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What are the significant differences between graduate and undergraduate research?

  1. Aug 16, 2012 #1
    I understand that undergraduate research is big at UCSC and that it is required for both of my prospective majors (physics and robotics engineering). What I'm trying to figure out is the specific differences between undergraduate and graduate research. I would guess that undergraduate reseach is basically just doing busy work for professors with their own potential theses and project ideas in my mind, but I've been told that's wrong; undergraduate students actually explore their own projects in my mind. My questions are: how is this different from postdoctoral work? How much time does it take? Is it essentially equivalent to taking another class? Could I potentially create one thesis for both applied physics and robotics engineering? (Given that they're related fields)

  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 16, 2012 #2


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    Undergraduate research can be something original that isn't just part of your professor's research, but it's usually not based on an original idea you had. Most students simply don't know enough about the field to come up with an original idea and then work through it with a minimum of support. That's more like graduate research. Undergrad research is strongly guided by your professor, from picking out the topic to assigning research papers to read to telling you what to do every step of the way if you need it. Postdoctoral work, which comes after graduate school, is often completely independent.
  4. Aug 16, 2012 #3
    In my experience, the undergrad students tend to pursue the little side-projects that profs/grad students thought of. One of the projects I've done was something that had already been done, but not by that particular research group. They wanted someone to read up on it and test some things so they could implement it in their research.

    I'm still an undergrad myself, but it seems that the amount of time you spend coming up with research ideas as a grad student is nothing when compared to the time you spend implementing, debugging, testing, and writing about them. I'm guessing it's more important to get experience with all that stuff.
  5. Aug 16, 2012 #4
    I would say the biggest difference between undergrad and graduate research is that you will be held responsible for graduate research, while if you don't make any progress but give a full effort as an undergrad, that's fine.

    You will also get a lot more hand holding as an undergrad. This is good, because you will still have a lot to learn. As a grad student (and more as a post doc) you're just thrown in the deep end of the pool.

    Also, researching an original idea takes a long, long, time. It is possible to do something original as an undergrad, but it's rare.

    And performing work for professors isn't "busy work". It's research. Seriously, research is like 5% dreaming up ideas and 95% reading papers, analyzing data, writing code, setting up experiments, and the like.
  6. Aug 16, 2012 #5
    OK this is basically what I thought it was. Could I potentially do one thesis for both majors? Research that would overlap both applied physics and robotics engineering?
  7. Aug 16, 2012 #6
    You can do whatever you get your advisors to agree to. Not trying to be glib, but that's how things work. I don't think it would be a problem to find a research problem that would satisfy both advisors, but you will have to ask them.
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