourself) and so the number of hours that you have to spend on this project is likely limited. Often with undergrad projects, you're limited to reproducing something that someone else has done and then maybe adding one new element to it.
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  • #3
Thanks for the response! I'll be sure to think about what you said, especially the bits about being pragmatic.

On another note, I was wondering if attempting to work in the area of QM foundations is advisable at this stage of my study. Would it be better to first explore/work on/learn the theoretical applications of QM (in terms of phenomena) before trying to probe foundational issues? I find that papers on foundations either tend to be rather abstract (no mention of specific systems/phenomena) and/or philosophical.

Thanks for your time.

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