Your first research experience

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  • #1
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Hey guys,

I am a rising junior in college. I am doing my first serious research in physics this summer. I just get started. The topic is nothing like something that I'm familiar with. I am the only undergrad in the research group. I have been trying to catch up but I'm going way too slow. My IQ drops by 20 every time I talk to my professor. I feel really stupid. A postDoc in the group has been pushing me because he is working on the same thing. Anyone wants to share his very first research experience? Did you have trouble getting started? Did you finally overcome the difficulty and the 'OMG I'm so stupid. I will have accomplished nothing by the end of the summer' emotion? I'd like to hear about your stories whether it's good or bad. I'd also appreciate some advice. :)
 

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  • #2
I'd also like to know about this, like what actually happens if you actually end up not accomplishing anything they put on probation or what?
 
  • #3
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I too just started my first research job for a professor. There are 2 other undergrads working in the same lab and they seem to be making way more progress than me (one is actually in the process of writing a paper!!).

My work right away was supposed to be bulk and micro-rheological measurements on a polymer gel one of my profs graduate students is using for her PhD experiments. Turns out they pretty much know nothing about the gel in terms of how long it will gel, dependence on weight percent of the 2 polymers, etc.

So instead of making a solution and running tests on it I've been making 3 gels a day and plotting a ternary phase diagram. I feel useless doing it because this is getting us nowhere in terms of getting results we can publish or use towards the grad students work.

Just recently (last Wednesday) we decided to move on to some particle tracking work. I loaded up the software and code (in IDL) and I just sat there staring at it for a few hours... I had no idea where to begin. I'm not completely retarded at things in MATLAB or Maple, but IDL is just COMPLETELY different and I feel like I'm getting nowhere.

It took me until just today to run some microspheres in water under the microscope, track them, and produce a graph that might tell me something about the viscosity of water (as a practice exercise for when I do some real work). I still have no idea if I'm doing it right or if my graphs mean anything, and just like you when I go talk to my prof I feel retarded because he knows the solution to my question right away and it seems so simple after. But after that I know what I'm looking for and I can get back to work.

tl;dr Summary

It takes a lot of catching up to do at our level. We aren't post-docs, we aren't professors, we also aren't expected to know all of these things. The people you are working for have been working on this for years and know what they're doing. You don't. The sooner you can accept that the sooner you can accept the fact that you really are retarded when comparing yourself to a post-doc or prof. Ask for help when needed and build upon that to move forward in your research. The day you get some decent results that impresses your prof will be so worth it. Whether that's in a week or in 3 months, it'll be worth it.
 
  • #4
284
5
I did my first research project this semester under a quite brilliant postDoc at my university. I started with some theoretical background on nuclear instrumentation, but absolutely no practical experience. I started out feeling really good about myself and very confident. This confidence was shortlived realizing I was a dumb bachelors student. At the end of the project I felt really comfortable with the experiment and we were allowed to go to CERN for the actual install.

The postDoc hopes to get a publication using our data, but I'm not sure he'll make us co-authors though.

It's really good you have the postDoc challenging you to pick up your pace. You'll get the hang of it, but the most important thing is to not give up or let your attention drop when you are with the people of the group. You can learn a lot from their discussions as well.

EDIT: I'm not sure how pleased the postDoc is with our work, since we are supposed to get feedbackon that in the coming weeks. Is it a good idea to ask the postDoc if I can work with him on the actual publication?
 
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  • #5
212
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I too just started my first research job for a professor. There are 2 other undergrads working in the same lab and they seem to be making way more progress than me (one is actually in the process of writing a paper!!).

My work right away was supposed to be bulk and micro-rheological measurements on a polymer gel one of my profs graduate students is using for her PhD experiments. Turns out they pretty much know nothing about the gel in terms of how long it will gel, dependence on weight percent of the 2 polymers, etc.

So instead of making a solution and running tests on it I've been making 3 gels a day and plotting a ternary phase diagram. I feel useless doing it because this is getting us nowhere in terms of getting results we can publish or use towards the grad students work.

Just recently (last Wednesday) we decided to move on to some particle tracking work. I loaded up the software and code (in IDL) and I just sat there staring at it for a few hours... I had no idea where to begin. I'm not completely retarded at things in MATLAB or Maple, but IDL is just COMPLETELY different and I feel like I'm getting nowhere.

