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Undergrudate research dilemma

  1. Aug 30, 2008 #1
    I have been working with an AMO physics professor. He researches ultra-cold atoms and quantum optics. Since he's new to the university, his lab is still mostly in the infant stage. In fact the construction of his lab was just complete recently. For almost the entire summer, I was building circuits and other electronic equipments that will be used in future experiments. It will be quite sometime before the group starts doing any serious physics experiments. Optimistically, the group might have everything set up and start doing physics by the end of this year. But even by then, I am not sure if the professor will assign me some actual research project instead of just making me building equipments. The closest thing to optics that I might get to do in the near future is probably building a photodetector. The thing is that I am not even building from scratch. I kind of just copied what other grad students have built.

    I do realize that the hands-on experiences gained from building the experiment equipments are valuable. But at the same time, I am not getting any exposure to any original research which I desperately need. I am a junior now and I have only a year and half left before I apply for grad school. I understand the importance of consistency and the close relationship you get out of a long commitment working for one professor. My professor also said that not everyone can say that they help build a lab from the very beginning. I do agree with him to some extent. But my lack of real research experience worries me. I don't have the luxury of the grad students in the lab who will be around for at least 3 or 4 more years to see actual ultra cold atoms research in full blossom.

    Recently, I contacted this electrical engineering professor about research opportunities in his lab. He is very enthusiastic about having me working in his lab. He has had physics majors work for him before. One of the projects that the EE professor is very keen to push me into is laser-guided assembly of nanosystems in which one of his groups uses holographic optical traps to precisely manipulate atoms, molecules and cells into useful arrays. The nature of the research is basically biophysics. The leader of the that group is actually a physics Postdoc. The EE professor told me upfront that if I do join his team, it will be a serious commitment and the research will culminate in my producing a serious paper with him.

    On one hand I am quite interested in my AMO physics professor's research even though it won't be carried out any time soon. I still have this hope that if I build whatever he asks me to build and wait a little longer, I might eventually get to do some research project. But on the other hand, I am very aware that my time is running out. And if I join the EE professor 's group, there's a very high chance that I will actually do some science. However, I am a little unsure about the subject of the research. Biophysics and bio-nanotechnology sound fascinating, I am definitely interested. But they are not exactly the areas that I envision myself doing in grad school.

    So I am really facing a dilemma here. Should I quit my current lab and join this EE professor's lab. Or should I be persistent and continue my work with my AMO physics professor. I would really appreciate your advice.
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 30, 2008 #2


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    It sounds to me like you're putting a lot of unneccessary stress on yourself. If I understand correctly, you're about to start your third year - meaning you have only two years of undergrad under your belt and at the same time you're expecting to be intimately involved in research? While this does happen, it's definately more the exception than the rule.

    Most undergrad "research" positions are rather mundane in nature simply because at that level the student does not yet have the skills or background to handle anything else. Not to mention, the more academically lucrative positions will likely already be filled by post-docs and graduate students.

    That being said, if you think the EE position is going to be more interesting, there's no reason I wouldn't pursue it. And just because you take on an undergraduate project in a particular area, you are not at all committed to pursue that field further for graduate studies, so don't worry about getting boxed in.
  4. Aug 31, 2008 #3
    It just seems that a lot of my friends in the same department are doing real research instead of being a lab technician. I feel like I am the odd one and left behind. Any one else?
  5. Aug 31, 2008 #4
    Consider yourself lucky you have the opportunities and choices you have. I tried like hell to get undergrad research experience, or even just lab experience, every year of my undergrad, and could not get any until now at the beginning of my senior year. This only gives me 4 months to make as big of an impact as I can before my letter must be written.
  6. Sep 1, 2008 #5
    thanks! more opinions?
  7. Sep 1, 2008 #6


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    I agree! I struggled like heck to get a position. I was willing to even just wash glassware if that would get me into a lab, but even those positions were already filled. When I finally got a position in the last semester of my senior year, I did very mundane tasks (most of what I did WAS to wash glassware and file journal articles into a file cabinet), but, I embraced it with all the work ethic I had. I got to do a little more lab work at the end of the semester, and did the absolute best job I could. At the end, it got me a summer job, that turned into a technician's job for a year, and that turned into an acceptance into graduate school (one of the projects I did as a technician really required some out-of-the-box thinking to design an experiment that caught the attention of the admissions committee).

    One thing people should consider, and should not worry is a sign of failure by any stretch, is that sometimes it's worth taking a year off after getting your B.S. and working as a technician in a research lab before applying to grad school. In my case, it was a transition from attempts to apply to med school and then deciding on grad school (and finding my passion, ironically, got me an acceptance to med school too), but I've helped other students through this situation too. My overall suggestion is that ANY job you have, do your best. You never know where it might lead, and every experience helps in some way.

    It'll sound crazy, but my first job, like many other people's , had nothing to do with science. I worked in a party store...the kind of place that sells paper plates and balloons and party favors. When I quit to focus on college, the store owner tried to persuade me to keep working there by offering me a night manager position. Had I had different ambitions in life, one never knows where that might have led. Heck, had I been interested in pursuing a business degree, that would have been excellent experience. It wasn't my interest at the time, and I had another job lined up soon enough that better suited my interests, but my point is that you never know what opportunities might come your way. If it sounds good, follow it. Most importantly, always do your best at whatever you're doing. Even if you're thinking about another job, do the best you can at the one you're holding until the day you leave. Never burn a bridge.
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