• Support PF! Buy your school textbooks, materials and every day products via PF Here!

Undergrad research: When to start?

  • Thread starter DarrenM
  • Start date
Hi there,

I imagine the answer to my question (When should I start trying to get in on some undergrad research opportunities?) is, "As soon as possible." That being said, when do most students majoring in Physics normally begin? At what point are they well-informed enough, on both the basics of the field and the content covered by the various sub-fields, to make that decision?

Due to schedule constraints I think I would only be able to do research over the summers, beginning with the equivalent of my sophomore summer in the program. That would mean research over three summers; if I have my eye on grad school (I do) is that insufficient? Should I try to shoehorn research into other semesters? Am I even making any sense, or are my questions based on completely erroneous assumptions?
When other people start doing research shouldn't factor in to when you start. The more research experience you have the better; therefore it makes sense to start doing research ASAP. Most undergrad research work requires very little physics knowledge, so there isn't really any prerequisite knowledge that would apply globally. I started doing research while taking intro physics 1, for example.
While taking Physics I? That is great. I'd love to start as soon as possible, though I'll have to settle for what is feasible. I re-read ZapperZ's "So you want to be a physicist" guide, looking specifically for mentions of research; it mentioned that "by the middle of your 3rd year, you should have enough physics knowledge that you might be somewhat useful to do some work."

In addition the aforementioned scheduling obstacles I'm faced with the choice of deciding whether to take as many classes at a 2 year college as possible (and save significantly on costs as a result) or transfer over to the 4 year university to allow me to try to get more research under my belt. Hence the purpose of the thread.
My last message was a little short since I was in class, so I'll elaborate. I don't think it's very common to start doing research with so little coursework, but the idea I've been getting from talking to other undergrads is that they assume that you wouldn't be able to start doing research without having a good amount of coursework under your belt. That is very true for theoretical research - not many undergrads do theoretical research, and the ones that do usually have had a large amount of coursework. But, doing experimental lab work like doing runs on the experiment, assembling a machine, fixing vacuum pumps, writing programs, ordering parts, etc. is all stuff that doesn't require a whole lot of physics knowledge, and if it does it can probably be picked up easily enough (professors aren't going to give a typical undergrad something that would require months to pick up).

It also depends on how your school is set up to do research. My friend goes to a nearby school, and she had to apply for a research position through a program her school has. On the other hand, at my school, all I had to do was approach a professor and ask if he could use an undergrad in his lab. My situation might not be typical, but I had only met him once before (since he was also my academic advisor), and he immediately said "sure!" without even asking about my grades or how much coursework I had done, etc.

If you go to a 2 year college for your first two years and its near a research university, it may be possible to do research there while taking classes at the two year college. I know several students who transferred to my current school who went to a nearby two year college while doing research here.

Physics Forums Values

We Value Quality
• Topics based on mainstream science
• Proper English grammar and spelling
We Value Civility
• Positive and compassionate attitudes
• Patience while debating
We Value Productivity
• Disciplined to remain on-topic
• Recognition of own weaknesses
• Solo and co-op problem solving