It took me until just today to run some microspheres in water under the microscope, track them, and produce a graph that might tell me something about the viscosity of water (as a practice exercise for when I do some real work). I still have no idea if I'm doing it right or if my graphs mean anything, and just like you when I go talk to my prof I feel retarded because he knows the solution to my question right away and it seems so simple after. But after that I know what I'm looking for and I can get back to work.

tl;dr Summary

It takes a lot of catching up to do at our level. We aren't post-docs, we aren't professors, we also aren't expected to know all of these things. The people you are working for have been working on this for years and know what they're doing. You don't. The sooner you can accept that the sooner you can accept the fact that you really are retarded when comparing yourself to a post-doc or prof. Ask for help when needed and build upon that to move forward in your research. The day you get some decent results that impresses your prof will be so worth it. Whether that's in a week or in 3 months, it'll be worth it.
I am glad that you made some progress! I am doing theoretical stuff and I am asked to write a proof. So now all I can do it to do background reading. I am not even sure that I understand what the problem is. Another thing is that the professor I am working with is not from my college. He knows nothing about me and he has no intention to get to know me. During our first meeting, after saying 'Hello', the first question he asked me is 'So if I ask you to explain *** to me right now, can you do it?'. All he cares about is my research and that is another reason why I'm so stressed out. But I guess you are right about it will all be worth it if I can get some results. I will work towards that.
 
  • #6
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I did my first research project this semester under a quite brilliant postDoc at my university. I started with some theoretical background on nuclear instrumentation, but absolutely no practical experience. I started out feeling really good about myself and very confident. This confidence was shortlived realizing I was a dumb bachelors student. At the end of the project I felt really comfortable with the experiment and we were allowed to go to CERN for the actual install.

The postDoc hopes to get a publication using our data, but I'm not sure he'll make us co-authors though.

It's really good you have the postDoc challenging you to pick up your pace. You'll get the hang of it, but the most important thing is to not give up or let your attention drop when you are with the people of the group. You can learn a lot from their discussions as well.

EDIT: I'm not sure how pleased the postDoc is with our work, since we are supposed to get feedbackon that in the coming weeks. Is it a good idea to ask the postDoc if I can work with him on the actual publication?
Yeah I have been going to group discussions and I learn a lot from them!
And about the question of asking your postDoc to work together publication, I can't see why not. As long as you have done actual work for the project, I think it's pretty legit to get your name on the paper.
 
  • #7
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I just finished my first year, so I haven't even had the higher level physics classes. I was basically taken on because of my programming skills (I think) and an obvious willingness to learn. It's really tough. My school doesn't have a graduate program, and I'm the only student working under my professor. At first I was very overwhelmed (he gave me Galactic Dynamics, where in the preface or whatever it says that a full undergraduate knowledge of mathematics and physics is required =] ), but as I worked through the small problems I was given, I was building confidence. At this point I know how the process goes. It's sort of like this:

* Get problem, gawk at professor for thinking you're capable of doing it
* Spend two weeks ripping your hair out wondering if you're possibly the stupidest person in the world
* Have a sudden epiphany and then go batgarbage and finish the problem in 1-3 days, fully understanding it
* Go to professor and get a new problem, gawk again at professor for thinking you're capable of doing it
* Etc.

As you can see, there are times where you can feel like a complete idiot, and others where you'll feel like you're the smartest physics student in the world for figuring out such a difficult problem. Once this happens a few times you kind of figure out how to deal with feeling like an idiot. You just have to keep pushing through it for the love of solving the problem. Personally I love to kill my brain trying to figure these things out. Over spring break we visited another university where our collaborators were, and I was given a huge astro modeling software source and told to make it read the outputted files from our own simulational code. The first few days I thought I would never finish this even if I had a month. My professor was asking me if I needed help and if I was going crazy or something (I think he knew that even this might have been a bit too much), but it was spring break and I worked 10 hours a day to figure it out. By the last day, he walked into the grad student offices (where I was stationed) right as I got it working. It was probably one of the most fantastic problems I'd ever solved, mostly because it challenged my programming skills like never before.

