1. Limited time only! Sign up for a free 30min personal tutor trial with Chegg Tutors
    Dismiss Notice
Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

Undergraduate Research?

  1. Jul 25, 2010 #1
    Hello. It seems that a demand of renowned international graduate colleges is having research experience and even publications in your undergraduate years.

    How does one actually get to this? Does one simply contact a professor and offer their services? I've only had the first year of bachelor in Physics (total of 3 years), so I just can't imagine I could be of any use to a Theoretical Physicist (as theoretical physics is my own interest). I'm thrilled by the sound of doing my own research in the field (under a professor), but at this point it seems like offering my services would seem like nothing but sucking-up, as there's nothing subtantial to offer. I hope I'm wrong on this, cause that's not something I'm willing to do: I do physics because I love it and making it all look like a competition would ruin it, and I do pass for that.

    Thanks for all insights on the matter!
  2. jcsd
  3. Jul 25, 2010 #2
    I live in Canada, I got it worst than you. I also agree with going for it, but it may seemed to them that you are just sucking up. I am not even sure if freshman research matters.
  4. Jul 25, 2010 #3


    User Avatar

    If you're interested enough in the field to want to get a PhD, you should want to get research experience as early as possible since that will give you a much better idea of what you'd be doing for a living than your classes will. Ask around - you should be able to find someone willing to take you on in some capacity even with your limited background. However, keep in mind that taking on a research assistant can be a lot of work for a professor - they have to put in the time to train you and meet with you, so don't do this unless you're wiling to devote serious time to the project. I've had several undergrad researchers work with me over the last few years, and most were a severe disappointment. Don't be that person. I did an REU the summer after my first year of college, and I had a freshman REU student this summer (who's actually making progress). It's not impossible. Sure, he wanted to do theoretical physics, but it's not capable of it yet - so he's doing an observational project instead, and maybe in a few years he'll be ready for theory.
  5. Jul 26, 2010 #4
    Definitely ask your physics professors if they know of any research opportunities. It's the most direct and reliable way of finding out what there is. But I definitely think that being able to work with a theoretical physicist would be fairly challenging. But, as I always find myself say, why is it so important that you get a theoretical physics research experience? I would say that you should definitely at least try out experimental first. I think a lot of people don't realize how interesting experimental is, and automatically assume that theoretical physics is the "coolest".
    Oh, and I've heard that professors can sense bull from a mile away. So no, sucking up probably wouldn't be good. But you do want to develop a good relationship with them.
  6. Jul 26, 2010 #5
    Don't be worried about asking a professor if you can participate in their research with them. You're correct in thinking that research is a huge part of the grad school process, so the earlier start you have the better chance you will have at getting into the program you want. Even if you don't have much to offer a research group right now, you'll eventually acquire the skills to contribute. Most people starting out in a research group don't have a clue as to what's going on for the first week or two. You'll learn quickly, so don't worry about that factor. Pick a field you would want to go to graduate school for, pick a professor who works in that field, and ask them if they know of any research you could participate in. Don't make the decision based on what you feel you could contribute to best, or which professors seem the least intimidating -- that's what I did my freshman year, and I regret that I didn't just go straight to work in a field I was more interested in.
  7. Jul 26, 2010 #6
    You can ask professors during the coming year (I would say a first year hasn't got sufficient knowledge of physics) if they have any projects you can do during the summer. You will in a few cases even get paid. I know that I could do it after my bachelors, but maybe if you're grades are good you could get something earlier.
  8. Oct 19, 2010 #7
    I strongly disagree that grad. schools look for research publications. I mean, if you can publish before going to grad. school, why go to grad. school! Just research in the comfort of your own bedroom. Grad. school is for people who need help to do research. Besides, plenty of applicants get into top grad. schools with no research. GPA and letters of recommendation and hard courses are most important. Research is more of a secondary factor. To elaborate, if you haven't got good grades, you can make it up with research, but if you have got good grades, research is unnecessary.
  9. Oct 19, 2010 #8
    What grad schools look for is irrelevant. What matters is what the other students have been doing. If everyone else has been doing research, your lack of experience isn't going to impress anyone.

    Grad schools don't exist to "help" anyone. They're there to produce research. They get funding only if they produce research. It's not some sort of charity.
  10. Oct 20, 2010 #9
    This is wrong in a few different ways. If you are applying to a top tier grad school, lots of applicants have great grades. So if one has research experience (or if they have been published) it is a great way to separate oneself from the pack. Also, the comment of research in one's bedroom is asinine. One needs to be able to collaborate with others and use equipment that only universities have. Furthermore, grad school is not for people who "need help to do research". It is for people who want to do research and further their education (and get a PhD).
  11. Oct 20, 2010 #10
    THe most important way to "separate from the pack" is to take highly advanced grad. classes in breadth and depth and get A's in them. If every applicant has taken at the most 6 or 7 grad. classes, and you've taken 20 grad. classes in high level math (by high level, I mean surpassing all the grad. classes at the school you're applying to) then surely that'll separate yourself from the pack. Besides, no one expects you to publish anything serious before grad. school. And few people do. What's more important is the experience of research. But the thing is, if you experienced research for god knows how many years but never published anything, there's no way to prove it.
  12. Oct 20, 2010 #11
    1. Im guessing that, "If every applicant has taken at the most 6 or 7 grad. classes, and you've taken 20 grad. classes in high level math " is hyperbole (just to clarify in case the OP was confused).
    2. "Besides, no one expects you to publish anything serious before grad. school. And few people do." Exactly my point. If you are lucky/good enough to get published then that will be impressive.
    3. "If you experienced research for god knows how many years but never published anything, there's no way to prove it." Sure there is. You get letters of recomendations from the supervising the supervising professor. Also, you put it on your application. If one has good research experience then one should let the admissions comittee know.

