Research During the School Year

rona
Posts: 5
Joined: Sun Jul 06, 2014 7:14 pm

Research During the School Year

Postby rona » Sun Jul 06, 2014 7:42 pm

Hello all,
I am entering third year this fall and after browsing through the forum, I have a concern regarding research. Specifically, this upcoming year I will be taking, in addition to the regular third year physics courses, some advanced math and advanced fourth year/grad physics courses. I was also planning on writing the GREs this year and so I though it might be a good idea to hold off on doing a research project during this upcoming school year to make sure I keep my GPA up (I have a 4.00/4.00 so far) and study as much as I can for the GREs.

However, after looking at the profiles on this website, it seems like many applicants stay involved in research throughout their undergrad. With that in mind, I was wondering if I should try and look for a research project anyway even if it might have a negative impact on my GPA/GREs? I would like to do theory in grad school and so I thought it would be more important to get high grades and GRE scores but after perusing through the forum, it seem research experience is more important. Moreover, I would like to do another research project this year so I can hopefully get some experience in theory and see if I actually enjoy it.

So far, I have done two experimental projects (one last summer and one during last semester) and am working on another experimental project this summer. Besides any potential research this upcoming school year, I plan on doing research next summer and a senior thesis in fourth year.

Any advice would be appreciated.

TakeruK
Posts: 812
Joined: Mon Jan 02, 2012 3:05 pm

Re: Research During the School Year

Postby TakeruK » Mon Jul 07, 2014 6:07 pm

I think if you have opportunity to do research, you should take it. Research experience is both valuable to you and the admissions committee. You definitely want to make sure you enjoy the research side of academics vs. just the coursework side before you commit to spending energy considering grad school and other related career paths. The admissions committee wants to admit students who are both bright/smart as well as experienced/skilled!

There is no point in keeping up a 4.00/4.00 GPA. Honestly, I don't see how a 4.00/4.00 student is any more qualified for grad school than, say, a 3.80/4.00 student. I think most professors and academic committees would rather bet on a 3.80 GPA with plenty of research experience than a 4.00 GPA student with no experience at all. However, I do think these decisions are tempered by the circumstances of the student. For example, if a student is coming from a school with few research opportunities (i.e. not a big physics research school), then I think the committee might want that student to have a higher GPA as it does mean it's more likely that student will succeed.

So, GPA is not all useless, and it's not hopeless if you don't have research experience. However, in your shoes, if you have to choose between maintaining 4.0 or gaining research experience, I would definitely say go for the research experience!!

rona
Posts: 5
Joined: Sun Jul 06, 2014 7:14 pm

Re: Research During the School Year

Postby rona » Sun Jul 20, 2014 1:50 pm

Hi TakeruK,
Thanks for your response. I have taken your advice and have been asking around for research projects, but I have another question, if you don't mind. As I mentioned above, I have worked with two professors so far in two different experimental fields. I initially thought that it would be a good idea to get research experience in a few different fields as it seems like once you're in graduate school, you don't really have the opportunity to explore what work in other fields is like. As such, I was thinking about now working with a professor in a different field, one that I think I would like to pursue in graduate school.

However, I am now wondering if having multiple research projects rather than one or two long ones might seem bad to an admissions committee? I am concerned that it might seem like I lack focus. I don't have any publications so far, but my first supervisor seemed to be very happy with my work and my current supervisor also seems to be pleased with my progress. I could probably ask to continue working with my current supervisor into the school and with my progress so far, this might lead to a publication. However I am pretty sure that the work I am doing right now is not something that I would like to pursue in graduate school. On the other hand, I am not sure if I am thinking too strategically about this.

Thanks again for any advice!

TakeruK
Posts: 812
Joined: Mon Jan 02, 2012 3:05 pm

Re: Research During the School Year

Postby TakeruK » Sun Jul 20, 2014 6:22 pm

I think there are pros and cons for staying in one research group vs. working in multiple groups.

Personally, I think it's better to work in many different groups than just one single group for the entire undergrad. I worked with 3 different groups during undergrad, but I was in a co-op program so they were all semi long term projects; co-op allowed/required me to spend one year working in my field instead of taking classes. My first project was in cosmology and I worked on it for 8 months full time (all summer plus one fall semester). Right after that, I spent 8 months full time working in medical physics (spring/winter semester plus the following summer). Then, I went back to classes and did an honours thesis in my final year (8 months part time) on planetary science, which is my current PhD program.

I found that working in 3 different groups easily gave me 3 different LORs that were able to speak to different aspects of my research abilities. 8 months in a project is also just enough to get a co-author publication out of each one (usually the 8 months is enough for me to get enough data and analysis for a paper but I would have to leave to move onto the next project before I could write it up, so someone else did and I was second author). Perhaps I could have spent 16 months all on one project and write up the entire project myself, but I think two 8-month experiences is better than one 16-month experience. You reach diminishing returns past 8 months, I think (but at the same time, less than 4 months is barely enough time for you to get to the level where you can perform publication-quality research).

In my opinion, undergrad is the time to explore your interests and build up skills. You don't have to be doing research in the field you intend to do graduate school in. When I started my medical physics work, I was already pretty certain I would be doing astronomy or planetary science. I just wanted to work in medical physics because I wanted to try something I hadn't tried before. Just like taking fun electives, undergrad is a time to experiment and explore. At the undergrad level, research experience is research experience: exposure to it is far more valuable than what you actually do.

In your shoes, if you are no longer interested in the current project, move on to something else. You never know what you would like / don't like if you don't try it!




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