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Turning down an opportunity because you feel you aren't qualified

  1. Apr 20, 2014 #1
    Hey all,

    I've been accepted to an awesome internship at a national lab this summer. The funding is excellent, the location is close, and my mentor seems excited for me to get started.

    He recently sent me a lot of documentation detailing the project and the instruments I'll be working with. Not only do I have virtually no experience with experimental physics, though, but I can't seem to make heads or tails out of the documents. He said that he is more than happy to answer any questions I may have, however I can't even make out enough of the documentation (papers on the subject, technical specifications of instruments, etc.) in order to ask intelligible questions.

    Although my professors who helped me apply to the program wrote outstanding recommendations, I'm beginning to wonder if maybe they were a little bit too outstanding and that I'm way out of my league here.

    I realize that this is an internship for undergraduates and that it will definitely be a learning experience, and that they knew that when they took me on. However, I can't help but feel as though I will slow them down tremendously and be completely useless in the meantime. I am very excited to take this position, but I honestly can't help but feel like there might be someone more well-suited for the job.

  2. jcsd
  3. Apr 20, 2014 #2
    If you're new to this, then it's absolutely normal to struggle. If you don't struggle, then you're doing things that are too easy.

    Everybody who starts with research or an internship will struggle in the beginning. You typically get a lot of documentation and papers to work through. This is very daunting at first. Especially since it can happen that to understand the first sentence in a paper, you need to work through three other papers first. This first stage of research is incredibly soul-crushing and depressing. But you should know that you are not the only one who feels like this. Virtually everybody who ever did research had this moment.

    One thing I cannot stress enough is to use your advisor to your advantage. Don't be too proud to ask for help if you really don't progress (this doesn't mean you should bother him every instance you don't understand something, think about it yourself first).
    So you should really talk to your advisor about this. Tell him that you have no experience with experimental physics and that you find the documentation too difficult (and of course say exactly what is bothering you). If the advisor is any good, he will give you suggestions to bridge the knowledge gap (and those suggestions will probably exist out of more documentation).

    Also, don't hesitate to talk to your advisor about feeling inadequate and about slowing them down. Your advisor isn't only there to help you with research, but also with things like that.

    I'll say it again however: what you're feeling now is very normal. Everybody into research felt it one way or another. Some people severely dislike this feeling and drop out. Other people choose to fight and eventually bridge the knowledge gap and do adequate research. I don't judge either side, research is not for everybody and if you don't like the research then that doesn't mean you're dumb. But it would certainly be a shame to drop out now because you just started.

    TLDR: talk to your advisor.
  4. Apr 20, 2014 #3


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    An organization like a national lab will have had plenty of interns before you, and will have a realistic expectation about what an intern is likely to contribute to the program. The main point of an internship is to benefit you, not for you to solve one of the world's unanswered questions about physics.

    On the other hand, they are not going to try to limit what you can contribute by spoon feeding you or withholding information. Just keep calm and let the stuff you have received "soak in" gradually. Experimental work usually makes more sense when you can actually see and touch what you are working with.
  5. Apr 20, 2014 #4
    What you are feeling is completely normal.

    I remember the first time I got my feet wet in experimental research. I was taken into a professor's lab and sat in front of a wall of electronics/circuits/logic boards with a big box of cables and hardware documentation and a low strength positron emitter and was told to set up the electronics for energy-discriminating coincident detection of positronium decay photons using photomultiplier tubes, and then fine tune some workbench software for processing the measurements.

    I had no idea how to use a linux-based operating system and all of the software on the computer I was given was linux-based. I had no idea what FORTRAN was and the software was written in and had to be edited using FORTRAN. I had no idea how a photomultiplier tube worked, let alone how to work out the electronics required for getting a bunch of them to talk to each other. I had no idea at any point during the first 3 months whether or not I was even making any progress.

    It definitely felt like I was drowning for the longest time, but I chipped away at my lack of understanding piece by piece and came out the other end a better physicist for going through it.

    My professor wanted the research to be done as the leg-work for starting a new experiment in data analysis for undergraduates in our atomic physics lab. He had an idea of how to accomplish it the entire time, but left me to sort it out on my own while he was available to guide me whenever I got too lost.

    I suspect you will have similar guidance available to you during your internship.
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