Research can be incredibly rewarding, and you just have to know that at some point it will pay off because you WILL understand it eventually. This year I'm looking to publish a paper, which is an amazing thing for me having only finished my first year. I understand that some people won't have the opportunity to do so, but just trust that the work you're doing is making you a better physicist and a better critical thinker in general.
 
  • #8
212
0
I just finished my first year, so I haven't even had the higher level physics classes. I was basically taken on because of my programming skills (I think) and an obvious willingness to learn. It's really tough. My school doesn't have a graduate program, and I'm the only student working under my professor. At first I was very overwhelmed (he gave me Galactic Dynamics, where in the preface or whatever it says that a full undergraduate knowledge of mathematics and physics is required =] ), but as I worked through the small problems I was given, I was building confidence. At this point I know how the process goes. It's sort of like this:

* Get problem, gawk at professor for thinking you're capable of doing it
* Spend two weeks ripping your hair out wondering if you're possibly the stupidest person in the world
* Have a sudden epiphany and then go batgarbage and finish the problem in 1-3 days, fully understanding it
* Go to professor and get a new problem, gawk again at professor for thinking you're capable of doing it
* Etc.

As you can see, there are times where you can feel like a complete idiot, and others where you'll feel like you're the smartest physics student in the world for figuring out such a difficult problem. Once this happens a few times you kind of figure out how to deal with feeling like an idiot. You just have to keep pushing through it for the love of solving the problem. Personally I love to kill my brain trying to figure these things out. Over spring break we visited another university where our collaborators were, and I was given a huge astro modeling software source and told to make it read the outputted files from our own simulational code. The first few days I thought I would never finish this even if I had a month. My professor was asking me if I needed help and if I was going crazy or something (I think he knew that even this might have been a bit too much), but it was spring break and I worked 10 hours a day to figure it out. By the last day, he walked into the grad student offices (where I was stationed) right as I got it working. It was probably one of the most fantastic problems I'd ever solved, mostly because it challenged my programming skills like never before.

Research can be incredibly rewarding, and you just have to know that at some point it will pay off because you WILL understand it eventually. This year I'm looking to publish a paper, which is an amazing thing for me having only finished my first year. I understand that some people won't have the opportunity to do so, but just trust that the work you're doing is making you a better physicist and a better critical thinker in general.
I have always wanted to be one of those guys who have great programming skills. :P Yeah I guess I just to cope with the feeling of being stupid and stick it out.
 
  • #9
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2
My first research project was during a REU at GTSAV under an Mech. Eng. professor. I was working with two undergraduates who started that summer as well and I was overwhelmed. (I had just finished my sophomore year). We were expected to spend the summer designing, modeling, testing, and pricing out a huge piece of equipment for a very very very large international company the professor was consulting for. I was stressing out the first two weeks because of the huge wall of work I was expected to it.

I felt incompetent, but I STUCK with it. I asked the RIGHT questions. If you have the right work ethic you can go very far. You just have to realize, you don't know anything and you never will.

I work for a professor in Nuclear engineering doing thermal hydraulics research during the year. I started last year and he even told me he usually won't hire students that haven't taken his undergraduate fluids class. He made an exception because I seemed eager enough and had skills he needed. He later told me he plans on having me writing at least one or two publications before I graduate.
 
  • #10
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5
Apparently they used our data and graphs already for a poster for the ARIS conference last week and we were named co-authors and got special acknowledgment for doing the measurements. I don't want to give the feeling to the postDoc that I'm obtrusive student by asking him if I can help him with the paper. But I would really like to help though...
 
  • #11
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Hey guys,

I am a rising junior in college. I am doing my first serious research in physics this summer. I just get started. The topic is nothing like something that I'm familiar with. I am the only undergrad in the research group. I have been trying to catch up but I'm going way too slow. My IQ drops by 20 every time I talk to my professor. I feel really stupid. A postDoc in the group has been pushing me because he is working on the same thing. Anyone wants to share his very first research experience? Did you have trouble getting started? Did you finally overcome the difficulty and the 'OMG I'm so stupid. I will have accomplished nothing by the end of the summer' emotion? I'd like to hear about your stories whether it's good or bad. I'd also appreciate some advice. :)
what? your situation is exactly the same with mine
I am now also doing my first research experience
I also work with the postdoc of my group

