Finding Research as an Undergrad

As GT physics students, you have probably been told to make sure you graduate with some research experience. You probably first hear about it during your FASET orientation, in GT1000, or from your advisor.


Timing and Preparation

In a way timing is everything. You might have heard that the sooner you get a research position, the better. However, there is such a thing as too early for one specific reason: not getting the position you wanted. This really depends on the situation, but it can happen. For example, many undergraduates get research on their second or third year. However, a good handful get research in their first or last year.

It is risky to ask a professor for a research position if you have not started your first semester at Tech and if you have not yet finished your first semester. This often simply depends on the professor and their research area. Some professors will take incoming freshmen, but professors with research areas that require more advanced physics knowledge might not be able to give you a project that is easy enough to handle. If you have only one semester, professors will likely consider you, but many of them will ask you about the classes you have taken. For example, if the professor does computational work they will want to see that you have learnt or are learning a programming language. Keep in mind that this is not always the case, and they can give you the position since they know you will learn useful skills shortly. You might want to mention that you will be learning a programming language next semester or a course that will help with research.

In addition to taking core courses, you want to prepare. First, I would recommend for you to check out the research areas. If you already have an area in mind go ahead and look at what each professor is doing and try to make a list of the ones you want to work for. If you are not sure, get acquainted with the different research areas and pick the one you are most passionate about. Once you have decided on professors, get to know their research. Look for their group websites and most recent work. You don’t need to be worried about understanding all their publications; make sure you do know what they do even if it is at a basic level. This will help you feel more confident once you go ask for a position, help you decide if you are still interested in that research area, and it will increase your chances of getting the position tremendously. Going to their office unprepared will tell them that you are not willing to put time into the research and are not very interested. So prepare and have fun while doing so!

Knocking on Doors

So now, you have a list of professors you want to work for or maybe you just have one specific in mind. Do not be scared to talk to them. This might seem as the scariest part of the whole process, but once you actually talk to them, you will realize that it is not as intimidating anymore. The professors at GT are experts in their fields but also very friendly, so don’t be afraid to talk to them. Even though most keep their doors open, I would recommend sending them an email first and asking for an appointment. This will ensure that they are not busy or have to leave in 5 minutes and they can fully pay attention to your interest in their lab. Make sure you have an appropriate greeting and thank them for their time.

Your email should include:  1) your name, major, and year, 2) your interest in their research and that you would like a position if one is available, 3) and that you would be interested in setting an appointment to talk to them about their current work.

If you are not offered a research position, don’t worry too much about it. If that’s the only professor you want to work with, you can ask them to give you tips on getting better acquainted with the field. If you have another professor in mind, don’t hesitate to ask them. They know you are an undergrad and they do not expect you to know much at all, so be honest on your skills set and show them that you are very interested in their research and would like to help. This applies to all years of your undergraduate career.

I Have Research. Now What?

Fantastic! Now that you have research, you will likely meet weekly with your advisor or research team to discuss projects ideas and show the progress of your work. Depending on the lab setting, you might work under a graduate or postdoc; they will guide you on how to get results and how the team operates. You can usually ask them a lot of questions since professors tend to be very busy at times. If you have not been given a reading assignment, you might want to ask about a good resource you can use to learn more about your project. This will be extremely beneficial and will help you get results faster. Once you are more knowledgeable on your research project, you can attend conferences. The ones you really want to go to are those aimed at undergraduates and the big ones, i.e. the April and March APS Meetings. You can meet many people in your field and many other undergraduates who want to learn more on various topics.

Additional Tips

1. Attend seminars and colloquia regularly, especially those that seem interesting to you. You will get a view of the physics department. The first year or two, you might not understand much, but the more you go the more you start understanding. By your third year, there will be talks you will understand completely, those that you will understand halfway and those that are so far away from anything you’ve learnt that you won’t understand. However, you will gain new knowledge from this.

2. Join a club likes SPS of the Astronomy Club. SPS holds weekly meetings and they sometimes bring professors in to talk about their research or just about what to do with your physics degree. You will make friends you can go to seminars with.

3. Meet other undergrads that are working for the professor you want to work for. They will let you in on what they do and how they like it. It helps a lot knowing someone in the group. You can always ask them questions if you are ever afraid to ask the professor.

Summer Research

Below is a compiled list of Summer Research opportunities.  The list contains the sites, deadlines, availability to non-US students and more. The list is incomplete and will be continuously updated so please make sure to check back every once in a while. Some of the programs we have not entered the info yet but the link is still listed. These range from research opportunities to even science writing opportunities.

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