    Plus, as a grad student you are *paid* to do research. If a university is paying you to do research then they are going to want you to know what you are doing. So they are going to want someone who can jump right in as opposed to someone who has no idea what they are doing. Furthermore, grad schools like to admit people who they think will finish their PhD. If someone with no research experience is admitted then they may find out that they hate research and drop out of the program. However, if the comittee admits someone with prior research experience then they know they have someone who will like what they will be doing.
  13. Oct 21, 2010 #12

    Vanadium 50

    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Education Advisor
    2017 Award

    Graduate schools train researchers. They are very interested in how well someone will do at this. Additionally, doing research means someone is developing a close relationship with someone who is writing their letters, and detailed letters are far more useful than ones that say "he took my class and got an A".

    Do you have any special expertise in this area? Before you asked to have this thread deleted, you were asking if you could get into one particular grad school, which suggests you are an undergraduate - someone who hasn't even experienced grad school admissions from the point of view of the applicant, much less the department?
  14. Oct 21, 2010 #13
    I didn't have special expertise in the area earlier, but I do have now after speaking to experts in the area.
  15. Oct 21, 2010 #14


    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor

    You don't gain "expertise" by talking to an expert.
  16. Oct 21, 2010 #15
    Furthermore, what looks better to grad. school committees?

    Situation A: Joe the devoted student with some research at his local university. Great grades and some exposure to advanced math subjects (hopefully introductory graduate material), letters of recommendation, with perhaps some extra-curriculars.


    Situation B: (What Anonymous111 says is better) Superficial, at best, exposure to advanced topics from the comfort of one's basement. Self-recognized education, little or no recognized research, and no letters of recommendation.

    The point here is that by going to university, employers and academics can recognize that you have taken, and passed/failed said course. Therefore they don't have to sort out the truly knowledgeable from the self-learned-perhaps-less-knowledgeable, education does that for them.

    Additionally, at my university, grad. classes during undergrad are only offered to final year students with permission. Unless one is absolutely incredible (Think Daniel Kane incredible), one will not have exposure to many graduate-level topics before graduate school.
  17. Oct 21, 2010 #16
    I didn't claim situation B. I claimed:

    Situation B: An exposure to at least 10 grad. math classes. all fast paced, which involve reading the literature and coming up with original ideas, pace equivalent to MATH55 at Harvard, and getting A's in them. Assessment in this courses involves writing survey articles on advanced aspects of the literature with highly original viewpoints. Outstanding letters of recommendation. Not necessarily orginal research but new ways of thinking on current active areas of mathematical research from a diverse selection of mathematical subjects ranging from algebra, analysis and topology.

    Also I disagree that one will not have exposure to many grad. level topics before grad. school. Harvard gives permission to most of its undergraduates to take grad. clases. IN fact they encourage it from their third year onwards.
  18. Oct 21, 2010 #17
    Just to clarify I can understand that most people come out with superficial understanding of subjects even after getting A's in them, simply because its tough to do 4 math subjects in one go and "think outside the box" in all of them. But it's not fair to generalize that all do. If an applicant is strong enough to show that his understanding is highly advanced, then that's a different ball game altogether.
  19. Oct 21, 2010 #18
    Where are you getting these numbers from? 10 grad classes?!?! That seems like a rediculous amount (maybe I'm wrong but 10 seems pretty high). And I dont understand why you wont accept that grad schools like to see research? It's a fact!

    As a side note: Math 55 is *one* class at *one* university.
  20. Oct 21, 2010 #19
    So you're claiming that this is enough to what, exactly? Give you a strong chance? Average chance? Non-zero chance? Good chance at a particular school? Good chance at at least one out of five? I don't think anyone claimed that it's IMPOSSIBLE to get into a top school without research. We were talking about what it takes to have a strong chance, at one particular school, assuming no special hooks (like matching research interests, available funding etc.) I'm pretty sure that if your gardener applies to harvard 10^3000 times he'll get in at least once. Not all accepted students will be geniuses, true. However, for every non-genius student accepted, there will be a few hundred others not accepted.

    Also you should know that in general profs don't really care about teaching and courses. That's why teaching plays no role in getting tenure. Any advanced courses they teach are only meant to get students up to date with research topics, so they can start researching faster. Advanced students should know this. There's no point wasting time to find new/original proofs/ideas on things already solved. No one will care about that. People will only care if that shows you have potential to do research. But the better way of showing that you have research potential is doing research.
    Last edited: Oct 21, 2010
  21. Oct 21, 2010 #20
    I really appreciate this thread and would like to thank the op and everyone who replied. I have a question in regards to undergraduate research, I hope its not too much of an aberration, but I was wondering how an undergrad gets involved in research. I was originally going to attend a school that involves its upper level undergrad students in research, but I decided to stay local. Since then I've been wondering how I can get involved in research when I reach upper level, I'm a freshman now.
Know someone interested in this topic? Share this thread via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook