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Will a poor undergraduate research topic affect graduate admission?

  1. Jul 25, 2014 #1
    I have a graduate admissions question for anyone who might have been part of a graduate admissions committee. How do you view undergraduate research projects that are not cutting edge or particularly interesting? My project is on the effect of ball milling on production of a bulk high-Tc superconductor. I first got onto the project by asking the one materials-related experamentalist at my small liberal arts college if I could work with him on his current research. At the time he gave me this project, so I agreed to work with him. When I first started doing literature search for background reading on my project, I found out that my project was not particularly cutting edge and had probably been done 20 years ago.

    When I contacted the professor about it, his attitude was essentially take it or leave it. He also does not want to support my original idea of writing a senior thesis, partially because he plans to retire in a few years and partially because he also doesn't think my research project (the project itself, not related to my effort or intelligence) would be good enough for a thesis. Because I literally have no other options for a professor to do research with (I want to go to materials science graduate school and he is the only experimental materials physics professor at my college) I did the project with him, put in my best effort, and plan to output an experimental writeup and data analysis that is enthusiastic as I can make it.

    I am aiming for top 40 schools in my graduate applications (with a couple of backup schools). The good news is that I have performed well at 2 REUs, one of which is with a pretty well known and well funded professor, so I have those letters of rec to fall back on. However, I am concerned about the letter that I will get from my own school. Will admissions committees look down on me if my undergrad research project is not cutting edge or clearly something that was done 20 years ago, or will it not matter as long as the professor has a decent opinion of me and can discuss my character?
  2. jcsd
  3. Jul 26, 2014 #2


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    Homework Helper

    20 years ago is surely not a lot. Look at climate science for example, climate research from 20 years ago is probably still quite pertinent. I'm no expert obviously but I would include what steps you followed, how you went about testing the hypothesis you had. What decisions did you have to make, what did you discover and did it make sense to you, can you have confidence in it or does it seem that there may be areas of doubt, etc.

    I'm thinking of that recent neutrino research done in Italy, where they pronounced that they had detected neutrinos exceeding the speed of light. It was based on nanoseconds of difference in a signal being detected. Clearly it was conceivable that there could be manufacturing variance or some type of unknown consequence that could result in a few nanoseconds here or there. Even though they detected it, there was certainly potential for it to be incorrect.

    If you recall, they basically came out and said, we also were skeptical but we tested all we could and could find nothing wrong with the experiment. We are therefore confident of the result and are making it public. A few weeks later and it was found to be wrong. The lead scientist lost his job over that, being too confident in the result.

    So yeah, even if it isn't cutting edge, it can surely still an example of good research.
  4. Jul 26, 2014 #3


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    Staff: Mentor

    The point of undergraduate research is not whether it's cutting edge. It's for learning the research process, finding out whether you really do like the nitty-gritty work that it entails (so you don't waste your time going to grad school and trying to make a career out of it and then finding out you don't like it), and interacting with a mentor who can observe you closely and write intelligent letters of recommendation based on those observations.
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