David D. Reid
Executive Officer & Senior Lecturer
Department of Physics, University of Chicago
5720 South Ellis Avenue, room 201-C
Chicago, Illinois 60637
Phone: 773-702-3067
E-mail (research): ddr.research@gmail.com
E-mail (UChicago): dreid@uchicago.edu

Plain Talk on Undergraduate Research

David D. Reid

Executive Officer, Dept. of Physics


Disclaimer: This essay is just one person's (mine) individual advice to undergraduate majors. No one else in the department should be blamed for what is written here.

Why Get Involved in Research

Most physics majors naturally have an interest in doing some research. For a couple of examples, on the left, you'll find a link to two profiles of current U of C physics majors who are active in research. However, not all physics majors have this natural interest. If you're one of those who don't, you may be wondering why you should. There are many reasons to do research as an undergraduate; let's run through a few of them.

  1. LEARN PHYSICS. One reason to do research is the same reason you do coursework -- to learn physics. In many ways, learning physics is what research is about. It's how physicists learn physics once they're out of school. Many students say that studying physics through research is much more enjoyable than coursework. So, if you're studying physics for the purpose of learning it, you might as well take advantage of the different ways to learn it that are available to you. One of those ways is by doing research.
  2. HANDS-ON PRACTICAL SKILLS. Most physicists are experimentalists. That means that most physics is done with equipment. The best way to gain and sharpen your skills with equipment, is by doing experimental research. Laboratory courses help, but only as a start. In laboratory courses, you typically have a lab manual specially written to tell you what to do. You will also probably have pre-made, pre-tuned, working equipment already set out for you to use in your experiment. Research doesn't work that way, not in an academic setting nor an R&D lab in the private sector. As a researcher you should expect to have to figure out what to do for yourself as well as how to alter, fabricate, and fine tune the equipment to do it. Don't think this is just for people who want to be professors. You'll have to interface your equipment with computers and do all sorts of things that are valuable job skills if you plan to pursue technical employment after getting your B.A.
  3. FIND OUT WHAT IT'S LIKE. Since you are studying physics, you may have occasion to wonder what it's like to be a physicist. Hint: It's not like taking courses. Consider a sports analogy. Homework problems are to being a physicist what sit-ups are to being a football player -- a training exercise. Sit-ups don't show you what it's like to play football. If you want to know what it's like to be a tennis player, will you do jumping jacks? Of course not! So, if you want to know what it's like to be a physicist, don't just do the "sit-ups," do the physics too.

How to Get Involved in Research

Now that you know why you should get involved in research, you may be wondering how to get involved. While there are several approaches, some are better than others (much better in some cases). Unfortunately, the best approach (i.e., the one most likely to be successful) appears to be the least popular. Below I will discuss this "best" approach and why you should use that approach over some more popular, but less effective, alternatives.

How to Get Involved In Research: The Best Approach

I. Identify Your Interests

Physics is a huge subject. It encompasses an amazingly large array of skills, knowledge, equipment, attitudes, hair styles, etc. Despite its huge-ness, research projects tend to be very focused and specific. In the initial stage, your project may boil down to staring at an oscilloscope while sticking an electrode into a box. It can be difficult to see how doing that will help answer the big questions like understanding the matter-antimatter asymmetry, but it might some day.

Therefore, at times, your research may not seem as exciting as it appears to be when you watch Nova. It's important, at those times, to keep the Big Picture in mind -- what you are really after. It helps a lot if you find that Big Picture to be really cool. So, if at all possible, determine what general areas of physics fascinate you most. For some of you, this will be difficult on limited (or no) experience, but there are things you can try (see the Appendix). If you really can't identify specific areas of interest, that's okay, it's not required; but if you can, do, it will help.

II. Talk to People

Once you have picked an area, and especially if you have not, talk to people. Talk to your professors, talk to your TAs, talk to your classmates, talk to your friends, heck, talk to your enemies if they'll have you. Find out what they're doing and who they're doing it with (research, that is). Based on these conversations, think of 2 or 3 professors with whom you might want to work, rank them (privately) in order of preference, then talk to your first choice and keep talking until you get (a) a project or (b) rejected. Accept no other outcome. If the outcome is negative, move on to your second choice. If necessary, keep choosing and talking and you will be doing research. Actually, you'll find many faculty quite receptive to undergraduates as evidenced by all the undergraduates currently active in research.

When it comes to communicating with professors about research, many students give up too easily. Unless that professor is physically out of town, there is no reason why you can't have a conversation with him or her. For the sake of argument, suppose you want to do research on the biological implications of string theory with professor Jeff Gardel, but you're finding it hard to catch him -- hunt him down, cordially, of course. If he's teaching a course, show up at the end of his class and talk to him there. Find out if he holds regular group meetings; if so, show up at one (or more) and talk to him there. Find out if there's a seminar series on braneworld biology; if so, show up to a few and catch him there. If a professor Jeff Gardel exists, you ought to be able to talk to him.

When you finally do speak to him, if he hesitates, consider it normal. Remember, you are asking him to invest in you. He'll have to invest his own time to mentor you and bring you up-to-speed on things. He'll have to invest his financial resources if you're looking to be paid. He'd be committing the time of others in his group since you'd likely collaborate with other students, postdocs, and research scientists. And you're asking him to entrust valuable and expensive equipment in your hands. Expect hesitation; but don't be too discouraged by it. Don't misinterpret hesitation as "No".

Similarly, don't take no response to an email as "No"; don't take not returning your phone call as "No"; don't take a closed office door as "No"; take only "No" as "No" and nothing else. If he's going to turn you down, make him have to say it verbally to your face. You're a big gal (or guy), you can handle it. If you can't handle it, learn to handle it -- that too is part of your college education. If you do get turned down, don't take it personally, just move on.

If you try all of this and are still unable to make a research connection, please come talk to me or Stuart Gazes so we can know what is happening and try to help.

How to Get Involved In Research: The Worse Approaches

Here are a couple of things I recommend AGAINST.

I. Auditioning Professors

One approach that some students attempt is to email several professors asking them to send descriptions of possible research projects so that he or she can consider the different options and choose among them. This approach rarely works in the physics department. Very few professors have complete research projects, well-suited for undergraduates, just sitting on the shelf waiting for someone to come along to do it. The more normal situation is that once a professor sees that you are genuinely interested in his or her work, he or she will find a way to incorporate you into some part of the research. Most professors will be reluctant to put in that effort if it's not clear that you're even interested -- so be interested. Avoid asking for a project and saying you don't care what it is; that's not being interested. Furthermore, it's just in poor taste to take this approach because you are necessarily trying to waste the time of all but one of the people you ask to develop possible projects for you.

II. Wanted: Undergraduate Research Assistants

Often students look for research opportunities by checking for announcements or job listings. While it is perfectly okay to check for these, donít stop there because you won't find much from this department. If you scour the earth you will find a few U of C physics majors who made their research connections in this way; you should consider those to be exceptions. For reasons already mentioned, the vast majority of student research in this department happens because the student seeks the opportunity. If you wait for research opportunities to seek you, you will likely graduate before it happens.

Experimental and Theoretical Research

I. Experimental Research

For those interested in experimental physics, here are a few recommendations to consider.

  1. START EARLY. Don't assume that you need a lot of advanced coursework before you can start research; you can start your freshman year. As mentioned previously, you are typically doing and learning different kinds of things in the research lab than in your courses. Starting early gives you the opportunity to really develop your knowledge and skills in a particular area, and to make good progress in research. Also, starting early makes it easier for you to enact the next recommendation.
  2. TRY DIFFERENT THINGS. After gaining a good amount of experience and knowledge from one research project or advisor, don't be afraid to leave that lab and join a different one. No single experience will be representative of what physics research is like nor teach you all the different kinds of things that doing research can provide. Don't be too quick to bounce around, however; make sure you both learn and contribute something with each experience; but once you have, feel free to move on to new experiences.
  3. TAKE ELECTRONICS. If you're really serious about experimental research, or employment in applied physics or engineering, consider taking PHYS 22600: Electronics. While knowledge of electronics is not crucial in all experimental projects, it is crucial in many and represents a good background for almost any technical hands-on work. It can be taken as early as Spring Quarter of your freshman year.

II. Theoretical Research

If your interest is in theoretical research, you probably already know that it is significantly harder to get involved as an undergraduate; but it's not impossible. Let me point out, that even if you're sure that your ultimate intent is to do theory, in graduate school for example, it's still good to do some experimental research as an undergraduate if for no other reason than the additional learning of physics that this research would bring. Nevertheless, if you want your theory -- and you want it now -- here are a few things to think about.

