Is undergraduate research less important for theorists?

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egret
Posts: 4
Joined: Sun Jun 26, 2005 4:30 pm

Is undergraduate research less important for theorists?

Postby egret » Wed Dec 13, 2006 8:36 pm

I've been puzzled about this for a long time and I'm curious what people here think.

It seems the usual wisdom is that undergraduate research is one of the most important factors in grad admissions. For example, it is said that one weak point on your record, be it a bad grade in an important course or a sub-par physics GRE, won't necessarily doom your application - especially if you can compensate by strengths in other areas. Research appears to be the one big exception to this: if you have no undergraduate research, or even if you have research but it's not sufficiently impressive, it almost doesn't matter how strong the rest of your record is and you are guaranteed to be at a major disadvantage. The question is, to what extent does this apply to theorists?

The usual rationale for placing emphasis on undergrad research is that schools are looking for someone "who can do research", and that this quality is principally revealed through what the applicant has already "accomplished". But if you are a wannabe theorist, it doesn't seem to me personally like a reasonable standard. That is, I'm sure that there is undergraduate research in theory, but it's certainly much harder to get and it's still far less likely to resemble "real" theoretical research.

Comments?

JackSkellington
Posts: 40
Joined: Sat Nov 11, 2006 10:26 pm

Postby JackSkellington » Wed Dec 13, 2006 9:37 pm

Actually....I've had a lot of undergrad research in theory. Im not sure what you mean by "real" theoretical research, but if you mean graduate/publishable level, it is available to undergrads, as you said, tho I couldnt tell you to what extent. I had an REU in nuclear theory- I don't know know if you'd count this as "real," research, but I dont see why you wouldnt, since it was definitely graduate level, not to mention it had never been done before and was therefore genuine "research." Ive also done a couple years of AMO theory and we published a PRL, so this certainly would be "real" research in theory by any standard.

That being said, if you dont have research in theory and you want to do theory, I would think that youd still be ok, provided you have research in experiment or computation (which is, I guess, theory anyway) you can tie into your interests in theory in your personal statement. From what Ive gathered, if you don't have any research whatsoever, you might be in trouble, unless there are some extraordinary circumstances.

But don't let this get you down- first, research experience can be hard to come by. Second, Im just a college senior and don't know a whole lot about admissions, so please don't take my word as expert opinion....

Good luck!

egret
Posts: 4
Joined: Sun Jun 26, 2005 4:30 pm

Postby egret » Thu Dec 14, 2006 10:07 am

JackSkellington,

I think you took my post somewhat the wrong way. My intention was not to complain and certainly not to belittle other people's work, and it's my fault if it sounded this way. I stated what I thought was a fairly inarguable fact, that if you are going into high energy theory (say) then you aren't likely to do anything as an undergraduate that's remotely similar to what you will have to do in grad school. As it happens, I have a fair amount of research myself (alas, all experimental) and I'm confident in my chances to get into several schools that I would love to go to. I was just curious about how research is looked at for theory applicants. What motivated me to write this post is that, when I look at my research I feel that my time would have been better spent studying some advanced physics topic or learning more math. The only reason I did any research in the first place is that I was literally doing what I thought would make me look good on paper. But why it should be necessary is something I still don't understand.

By the way, I think your advice about personal statement is a good one; it's pretty much what I did :wink:

JackSkellington
Posts: 40
Joined: Sat Nov 11, 2006 10:26 pm

Postby JackSkellington » Thu Dec 14, 2006 3:18 pm

egret

-My bad- you're right, it is silly that they would expect you to spend your time fooling around w/ oscilloscopes rather than learning advanced math necessary for advanced theory. I was just trying to point out that (and I guess this would be different for something so advanced as high energy theory which no undergrad is likely to be able to do research in), for AMO the math for the stuff I did wasn't too far of reach, although theres plenty more to learn im sure....

It sounds like you're in great shape, tho, and again, I agree that its unfortunate theyd rather have you do "research" in an unrelated field than spend the time learning the fundamentals, and I also don't know why they would prefer that. Maybe some schools actually dont- anybody know of any?? Actually, I wish I had had more time to learn the fundamentals before diving into papers I didnt understand!




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