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What kind of Research Projects can an Undergraduate do?

  1. Jun 15, 2015 #1
    I am an Engineering Physics student with a concentration in Spacecraft Systems. I am more or less quite new to Physics and Engineering and have only completed introductory physics courses (class mechanics, optics, thermo, EM) and am starting Modern Physics in the fall. I have for some time really wanted to start working on a research project, but I don't know what kind of research someone as inexperienced as I am can do. My interests have been changing too much lately to say what field I want to study/do research in. I have some programming experience as well.

    I have talked to some professors at my university, but none of their research feels right to me. Most of their work is in upper atmospheric physics and most of the professors are only wanting to hire seniors or grad students for assistants. I have been doing some reading about Plasma which does seem pretty interesting to me including applications such as Plasma Propulsion. I am just not sure what I could even do whether it's engineering/physics/mathematical. I know I won't be doing any ground breaking research, but I want to start getting some experience. I know C, Java, a little Matlab and I finished up to differential equations in math if that helps. Thanks for the help.
  2. jcsd
  3. Jun 15, 2015 #2
    Most of the professors are only wanting to hire seniors and grad students because they pay them to do research with their grant money. If you want experience you need to offer to just come in the lab and participate without being paid. The first lab I've ever worked at was the Atmospheric LIDAR lab at Utah State and I was doing so unpaid during the night. I was willing to do this because I was both curious and wanted experience. I wouldn't write off an entire research group based on what "feels right", you have to look into their research and read some of their publications. How do you know you are not interested in their work if you don't know what they do? I would read some of their publications or even papers on the ArXiV, academia.edu, research gate, etc and gain some idea of what is going on and what you could do to participate in their group. If you have coding experience then integrate that into a rough proposal of how you would like to participate in their group. Finally, I would go and talk to the professor and ask them well informed questions based off of your current understanding of their research. You won't understand all of it or even most of it by simply reading their papers because you have to learn it directly in the lab. What you do need to know is how to communicate with your lab effectively. If you have an understanding of the concepts or first principles of the problem you can use that as a guide for asking questions. Nobody will say no to someone who is curious about their work, put some effort into understanding it, and then offer to help them without being paid.
  4. Jun 15, 2015 #3
    I agree with all that JPB said. I began doing research my freshman year, not being paid... you shouldn't expect to be paid unless you are capable of producing something worth paying for - which, as an undergrad, you probably are not. When I started my freshman year, I poured hundreds if not thousands of hours into learning to program and was basically a code monkey, and a bad one at that. However, in your first couple of years as an undergrad, you are basically a time investment. The professors will put time into training you, and when you become a senior or grad student you will pay them back by decreasing your workload since by then you will be competent enough to work on your own and save them time.

    As far as you not finding their work interesting... why is it not interesting? Perhaps the jargon is rather off-putting... is that it?
  5. Jun 15, 2015 #4


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    Yes, to what Dishsoap and JPB said.

    In undergrad, I did more than a few research projects, only a few of which were paid, and even then, it wasn't the academic doing the paying. Being paid isn't the point, getting research experience is. And I found these experiences invaluable - they taught me what kind of research I was interested in (and, crucially, what I wasn't interested in), and they taught me that I was capable of doing research. At my undergrad university, it was possible to get credit for research projects (as well as paid projects) so in actuality, you pay for the privilege.

    It's a very rare undergraduate research project that ends up actually being useful to the supervisor. Most of the time, as Dishsoap pointed out, you're taking out more time than you give back. And that's ok. Most people I know see supervising undergraduate research as both a duty (undergraduate research is good for undergrads. Someone needs to supervise it) and an investment - it's a good way of recruiting good grad students. That's certainly how I think about it.

    So, with that in mind, go, ask for projects! Don't go in expecting to be paid, but expect to learn something. Also, the projects you do in undergrad don't have to reflect what you're going to do for the rest of your life. Pick something that looks interesting, but don't worry too much about them intersecting with your long term ambitions.
  6. Jun 16, 2015 #5


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    Most universities have "undergraduate education" as one of their missions, and supervising undergraduate research is part of that, along with teaching undergraduate courses. (at least in the US)
  7. Jun 16, 2015 #6
    Thanks a lot for what you guys have said so far. The thing is is that I actually told the professors I would help for free because I don't care about the pay, but they all said that whenever they hired undergrads without pay or for credits then they don't work that hard so the professors only hire people with the intention of paying them something as incentive to work hard. Which I didn't necessarily think is good, but I kind of understand their reasoning.

    I guess why their work doesn't look as appealing to me probably because I don't truly understand what they are doing and reading their Research Papers leaves me with more questions than answers. What you guys said is true, I should do it only for the experience, and maybe I will enjoy it when/if I am able to get into it. Another thing that was holding me back from talking to the professors was that I kept feeling like I didn't know enough yet to be helpful in anyway. It seems how you explain it that it's normal to start without really knowing too much, and just learn as you go and put LOTS of time into it. Thanks again for all the posts I really appreciate it.
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