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Posts Tagged ‘undergraduate’

A College Night at Super Cucas in Isla Vista,

A College Night at Super Cucas in Isla Vista,

It is often said that college is the best four years of your life. Now that it is ending for me I can see why this is. It is a time where your financially stable, you are content with living with bare minimums, there are no debts to pay, no long term careers to worry about, relatively buffered from the economy, can choose what you want to do and when you want to do it, you are immediately part of a larger community that offers tons of programs and clubs, friends from all sorts of background and ideally you spend your days learning what you want to learn.

And then it ends.

My friends are looking into what jobs they can get, where they are going to live. Some are decide to stay near the University for as long as they can, others move home where it is cheaper and some take a year off before deciding anything.

I know a lot of people would love to relive their college years, in a way this is evidences with the tons of college based movies glorifying the highlights of a year within an hour and a half.

So I recall something my first physics TA and friends told us the first week he taught us:

This is my first year as a graduate student and it is like my freshman year all over again.

As a result I am not sad or worried that my years as an undergraduate are ending. Instead I see them as evolving into my years as a graduate students. Eventually I am may have to join the workforce of the real world, but I don’t think I will ever need too. I am going to spend the next half a dozen years with rockets, balloons, lightning and space. Afterwards I plan to work at pushing at the edges of space.

If college are the best years why do we stop what makes them great?

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Safety first, then kimwipes.

Safety first, then kimwipes.

It is like herding cats.

The first challenge in coordinating three undergraduate physics majors (2nd, 3rd and 4th years) and one 3rd year biology major is simply getting their schedules. They give you one and then it changes during the first week. Then the second week is spent finalizing schedules and getting their final ones.

With those in hand a table mock up of when they are available with when two can be in lab at the same time is fairly simple. But the challenge is figuring out hours for everyone while trying to consider things like not working with the same person the whole time, time for meals and not assigning random blocks in the middle of their free time (it is better to abut research time to a class).

So I finished a schedule, sent it out thinking it was pretty good.

Three hours later I heard back from one of them, I read what he gave me as time available. It was time he was in class.

By this time my piece of paper with schedules on it has several layers of colors, ink types and notations. If there are any more changes it will require a new weekly calender mock up.

After writing the above I received some more e-mails about the schedule and have scrapped the whole thing and started over. This time I set up four google calenders, one for each person. The calenders are shared between the four of us with each person able to only edit their schedule while viewing the others. The goal is that everyone will put up the hours they will be in lab, choosing times others can be there, and then others will schedule that time as well.

I started by setting up my times so it will be interesting to see how this will go. I also dropped my involvement from ten hours to five hours a week as the stress this was causing is not worth the payoff (which is essentially nothing at this point).

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These are probably some critical component of the Madison Symmetric Torus.

These are probably some critical component of the Madison Symmetric Torus.

Sometimes working in an experimental research lab as an undergraduate is not a fun experience. Lately (since getting into graduate school) I have not been motivated to work on or even care about the project I am working on. Simple tasks take much longer then they actually should and I often feel that our project is not welcomed in the lab. Part of it is that I came in sort of in the middle/beginning so I have no personal attachment to the project. The other is that most of my time is spent scavenging parts or trying to get the necessary equipment to do what needs to be done.

The main problem is that I hardly see the connection between our project and actual research, and even if there was a connection the research is not at the top of my list for what I find interesting. I guess that is a problem when my area of interest is a particularly narrow one.

Then again starting out in a situation like this makes Washington next year seem so much better in comparison.

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I love the bowls of candy present during the holidays.

I love the bowls of candy present during the holidays.

Earlier this week new set of bulletin boards appeared near the physics study room at UCSB (where I happen to spend a lot of time). One of these is dedicated to research opportunities to help undergraduates find professors to work for. Since I did not have such an easy conglomeration of information I had to find out the hard (well harder) way.

So you want to get involved in undergraduate research? The two main types of research (for sciences at least) are working for a professor at your university and summer internships (Research Experience for Undergraduates: REU’s).

It is easier to get work at your own university since there is no application process involved, there tends to be no or little pay as well. To find a position at your university it is best to think of what you want to do. The internet is one of the best tools here. Start by going to the department website and find the section for research. Usually the websites are divided into academics, research and maybe outreach. Once in the research sections look at everything available and make not of what interests you.

Based on the list of interesting items find three to four professors with interesting sounding research and maybe a good website. If a website is not listed for the professor try googling their name to find it, oftentimes it is not listed on the departments website or it could be under another departments. Read what they have on their websites and maybe a recent publication to become familiar with the type of research they are doing. This exercise will also help you decide what you actually find interesting, if reading the websites and papers (at least the website) is boring try looking at other types of research.

