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How can i get started with research experience?
Posted: Tue Jul 28, 2015 9:49 pm
I graduated a couple of years ago with a B.S.Phys. from a small liberal-arts college. At the time, although I knew the college's physics program was...erratically run (and tiny. 3 graduates that year), I didn't realize that in at least one major way it was wildly underpreparing me for any number of things you could use a B.S.Phys. for: I never even went near research of any kind, and I had next to no lab experience. We had lab courses freshman year that I A.P.'d out of, and we had a single capstone course called "advanced lab," which involved i think six or seven days spent in the lab, total; I don't even know what my professors were doing in their own research, and it was never brought up. REUs were vaguely mentioned once or twice but never really pushed or encouraged. We never read any actual physics papers; all our reading was out of textbooks. So I graduated with a pile of book learnin' on thermo, E&M, quantum, etc. but no applicable skills and no real idea of how physics is actually done.
I had no idea, at the time, that any of this was unusual; I still don't have a handle on exactly which parts were, or how much, but the more I look into grad school the more I realize I was seriously shafted. I know I'm not gonna get in to any PhD's with no research whatsoever, but I have no idea what I could do, as a college graduate, to get any. Could I get into a masters'? Are there research technician positions available for someone with my background? I haven't been able to find any in my area (Boston, which is where you'd think they'd be if they were around) but I'm not sure I'm looking in the right places. Any advice?
Re: How can i get started with research experience?
Posted: Wed Jul 29, 2015 11:16 am
First, while it's true that you would be more competitive if you had research opportunities, they are not absolutely necessary to get into grad school. Generally, the high ranking research focussed schools will want more research experience, but it's not 100% necessary (my friend in a top PhD program was accepted without any research experience). Most admissions committees will be looking for an applicant where they think there will be a good outcome if the student enrolled. Since producing research is an important part of being a PhD student, having prior experience doing this is a great way to demonstrate what they are looking for. However, there are many other ways to demonstrate excellence (for example, my friend had an extremely high GPA and demonstrated strong passion and a good fit).
Also, a lot of students enter PhD programs from liberal arts colleges and in general, I have heard many other people talk about the increased difficulty in finding research experiences. So it's not like you will be the first applicant in 10 years without any experience! In fact, there will be plenty of other applicants without experience.
Advice for next steps: Getting a Masters is one possibility. Most of these programs are unfunded though, which means it could cost you a lot (and whether it's worth it is up to you). However, applying to Masters program is a lot cheaper, so I think even if you pursue other routes, it might be a good idea to just apply to a few Masters programs anyways since you won't find out the results right away and you'll keep your options open.
A lab tech position is a very good idea. One person that entered our program this year worked as a lab tech for a few years before applying to grad school (they also went to a small liberal arts college). I also think this is a good idea for you personally, because if you don't have any research experience, maybe you will not actually like being a physics researcher. I think it's far better, if possible, to get a paying job where you get to try out some physics research than to commit yourself to 5-7 years in a PhD program with low pay before you are certain this is what you want to do. The person I mentioned before, who was a lab tech prior to grad school, took the lab tech position for this same reason.
A lab tech position might be very competitive to get, but it's worth a try. Do you still have any connections from your college? Would you be willing to move for such a position? Boston is certainly a great place for physics programs, there are so many schools there! But jobs are hard to get, so in order to maximize your chances at getting this type of position, maybe you would consider applying to positions that may require relocation. Also, if your goal is a PhD program, a lab tech in a University lab might be better as it will help you build academic connections, you could also apply to non-academic labs as well.
While you apply for these positions, I think there is little harm in applying to some Masters and PhD programs as well. You won't find out until Feb-Apr 2016 and when those decisions arrive, you can decide what you want to do.