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Undergraduate Research in Theory, what fields are feasible?

  1. Nov 24, 2009 #1
    Well, this semester is coming to a close and I need to have form a plan soon for what I will do outside of class in the spring. Let me first begin by giving my background, then I will describe my predicament.

    I'm majoring in Physics at UT Austin, and am halfway through my third year. I plan on finishing in four years, and going to graduate school for physics, and taking the academic route. At this point I have completed all of the introductory courses, Classical Dynamics, Modern Physics ( formerly Quantum I, a kind of survey course), as well as "Junior Lab." with straight As in my physics courses. My mathematics courses have included calculus, differential equations, vector cal, linear algebra, discrete mathematics, and complex analysis, with mostly As. Next semester I plan on taking quantum 2, statistical mechanics, electrodynamics, and an upper division course in scientific computation in matlab. This schedule can change if taking other classes would benefit my work.

    I have managed to make my schedule next semester as time-efficient as possible, having all four classes back to back on MWF as to optimize time spent doing research on campus. This semester, as well as over the summer I worked in a bio-physics lab (entirely within the physics department, center for nonlinear dynamics) and tutored introductory physics for the department. My schedule was a nightmare, I had way too much stuff going on, and I don't feel like I did any of it particularly well. Next semester I will not be tutoring, or working in the same lab. I would like to find a lab or theoretical group I would be better suited in, or perhaps tutor more advanced courses.

    My experience in the lab I worked for has led me to believe I should pursue theory, or at least a field of experimental physics in which the projects focus more on the physics and not the engineering of an apparatus. I simply am more satisfied by pursuing problems directly, and I feel that is also what I would excel at. I don't have the patience, or the craftsmanship to spend time in machine shops.

    Theoretical physics however does not seem well suited for undergraduates to study, because of the background required. Does anyone know of particular fields or types or research in which undergraduates such as myself can contribute more directly, or have any other advice?

    Taylor Ratliff
  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 24, 2009 #2
    Wow Taylor, you've essentially asked the question as I did in my post! I'm very interested to see what sorts of responses we can get. You are a bit ahead of me class wise and happen to be at an excellent school, are you unable to find any work with professors?
  4. Nov 24, 2009 #3
    I can't speak for other fields, but I am an undergrad in essentially the same position as you (though with a couple more physics classes and a couple less math classes), and I just got a position in a theoretical quantum computing group starting this spring. I have done a not insignificant amount of self-study in math though, on analysis, algebra, topology, differential geometry, functional analysis, and complex analysis, though, so maybe the professor was impressed that I had taught myself so much outside of class. So, perhaps quantum computing is a little more accessible than most fields? Though I have not even taken a class on quantum computing - so I will be spending most of the spring learning what I need to start to contribute to a project.

    It did take a bit more asking around than it took for me to find the experimental group that I was in for the past year and a half (first guy I asked for that position!). I think I asked 2 different theorists beforehand (both in condensed matter) who declined, and one professor (who is both a theorist and an experimentalist) who was going to take me on if I did some coding grunt work as well. It was the fourth professor who agreed to take me on with no strings attached. Luckily he is the one doing the work I am most interested in!
    Last edited: Nov 24, 2009
  5. Nov 24, 2009 #4
    I suppose I should also mention that one of the condensed matter theorists I asked stated that he wasn't taking on any new students - though that could have just been a polite way of saying no! The other one simply never responded to my email inquiry.
  6. Nov 24, 2009 #5
    Find something very heavily numerical in which coding skills are useful. In the case of UT Austin, you might want to look at something that the Institute of Computational Engineering and Sciences is doing. There's a huge about of work that needs to be done with coding and processing runs that's accessible to undergraduates with very basic computer skills.
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