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What is doing physics research like?

  1. Sep 15, 2013 #1
    Hi. I'm going to be a freshman at UCLA. I like physics and it is my major, but I'm considering changing to computer science, but I hate doing experiments and taking down data and all that stuff that you do in high school. Is doing physics research like that in undergraduate and graduate school? Thank you.

    Also, do you think it is easy for a person with a B.S. in Physics to get a job in the environmental science area/energy?
  2. jcsd
  3. Sep 15, 2013 #2


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    When you start out as an undergraduate, your labs are fairly "cookbook" - meaning that you follow a specific set of instructions, fill out a spreadsheet (possibly one that's already prepared for you), answer some specific questions and write up a report.

    As you progress, the labs become a lot more free form. By your senior year, they are a lot more the kind of thing where you're given a topic, and the basic equipment to investigate it is in the lab, but you're more-or-less on your own for what to do. At least that was my experience.

    As far as actual research goes, it can vary. As an undergrad you're likely going to be doing the grunt-work of writing code, analyzing data, or running some experimental apparatus without completely knowing what it is you're doing. The further you go, the more you'll understand.

    As a graduate student you get the freedom to pick your research area and supervisor. The two of you (with input from a few others) will decide on the details of your project. In some cases, you end up having to do what you're told. In others, you have a lot more freedom - to the point where many people struggle because no one is telling them what to do. You'll still do almost all of the grunt work yourself though. It will likely be a lot more interesting than first year labs though, because you're likely going to be measuring/calculating something that few, if any, have done before.
  4. Sep 16, 2013 #3
    After the first few years it will be very different and much more interesting. Learn how to program well and soon, and get involved with your professors as an undergraduate research assistant. Ask them what their research is like! Its what they do for a living.

    If you like physics, do physics, and remember that no matter what you do, the beginning might seem slow and menial, even unnecessary, but after a while you'll be able to be more creative and spontaneous-especially if can get good at programming.
  5. Sep 22, 2013 #4

    In most universities the undergraduate physics labs are a drag,

    Once you get past this you have the option to pick experimental research or theoretical research.

    Theoretical research can (and mostly does) involve a ton of programming, you are basically given, or pick yourself a subject. You kind of have an idea of where you're going and what you want to end up with, you do some physics, get something useful which can be used to simulate the problem. You develop some code which will simulate what your problem, you look at the results over and over and over checking that what the computer has spat out looks correct, once it looks correct, you check it again, and again, tweaking parameters to see the effects, if these effects make sense. If it all goes well you can start adding to the code, complicating the problem, figuring out new physics or go on to a new problem.

    As far as going into environmental science, I think it'd be best to choose a course more orientated towards that, they will teach you programming specific for the science.
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