leibnuts wrote:Hey everybody.
I'm a physics student from Europe and planning to apply to a us grad school next year. I have been skimming through a lot of profiles in the last few days and noticed one thing: Many of you seem to have a lot of "research experience" - which is kind of surprising to me
Seriously, I think I can say with some confidence that I really worked my ass off in the last 4 years, but I never even got close to being able to do any original research in the field I'm interested in. (Mainly HEP-theory and cosmology)
Another reason is that our university system doesn't really support people who want to do summer research - it's just an issue of term dates etc.
So far, the only thing I have been doing that was at least going into the direction of "research" was my bachelor thesis, and until the end of next year, I will have finished a 12-month master thesis. But still, I don't really expect to contribute to the solution of the great mysteries of our times in that work...
So, my question is: Should I wait another year after finishing my masters degree, do something I would really call research, and then apply to grad school? Or should I be more confident? Or are some people just exaggerating a bit in their profiles?
Don't get me wrong, I accept that some people out there simply are geniuses with publications in phys.rev. etc. but I'm talking about the average grad school applicant...
I do understand, however, that the situation is different in experimental physics - I guess it's possible (and advisable) to spend some time in a lab during your early years of study.
Thanks for your help!
grae313 wrote:That said, your view of what qualifies as research is a little bit distorted. You don't have to be independently producing original ideas and solving deep mysteries in physics to be doing research. Undergraduate students often join a research group directed by a faculty member where they may perform experiments as part of a project already in place, write software to analyze data, or code simulations. This is all part of the arduous process by which we inch mankind's knowledge forward one tiny, trivial step at a time. There are far fewer undergrads who engage in pure pen-and-paper theory, but even those who hope to do this in graduate school are well-advised in the US to join any sort of research project they can as an undergrad.
leibnuts wrote:Anyway, the reason why I'm still having concerns calling something "research" might be my naive definition of it, namely "finding out something nobody knew before"
leibnuts wrote:Well, actually I totally agree that this kind of scientific work is very important. I think it's a very good idea to include the students into current research topic as early as possible. However, I could imagine that it's also a lot of work for professors/postdocs etc. to keep the students busy, since at first their work is probably not going to help them personally/their group. So you have to invest a lot of time and patience in your students which might eventually pay off.
I'm afraid that the lack of this attitude is one reason why it's so hard to get a research position during your undergrad, at least at my university (which I just assume to be representative...)
Anyway, the reason why I'm still having concerns calling something "research" might be my naive definition of it, namely "finding out something nobody knew before". I'm afraid I haven't done that so far, and I don't know any of my fellow students who has. Even in my upcoming thesis, it's probably going to take half a year just to learn the topic and get an idea of what is going on (I should say that it's going to be a theoretical work).
Sure, that's the way it goes and so far I've been perfectly happy with that. But reading about all the research experience US students appear to have just makes you wonder... you know... maybe I did something wrong?
Anyway, thanks a lot for your advice. I think I'm going to apply this year. Only the 990 PGRE is going to be a bit tough
grae313 wrote:I doubt it's worth much of a mention, actually, as professors here are very well aware of the situation. Maybe a line or two in the SOP or a brief mention by a letter writer at most.
As I said before, for pure pen-and-paper theory it would be pretty difficult for an undergrad to make any meaningful contributions in a short amount of time, which is why even those undergrads interested in this sort of theory will at least get their hands wet with something more approachable.
However in all other areas of theory and experiment I think it's really not that difficult to do something no one has done before. And even if you yourself aren't thinking up some brilliant new idea or solving some famous as-of-yet-unsolved problem, you can still be contributing to a project that's investigating something new or applying a new method to a problem in order to squeeze out more information.
When you see US undergrads listing their research experience, it can mean a wide variety of things. Some of them probably did things like help fabricate samples to test in some experiment. Some might have been given a piece of old code and tasked with re-writing it in a newer language or making it more efficient, and then maybe using that code to analyze some data. My point is that "research," by and large, is not someone saying "here is a difficult problem that no one has solved, try and find a solution." In most areas of physics, there is a lot of work to be done on the way to discovering new knowledge and for a lot of it, it doesn't take months to get an intelligent person well-versed in basic physics up to speed enough where they can contribute in some small but meaningful way. The value of that contribution and the quality of the ensuing research results certainly varies from student to student and group to group, but I would argue that all of it is research. Also, often the undergraduate student is not working independently in the group, he is helping with a project that one or more grad students or post docs are in charge of.
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