  1. GET GOOD GRADES. To take you on as an undergraduate, you'll need to convince a theorist that you're ready for theoretical research. Even though doing standard homework problems is not like doing research, many faculty will interpret average or below average grades to mean that you have not yet mastered solving textbook-level problems. This interpretation makes it harder to believe that you're ready to tackle research-level problems. So, keep those grades up.
  2. STUDY YOUR MATH. Never let a quarter go by without either taking a math course or working on your math in some other way. Be sure you learn practical skills and techniques as well as formalism (maybe even instead of). For theoretical research, at a minimum, try to get very good at integration, differential equations, multivariable calculus, and linear algebra. With those as a strong base, you should be able to learn, with some serious study, the more specialized techniques you'll need for your specific projects.
  3. TAKE PHYS 221. Consider taking both PHYS 22100: Mathematical Methods in Physics and Analysis (in the math department), even though you only need one to fulfill the requirements for the physics major. These courses teach you different things in different ways. Both can be of considerable value.
  4. TRY COMPUTER SIMULATIONS. Some folks may debate whether computer modeling is theoretical, experimental, or some sort of theoretical experimentation. Regardless of how you categorize it, you may find it much easier to get going in non lab-based research this way, especially if you're having trouble getting involved in pen-and-paper-style theory. You will find many experimental groups in which computer simulations play a very important role; this opens up the landscape of opportunities considerably. If you like theory, you may enjoy this type of research as well.

 Appendix: Determining Your Possible Research Interests

Given limited exposure to all the different things that physics encompasses, it can be difficult to pinpoint the type of research you will like. However, you can get a sense of the type of research you might want to try by adopting a few practices. So, if you're having trouble answering the question, "In what areas of physics are you interested?" consider trying my "patented" 3-step process.

STEP 1. Read about a wide array of physics research, starting at a less technical level and working your way to higher-levels of technical detail as your interest dictates. I'd recommend Science News as a good starting point. It reports on current research in a style that is deeper than fluff yet concise so you don't need to spend a lot of time reading it. There are other publications that can serve this purpose, but they tend to take longer to read, are distributed less frequently, and cover a smaller range of topics.

Popularizations, by which I mean books written for the general public, can also be useful for this, but it is key that you not end the process here. Brian Greene's The Elegant Universe and Steven Weinberg's The First Three Minutes can be very inspirational, but The First Three Minutes doesn't really convey what it's like to be an "in the trenches" theoretical cosmologist, not even if you read the mathematical supplement at the end. So, please be very careful about making final decisions concerning the research you'd like to do based on a popularization.

STEP 2. Once you decide that an initial spark has been lit, you will probably know enough names and key words to take the next step. With those names and key words, you should be able to find longer, more detailed, but still accessible, articles closely related to that area of research. Good publications for this are Scientific American, Physics Today, and Physics World. These can, but won't always, give you a little bit better sense of some of the details of working in that field than you'd get from Science News. If the topic you've chosen passes this stage, then move to the next step.

STEP 3. This third step is where you try to gauge just how serious you are about a particular topic. Will you still be interested when you're up at 3 AM soldering circuit boards only to find that they're not working for some reason, you are drowning in a sea of nested do-loops, or you have to calculate the 10th derivative of some hypergeometric functions and it goes on for pages and pages? You may not be able to know this for sure without doing it, but it can help to think ahead about such things. To try to gauge this, you want to get a sense of some technical details of the work. Here, it's best to talk to someone working in the area, like a graduate student, and ask what the day-to-day experience is like; you should also ask for a good representative paper to read that might be accessible to someone with the level of knowledge you've built up in steps 1 and 2, but who still is not a specialist in the field. In the absence of a classmate, graduate student, or professor to ask these things, look for such references yourself. Publications that may be worth searching for this are American Journal of Physics, European Journal of Physics, and Physical Review Letters.

In addition to reading more detailed articles, it's a good idea to also attend some seminars on the subject. We have an excellent seminar series for this called the Friday Lectures. Very few undergraduates attend the Friday Lectures. These sessions are supposed to be targeted for accessibility by 1st-year graduate students and knowledgeable undergraduates. It's true that some presenters are better at making things accessible than others, but even if a speaker gets very detailed and specialized at times, you can still get some key indications of what it's like for that person to work in his or her field. Knowing how to get these indications, when it's going over your head, takes practice, but the only way to get that practice is to attend and practice it. So, if you need to get a sense of different research areas come to some of the Friday Lectures.

If after taking these three steps, you are still interested in a research area, you should seriously consider seeking research opportunities in that area. If you successfully land a spot, you have a good chance of enjoying it, sticking with it through the tough times, and making a meaningful contribution of your own.

University of Chicago                                                                                                                                              Udated : December 2016