I think we can not contribute much right now
just try to read more literature and understand the experimental procedures are what I am doing right now
 
  • #12
EDIT: I'm not sure how pleased the postDoc is with our work, since we are supposed to get feedbackon that in the coming weeks. Is it a good idea to ask the postDoc if I can work with him on the actual publication?
I'd ask him perhaps about specifics (although not too ambitious) on this, along the lines of: "Can I make the graphs for the paper? (following up with) What format will you need them in, and what font size should I use?" and "Can I later look over the paper for grammar/spelling?"

You mention he's already used the graphs in a talk and listed you as co-author, so I'd assume he'd do the same for the paper(s) submission(s)... it's general protocol that anyone contributing something significant (like data collection) is listed. But asking some specific questions about the paper will just show you're interested and involved. Reformatting some graphs for uniformity in size, font, symbols etc. is nice (but rather tedious) and everyone (at least that I know) likes to have extra grammar/spelling checks (and checks for overall readability).
 
  • #13
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I ran into him in the hallway this afternoon and asked him if he needed help and how he was going to do the analysis. He is going to use c++ and write scripts for it and I have never worked with c++ before. I only had the standard Java course.

There is a small chance that he won't bother making a paper if he can't do some measurement next week. I'll ask him after next week if he succeeded and respond according to what scenario.

If he succeeded, I'll ask if there is anything of scripting I can do. I presume c++ isn't that different from Java apart from syntax.

If he doesn't succeed, I'll ask if maybe I can try writing a paper and get it published with only the results we had from our research. I don't know if he doesn't bother writing about only these results because they're not worth publishing on their own or if it's because it's not the best way for him to spend his time writing about. If it's the second option, I might give it a go.
 
  • #14
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I haven't done any research yet, so I cant comment on that.

But as to the IQ lowering every time you talk to the prof and feeling stupid - it's just because you haven't done anything with that material yet. When you were taking algebra if someone asked you to find the area under some graph or the length of a curve and just expected you to do it, you probably would have felt the same way because you havent seen calculus yet.

It's just that you're realizing how much you don't know. For the most part you have to realize you don't know something before you cant learn it.

Good luck with your research, I'm sure you'll get it figured out.
 
  • #15
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I haven't done any research yet, so I cant comment on that.

But as to the IQ lowering every time you talk to the prof and feeling stupid - it's just because you haven't done anything with that material yet. When you were taking algebra if someone asked you to find the area under some graph or the length of a curve and just expected you to do it, you probably would have felt the same way because you havent seen calculus yet.

It's just that you're realizing how much you don't know. For the most part you have to realize you don't know something before you cant learn it.

Good luck with your research, I'm sure you'll get it figured out.
Thank you. Now my research is on track.:)
 
  • #16
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Hey people who posted in/read this thread,

I am the OP. Just want to update on how my research is going. It took me about two weeks to get on track and now I have finished my first project. People who posted in this thread could also provide some update. Thanks everyone for his encouragement!

I think I will post again at the end of summer to summarize what I have completed.

Btw, something funny just happened. My advisor just sent me an email asking me to give a talk to the research group which is something that I really do not want to do. So I screamed when I got the email. My advisor's office is next to mine so I think he might have heard my scream because I heard laughters in his office after my scream...... :(
 
  • #17
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3,286
Btw, something funny just happened. My advisor just sent me an email asking me to give a talk to the research group which is something that I really do not want to do. So I screamed when I got the email. My advisor's office is next to mine so I think he might have heard my scream because I heard laughters in his office after my scream...... :(
Lolololz :biggrin:
I know what you mean, talking in front of an audience who all know the material better than you is very intimidating. Certainly when they begin asking you questions. However, it's a must-have experience. Nobody is going to think less of you if you screw your talk up. Your professor is doing you a favor: you will do many talks in the future, so use this chance to learn how to do it!
Really, do the talk. There are no downsides to giving the talk. You can only learn from it!
 
  • #18
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Lolololz :biggrin:
I know what you mean, talking in front of an audience who all know the material better than you is very intimidating. Certainly when they begin asking you questions. However, it's a must-have experience. Nobody is going to think less of you if you screw your talk up. Your professor is doing you a favor: you will do many talks in the future, so use this chance to learn how to do it!
Really, do the talk. There are no downsides to giving the talk. You can only learn from it!
Arghhh...I was gonna say no and then I saw your post. But but...but...wouldn't it be better for me to start out with an audience who is about my age and who has the same background with me? So my probability of fainting during the talk might be a little smaller?
 
  • #19
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Prepare your talk and ask the professor to have a practice so he can see the presentation beforehand and adjust it.

Also, have you really never presented any of your work to fellow students?
 
  • #20
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Prepare your talk and ask the professor to have a practice so he can see the presentation beforehand and adjust it.

Also, have you really never presented any of your work to fellow students?
Yeah, I have never given a presentation before....Plus I'm busy with my new project and I don't have much time left before the summer ends, so giving my first talk can be a big distraction. Anyways, I guess I'll think more about this and get back to my prof later today...
 
  • #21
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That a serious gap in your education... I was terrified in the beginning, but now I'm so used to it, I even do them in English (not my native language)! It's just practice and the only way to do that is to prepare one and present it!

It's a research project so you are familiar with the material. The questions will be related to the work you have done so there is no reason to be afraid of them. If you can't answer it's not the end of the world because you're a student and students are allowed to make mistakes and learn from them. Since the professor has asked you, he has confidence in you.

Just go for it! Tell your professor, "I'll do it if you give me some guidance because I've never presented before." He'll probably be amazed that you have never presented and give you some guidance.
 
  • #22
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3,286
Indeed, never giving presentations is a gap in your educations. You WILL give a lot of presentations later, so it's better to get used to them now.
Of course it's better to start giving presentations to your fellow students, but you have to start somewhere. And you are given this oppurtunity here, so grab it with both hands!!
Don't worry about making mistakes, making mistakes is human, certainly for students.

Talk to your professor about the presentation and ask him what you're worrying about. Ask him to go over the presentation together with you. But, by all means, do the presentation! It's a big opportunity for you, don't waste it.
 
  • #23
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That a serious gap in your education... I was terrified in the beginning, but now I'm so used to it, I even do them in English (not my native language)! It's just practice and the only way to do that is to prepare one and present it!

It's a research project so you are familiar with the material. The questions will be related to the work you have done so there is no reason to be afraid of them. If you can't answer it's not the end of the world because you're a student and students are allowed to make mistakes and learn from them. Since the professor has asked you, he has confidence in you.

Just go for it! Tell your professor, "I'll do it if you give me some guidance because I've never presented before." He'll probably be amazed that you have never presented and give you some guidance.
Indeed, never giving presentations is a gap in your educations. You WILL give a lot of presentations later, so it's better to get used to them now.
Of course it's better to start giving presentations to your fellow students, but you have to start somewhere. And you are given this oppurtunity here, so grab it with both hands!!
Don't worry about making mistakes, making mistakes is human, certainly for students.

Talk to your professor about the presentation and ask him what you're worrying about. Ask him to go over the presentation together with you. But, by all means, do the presentation! It's a big opportunity for you, don't waste it.
OK, guys. I can't believe I'm actually gonna do this. :bugeye: Always thought I would start from a poster session....
 
  • #24
22,089
3,286
OK, guys. I can't believe I'm actually gonna do this. :bugeye: Always thought I would start from a poster session....
Let us know how it goes!!

Seriously, the worst that can happen is if you know all the answers to their questions. Hard questions make you think and can provide insight that you otherwise did not have. Furthermore, it might help you to do things faster next time!

For example, I once did a presentation for a host of professors. Somebody asked me a question, and I told him that I was still working on it. Afterwards, he came to me and he gave me a few pointers and hints on how to handle that question. If I didn't do the presentation, I wouldn't have had these hints...

Like I said, the worst thing that can happen is that the entire presentation will be useless to you. But there's no need to fear making mistakes and certainly don't fear hard questions. Welcome hard questions instead!!!
 
  • #25
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Let us know how it goes!!
Hey micromass,

I just finished the talk. It pretty much confused everyone because the talk was very technical. But I would think it went smoothly and I was not nervous at all. :)
 

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