1. Limited time only! Sign up for a free 30min personal tutor trial with Chegg Tutors
    Dismiss Notice
Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

What to do as physics undergraduate

  1. Apr 4, 2012 #1
    Hi, I'm a freshman physics undergrad. I'm wondering what I can do in my four years. I have no job or research position, and I don't know if I should get one by now. I'm still in the middle of freshman physics series though. I don't even know what focus I want. Probably particle physics, but I like to know if I like the others.
    My questions are: when am I ready to be involve in a research? What can or should I do outside of my time? After what class should I ask the professors in my school for research position?

    Thank you.
  2. jcsd
  3. Apr 4, 2012 #2


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor

    Start as soon as you want to start. Get to know a little about the general idea of what your professors do for research, and ask around to see if anyone might be taking students. Then just go talk to people, if you don't seem interested, simply don't do it! Similarly, if you're not qualified for the work yet, they'll say "Come back after you've had QM" or some other such statement.
  4. Apr 5, 2012 #3
    -Learn to program. Take a few select CS classes if you can, but it's not required. Hell, I hated my CS class most of the time and dropped it towards the end of the semester. The professor kept pounding "Computer Science is not programming!" into our heads and he was right. I rather liked programming. I didn't like computer science. From what I've seen, read and heard it's a great skill to have. Familiarize yourself with computation and modeling programs.

    -Read independently. Even if you're not presently knowledgeable enough to be of much use to a researcher, there's no reason you can't endeavor to understand their research and that of others. The more informed you become now the easier your job will be later. The required textbooks shouldn't be your only source of physics knowledge -- they exist to give you a general view and to help you pass tests. There are always better books to read if you're looking for something more specific, more up to date and more interesting.

    I've happened upon a lot of great (and cheap!) finds on Thriftbooks, although you'll need to find other sources for more up-to-date research. Your campus library will likely have subscriptions to peer-reviewed journals and various online databases, ask a librarian to help you access them. You say you don't know what your focus will be.. this is a great way to help you figure that out.

    -Not to sound all motherly, but with no job it'll be all too easy to lose focus. Set a schedule and stick to it. Exercise. Eat well. Sleep! Really. Sleep.

    -As for research, well, I'm not far enough along to say anything authoritative except that I rarely see first and second years doing any sort of Physics research. Your best bet (until you're qualified) is to find an internship or join a faculty-supported student group. An internships can be thought of as research-lite; you may well find yourself researching or investigating something in the course of your duties but it won't involve original contributions to science. Nonetheless it can be a rewarding experience, both in terms of learning new skills and making potentially valuable connections in industry. Perhaps you could even wrangle an Independent Study credit out of it.

    If that's not for you, there are always competitions and projects. Programming a robot, designing a vehicle, building a circuit, all things that are reasonably easy to teach a group of students. If you were further along in your studies the answer(s) would likely be different. Then again if you were further along in your studies I wouldn't feel qualified to answer!
  5. Apr 5, 2012 #4
    Ask around the department what research opportunities there are. Someone is bound to be very helpful. I wouldn't worry about picking a focus. Try to get a general education in all areas of physics; if there is a physics elective that you are capable of taking, take it. Join your department's physics club if they have one. You'll make great friends there and get to know people from different years. It can be fun to pick up a hobby as well, so when you want a quick break from studying quite a bit, you have something to relax to.
  6. Apr 5, 2012 #5
    Do you have any special skills, like programming, instrumentation of some sort, soldering, etc.? If not, you should learn one (programming will be the most useful if you're going to work with theory, and still pretty important for an experimentalist). Shoot for some advanced stuff, if you can handle it. I was always excited to jump into some crazy hard textbook. Some are more doable than others, but make sure you don't focus too hard on this, you want it to still be fun and enjoyable. Ask around in your department for research opportunities, and if you must, pursue them with some intent. It took me a few tries when I first started, but eventually the professor gave in and let me start. I started my first year, but the only reason he took me was because I knew how to program. Probably you will have an easier time during your second year with professors at your school. As long as you make it clear that you're dedicated and willing to learn anything, anyone who is interested in help you will.
Share this great discussion with others via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook