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Schools Undergrad at a research university: what's it like?

  1. Aug 10, 2009 #1
    I'm trying to wrap my head around college admissions as I start my junior year in high school. Since my primary interest is in math, I'm thinking of an applied math major (but other hard sciences and engineering are also likely possibilities). I want to do undergrad research and/or internships. Most of the schools that appeal to me are large, research-oriented universities. But I've heard some things that give me pause...

    My dad did his undergrad work at SUNY Stony Brook and hated it. His professors worked almost entirely with grad students and pretty much ignored the undergrads. The TAs running labs were completely apathetic toward the job and offered no instruction whatsoever. This has left him somewhat jaded toward state universities with a research focus.

    I'm a different person, and from what I can tell my personality is much more extroverted and willing to seek out help. But these kinds of anecdotes leave me a bit uncomfortable.

    I know that many of you on this board have completed undergrad degrees in math and the sciences at large research schools; what was the academic experience like? Were professors helpful during office hours? Were you able to get involved in research relatively easily, and if so was it more interesting than just labeling vials or crunching numbers?
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 10, 2009 #2
    Re: Undergrad @ a research university: what's it like?

    My school is not very large, but its certainly a major research university. You have to try pretty hard to leave this place without at least some research under your belt.

    However, you're right in that most of the research is labeling vials, fixing computer codes, that sort of stuff. Because the fact is, undergrads (at least in the first two years) don't really have that much knowledge. So the "research" we do (help in) is basically what can be done by any clever warm body, not something really field specific.

    But the exposure to that world is pretty invaluable, as is the bond you potentially build with your advisor. Just watching the process itself is a learning experience. And its great for grad school.

    So while the research in itself isn't mind blowing, the exposure you get is significant and worth it. For example, my advisor lets me sit in on a lot of meetings. So I get to see what the format is like for those kinds of things, I get used to that environment. The undergrad in my research group a year ahead of mine has actually presented some slides and stuff at one of these (though he says he didn't know what half the slides meant, they were all results of his work).
    For another example, I've sat in on a meeting where they ventured off topic and started talking about budgeting. My advisor invited me go to lunch with the group and I heard them talking about graduate admission prospects for one of the people there, who had a bachelors and was doing research with the group. And each time I sit in on these things, I gain small insights and am acclimating to the context of the work, and that's probably more important than the coding I'm doing (for me anyways).
    Last edited: Aug 11, 2009
  4. Aug 11, 2009 #3
    I go to school with a very large physics department at a research university. But there is a focus on teaching here, as well, at least for the physics majors. We (the physics majors) get our own introductory classes, separate from the engineers. The engineering students tend to complain about their physics professors, but some of them really aren't bad. Sometimes I feel like those engineers are just lazy.

    I've only had one bad professor, but he made up for it in office hours. He was just not a good lecturer. The bottom line, it is fairly difficult to sum up all research universities in one word. Some take pride in their ability to teach, others couldn't care less.

    Probably the one common factor is that research universities tend to have a lot of funding and larger departments. This makes research very accessible to undergrads. And every advisor is different. Some will be very hands on, others will be completely aloof, and anywhere in between.

    I would like to echo the previous post: most undergraduates do not possess the knowledge to do "serious" research. However, they can be given smaller projects, such as number crunching or writing programs. These jobs may seem trivial, sometimes, but they are still very important, and you should take them as invaluable learning experiences. You can make these activities interesting by knowing why you are writing code. You will be much more successful and be able to take more out of the experience by simply knowing what the research is trying to accomplish.
  5. Aug 11, 2009 #4


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    I would add that one issue with undergraduate projects is time. When you bring an undergrad into a project, not only are you getting a student with less experience, but the commitment is rarely for longer than 4 months (full-time). That gives you a very limited window in which to get anything done. Hence the projects aren't necessarily mundane as a presumption of the student's ability. Rather, they're what a professor can offer for the short amount of time the student is working.
  6. Aug 11, 2009 #5
    I've not graduated but I'm about to enter my second year in a very large (48,000+ students) very research oriented university. As said before, it is impossible to sum up all research schools in a sentence or statement but I'll give you my experience. Basically if you want to learn, they want to teach. I've had professors who come across as dry and apathetic as possible and might as well be saying "I hate all of you and I want to go back to my office to do my own work" to the class during lecture. But when I go to those professors during office hours and ask questions showing that I don't just want homework answers but want to learn, they perk up and give me all the advice/help/assistance I need. On the few occassions when I've walked into my prof.'s office and his grad student was there, they actually both helped. So really, I haven't had your father's experience at all, actually quite the opposite. Hope this helped.
  7. Aug 11, 2009 #6
    Interesting stuff. I figured that undergrads would be unlikely to do major research themselves, but it's good to hear that the experience was rewarding for you.
  8. Aug 13, 2009 #7
    I did my graduate work at the University of Colorado, and I'd say that at least three or more undergrads I knew really were into the research projects they were on... they weren't just grunts. But note -- they were in the lab for a while (starting as at least sophomores and working significant hours during the terms, not just during the summer).

    One of these undergrads was in particle physics and was designing a sensor of some type and running simulations regarding this. I knew him through some friends.

    Most of the undergrads I knew were in condensed matter (my area of research)... the ones I knew made samples, did some critical characterization of the samples, and in some cases, even ran experiments. Some worked under graduate students... some were on their own projects.

    On the other hand, my experience as an undergrad was at a private institution that didn't offer a Ph.D. in physics, although the physics program had research that was linked to a nearby national lab. Hence I was the only student on my undergraduate research project (in a on-campus lab)... so I wasn't really a grunt there either.

    Overall, I'd say it's less about the type of university you go to as it is the faculty and project that you get involved with... and unfortunately before you get into a lab, you can probably only know about a project and adviser based on hearsay (which may or may not be valid).
  9. Aug 13, 2009 #8


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    I'm kind of in the same situation as colonelcrayon, so I'm also needing similar advices.

    Some people had told me physics majors are highly to have research opportunities as undergraduates than math/applied math majors? Any truth to that?

    Most (if not all) grad schools are looking for research work, papers, and strong positive recommendation letters from incoming applicants. Since most of the top applicants are probably going to have roughly the same GPAs (with a few very highs and lows) and GRE scores, the edge would be to those who have completed more significant research during their undergrad.

    When do undergrads usually start participating in research? Can they start as early as summer before sophomore year? I notice that a lot of schools have a "senior thesis" required before graduation, but I doubt one year of work (on a single paper) will separate me from the rest of the applicant pool.

    Again, thanks for the responses and please keep them coming :tongue:
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