What "research" are graduate schools looking for?

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  • #1
Shelflife
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I know graduate schools look for applicants with research experience. I know what research work entails, but I don't know what they want to see on applications.

I've heard of the following :

-working in a professor's lab
-being a research assistant
-doing an internship
-doing individual research (also give class credit)
-REUs
-taking an advanced senior lab
-doing a senior thesis.

What's the difference between all of those? When does each take place (Fall/Spring? Summer?) Which looks more favorable on Grad Applications?
 

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  • #2
symbolipoint
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The answer may be a simple as, Research At Any Situation, to include everything you listed. The items you list which might not really be "research" are maybe "advanced senior lab" and "senior thesis", but this really depends on the full nature of the work. Some other opinions are necessary.

... What is that "internship" item you list? Was the work done, actually research or was it just performing some routine lab work under somebody's direction?
 
  • #3
CrysPhys
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I know graduate schools look for applicants with research experience. I know what research work entails, but I don't know what they want to see on applications.

I've heard of the following :

-working in a professor's lab
-being a research assistant
-doing an internship
-doing individual research (also give class credit)
-REUs
-taking an advanced senior lab
-doing a senior thesis.

What's the difference between all of those? When does each take place (Fall/Spring? Summer?) Which looks more favorable on Grad Applications?
Well, you need to take into account when you need to submit your applications for grad school. Deadlines depend on each particular shool, so check the ones you are interested in. Many are in Dec or Jan of your senior year. So advanced senior lab or senior thesis generally won't be far enough along when you are filling out your applications to have substantial impact (especially if you want a letter of recommendation from the professor). Make sure you go into your senior year with a strong record of accomplishments (not what you intend to accomplish) and a list of professors who can attest to your accomplishments (not merely your potential to accomplish something).
 
  • #4
Choppy
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There's an important distinction to draw here.

I think in most cases what the admissions committee is really looking for is evidence that suggests you're going to be successful in graduate school. Since graduate school in most cases involve a substantial research component, one way to effectively demonstrate that is through past success in research-related activities.

So they're not necessarily looking for candidates to have ticked off boxes. And there's no secret hierarchy that ranks a formalized summer research experience program over informal experience with writing a paper with one of your professors based on research that you've done on Friday afternoons in his or her lab.

As an undergraduate trying to decide which opportunities to pursue, some of the best things you can do for yourself are:
  1. Do your homework into an opportunity.
    Find out the specifics of what a project entails. Not just the science, but who you'll be working with, what's expected of you. Also look at where others who've gone down that path before have ended up. For example, if the past three students who've tried to work under a specific professor have all given up on physics and report their experience as extremely stressful and unrewarding - that's a flag. But if former students are now all in graduate programs that'd you'd be happy to be in and speak highly of their experience, then that's probably an opportunity to consider.

  2. Figure out how that commitment will balance with all your other obligations.
    Try to avoid over-committing and getting yourself into a pickle where you can't do a good job on anything because you're trying to do too many different things.

  3. Choose a project based on what you're most interested in and passionate about, rather than what you think will "look" good.

  4. Put yourself in a position where you can articulate your specific contributions to any work that you do. Getting your name on a paper is a great thing. It's tangible evidence of research success. But committees will look to your letters of reference to see what you specifically contributed to each project. And you being able to explain that in interviews or in a statement of purpose will also go a long way.
 
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  • #5
Vanadium 50
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I know graduate schools look for applicants with research experience.

It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.

Grad schools are looking at letters of recommendation with content beyond "he got an A in my class and seems nice enough". Research is probably the best way to do this, but research for its own sake is not a requirement or even a huge bonus.

Additionally, a PhD is a research degree. If you are at an institution with a lot of research opportunities and don't take advantage of any of them, it will raise eyebrows when you say you want a research degree.
 
  • #6
Dr. Courtney
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I tell the students I mentor they need one of two things from research opportunities:

1) Great recommendation letters
2) Co-authorships on publications

Both is better. But a student's own account of their research experience pales in comparison to these two things. Earn it.
 
  • #7
Joshy
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Apply for everything, then choose from whichever opportunities respond :) it looks way better than having nothing.

A good reminder is to focus on optimizing your GPA.
There is no doubt some students can do both these research experience and have excellent scores, but the time you spend working is time away from studying or working on assignment; this especially shows when you're in classes that are graded on a curve even a small 6 hours per week is a lot of studying time. I did all of the above except the REU throughout my entire undergraduate career I can only think of a few sparse 2-3 day gaps in my work experience at very competitive and reputable places; I had great recommendations and even coauthored a publication. I could barely get into an "okay" graduate school (I study electrical engineering) the school I got into I was "conditionally" accepted. A lot of my current classmates at graduate school when I talk to them they have very little experience outside of school and mostly have a good GPA. This tells me that low GPA creates larger barriers compared to having little to no experience.
 
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