Once you find three or four professors with interesting research go talk to them. If you have a class with one of them ask them about their research after class or during their office hours. If you have never had a class with them see about finding when their office hours are and go visit them then. You want to do a bit of research on their research first so you can ask relevant questions and show that you are serious about doing research. If you have never met them before or do not feel comfortable showing up randomly e-mail them. Here is an example of such an e-mail, most is specific to my circumstances but it gives a general (I sent it in June) :

Dear Professor [Name],

As you know, in order to secure a graduate school position as a physics student I need hands on research experience. While I was studying abroad in Edinburgh last year I applied to many summer research positions including NSF REUs such as University of Washington and Caltech, as well as NASA’s summer research program. Unfortunately there were not enough research opportunities for me to get one.

Since the research is necessary for me to continue my career in physics I am asking if you have research opportunities in your lab starting this Fall quarter.

I understand that you are currently working on [research].

My field of interest is currently [similar and related interests to what they are doing, that is why you are asking them].

However, I would be happy to take advantage of any opportunity you may have. If there are no positions currently available in your lab, are you aware of any other opening available for me.

I would like to talk with you about any research opportunities in your lab, or any advice you may have.

I am looking forward to hearing from you, I will contact you for follow up in the first week in August.

Sincerely,

Michael Hutchins

[Contact Info]

That should give some ideas as what too write if you need any.

Aside from getting research opportunities at your home universities there are also REU programs and other internships such as NASA USRP. These are eight to ten week paid programs where you learn to do research under a professor and occasionally get published. The applications tend to be due in December or January depending on the program. Most are highly competitive so do not be discouraged if you do not get in (I didn’t  make it in one). As I have not done one I do not really know what they are about but they look really nice. Especially the part where you get paid.

I should also mention that working for a professor at your home University can either be for units/credits or pay. Sometimes both if you get a stipend and a research grant. Though it only works out to be about ¢70 an hour.

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Sometimes you have to ask a few times.

Sometimes you have to ask a few times.

One of the more difficult tasks of applying to graduate school, any any application really, is finding the right letters of recommendation. It is daunting task asking professors or graduate students to write you a letter of recommendation. Oftentimes it is because we do not know the professor that well or we only interacted with them a few times during a class. But as I was told early on, letters of recommendation are part and parcel of being in academia. 

The best way to ask for a letter is in person as it is both harder to turn down someone standing right there and that way they know who you are. Even if a professor knows your name in class it is because they recognize you as a person, an e-mail lacks the face so they cannot be sure who it is. I believe that e-mailing a photo of yourself with the request might not make the best impression.

When asking in any medium (I have asked over Facebook before) phrase the question so that they have an opportunities to say no. Try a sentence like “Would you be comfortable writing me a good letter of recommendation for [program]”. They may be comfortable writing a mediocre or even bad letter of rec so saying good is important. Also by phrasing the question with “would you be comfortable” lets them say no with a valid reason such as they are too busy or they do not know you well enough.

Good people to ask are those that you have had interactions of some sort with. For my graduate school letters I asked my sophomore lab professor (to show that I excel academically), my research professor (to show I can do research) and a professor I am currently taking a class from since he has lunch discussions every week (to show that I am good a communicating and sharing ideas). Graduate students are also good to ask but it is probably best to have at least one professor sending a letter. It is also best to have the professors writing the letter be in the same field of study that you are applying too, though this may be harder to accomplish.

I found three responses to when I asked for letters:

  • A request for a packet of information such as transcripts, research interests and personal statement like questions.
  • I was asked to write one myself from the perspective of the professor since I would remember what we have talked about better then he has. That was an interesting exercise, it was actually hard to do. Hard to do while trying to sound like a professor.
  • And lastly I have a professor that I need to remind roughly every other day in order for him to write it. Likely he will write it the day before or day it is due. It helps that I expect that

A technique to getting the letters on time is too make up the deadlines. If it is due the twentieth say it is due the fifteenth so when it is a day or two late it is actually on time. This is risky as if the instructions give the due date. Alternatively you could just say that you would prefer to have it by a given date. This depends on the professor.

Before asking I would recommend writing a short summary of what research you are interested in. Follow this by a list of the schools you are applying to with departments, for each school write up the instructions for each one with addresses to send the letter. Even if you can include it in a packet some professors prefer to mail them directly. I am guessing this is so we cannot bug them until they give it to us.

Of course try to give professors at least three weeks between asking and the first deadline. Because it will take at least a week to organize the material with them and then a week or two for them to get around to writing it. 

Letters of recommendation are probably one of the most important aspects of an application. If you are going to be applying in a year or more try to develop relationships with professors so they really know who you are when they write the letters. If it is your senior year and have only a quarter don’t worry too much, I have only known two of my recommenders since September.

Remember that the gap between undergraduate and professor is not as big as it seems to be, in the end they are people like the rest of us.

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