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A Rough Guide to Finding a Research Mentor in the Physical Sciences At Cal!
By S.S. Rupa Datta
For more information on Undergraduate Research @ Berkeley, visit http://research.berkeley.edu or stop by 301 Campbell Hall
The key to finding a research position and a research mentor is, like many other exercises in life, first and foremost taking initiative. One of the very best ways of finding research at Cal is asking a professor for a research position. A useful motto is, Seek and ye shall find. This is a simple guide to channel that initiative, taking into special account the experience and situations of physical science majors. First of all, remember that a lot of what goes into finding research is simple chutzpah, and if you intuitively know how to walk up to someone and say, I want to work for you, and youve always known what youre interested in, then you probably dont need this guide. Moreover, the details are unimportant, so just modify these steps to find what works for you; think of them as a suggested path about which there are many variations.
II. What on Earth (or in the Universe) do you want to know?
Research is the process of asking a question about nature, and attempting to answer it with either experiment or theory. Thus the first step to getting research is to find out what you are interested inwhat kind of questions do you want to know the answers to? This requires stepping back from your course work and looking at the big picture. When your professors bring up examples and stories to illustrate their lectures, which ones excite you, make you lean forward a little more?
* Talk to your professors and GSIs about their research.
* Go to seminars and colloquia, especially those sponsored by undergraduate clubs like SPS. Check the elevator in LeConte (and locations in Campbell and McCone)if youre interested in a talk but unsure youll understand anything (and unwilling to risk the time or embarrassment of falling asleep), talk to the organizers or your professors and ask if they think youll get anything out of it. You dont have to understand everythingin fact, youre almost guaranteed not to. But following even twenty minutes of the preliminaries will give you a sense of the basic physical issues involved in a presenters work.
* Go on lab tours.
* Check out popular science magazines: the physics library carries Physics Today and Scientific American, and most newsstands carry Discovery.
* Spend an hour or two checking out the group homepages of the Astronomy, Geology and Physics departments, LBNL and SSL.
* Flip through the faculty research interests bulletin, available at the department offices.
* Participate in or initiate one of SPSs new journal club style discussions; see 275 LeConte for a list of proposed discussions and more information.
* Talk to your friends. The great biophysicist Sir Francis Crick figured out what he was interested in by applying the gossip testi.e., you are interested in the science you gossip about.
If a professors statement of interest, a lab groups web site, an article or a talk captures your eye and then your attention, think about why. Ironically the best way to figure out what interests you in science is to mull over what catches your fancy. Once you feel you have a sense for what you like, sit down for an hour and make your thoughts concretewrite them out. This isnt setting them in stone, just providing your self with a starting point to focus your efforts on.
III. Who does this stuff anyway?
Now that you have an idea about what interests you its time to look for people whose specific work interests you more. You may recall names from your general survey; if not, go through the faculty and scientist interest lists again, more slowly and carefully. Dont restrict yourself to your home departmentyour area(s) or interest may very well be shared by scientists in other fields. Try Chemistry, EECS, Math, Mech E, MCB, Mat Sci., as they apply. Look at LBLs research listings. After this more in-depth survey, pick 2 or 3 scientists whom you think youd like to work for. Ask yourself these questions: What interests you about their work? What questions arise in your mind when you think about it? Do you really want to spend your free time answering them?
Again, your initiative is the key to your success. At this point in the process, working on your own is simply not enoughyou have to talk to other people. If youre really nervous, a good place to start is with graduate students who work in a particular group. If youre interested in Professor Platos work on cave morphology, talk to his graduate student Ariste about what goes on in the lab, what Platos working on now, and how the lab is run. Maybe the bulk of Platos work is hardcore fieldwork, and youre a backpacking expert. Or maybe youre a computer person and Plato has a new interest in making somewhat abstract models of stalagtites. Or maybe Plato is building a new instrument to track bat echoes, and while youre still taking the electronics lab youre willing to learn more and work hard. Thinking along these lines will make you ready and able to tackle the next big step: talking to the scientist in charge.
IV. Popping the question.
In general on this campus, the best way to talk to a professor is go to his or her office hours. That is a little less true in the physical sciences than it is in the humanities. Physical science professors office hours tend to be used more thoroughly by students in that professors course, who are working on problem sets, and the stress of impending deadlines is contagious. Therefore, a professor may be a little shorter with you if he or she feels that youre taking up time, which is needed by his or her students. Because professors are usually both fairly busy and fairly addicted to e-mail, the following strategy is recommended:
* Figure out during what times, in the next week, youre free. Make a list of these times.
* E-mail the professors. Make the e-mail semi-formal: minimize the abbreviations, start out with a salutation and introduce yourself. If youve taken a class from the professors or have ever met them, remind them of this unless youre 100% positive they know who you are. Tell professors you want to talk to them about their research. Ask them if their posted office hours are a good time, but offer them the alternative of your available times as well. (If you cant make their office hours, say so.) Thank them for their time.
* If they dont respond in a couple days (which they very well might not) follow up with a phone call or visit to their office hours, with your planner in hand. Keep it brief!
* Before your appointment, jot down some notes to yourself. What questions do you have about their work? What are commitments like over the next semester? Year? Think about what you want to ask them for: a paid job? Units over the semester and money for the summer? If youre new at research (and if you can afford to), it might be a good idea to ask if you can just volunteer in their lab for a bit until you get a sense for what they do.
* When you actually talk to the scientist, relax! Theyre humans too, and once they were in the same position you are in now.
* If at first you dont succeed, pick another group and keep trying. Persistence pays off; quitting most certainly does not. Actually, no such appointment can be considered a failure: ask the professor youre talking to for references to other labs, which might interest you. These are invaluable because the professor you just spent a half an hour talking to now knows more about your interests than most people.
Remember, do what works for youthis is only a guide to get you started, not a set of legislated rules!
Sometimes a professor may not have any job for you in mind, but a graduate student or post-doc could sure use a little extra help. So you go and help them with whatever they need help on. While this may seem sort of underhanded, its not really (as long as theyre neither paying you nor torturing you), and can be a valuable way of getting experience and getting your foot in the door. Continued persistence indicates a strong interest, and when next the professor has a URAP or REU, he or she will probably think of you first.
V. Conclusion and the Importance of Conversation
More important than any of the little tips in this guide is one big piece of advice: TALK TO PEOPLE. Get to know your professors, your graduate students instructors (and random other graduate students toothey tend to be pretty cool), your fellow undergraduates, your dept. staff, your librarians, whomever. If you talk to people about physics, you will learn so much more than if you just keep your nose in your books and your problem sets. Opportunities will come to you on silver platters, and youll probably have a much better time being here. I leave you with a quote from the mathematician/physicist/astronomer Freeman Dyson (who incidentally became famous by talking to a couple people and translating their thoughts to the rest of the physics world):
Conversation is the natural and characteristic activity of human beings. . . .Unlike friendship, work is a mixed blessing. At its best work is a sustained lifelong conversation. The more satisfying and enjoyable work is, the more it partakes of the nature of conversation. Science at the working level is mostly conversation. . . .That is the way science is done. When I am not talking to friends down the hall, I am writing papers for friends around the world. Scientists are as gregarious a species as termites. . . . Our enterprise, the exploration of natures secrets, had no beginning and will have no end. Exploration is as natural an activity for human beings as conversation. Our friends the explorers are scattered over the centuries. . . .
From Eros to Gaia, The Face of Gaia, p. 340-341.
That conversation starts here and now, and you are in a very special place to engage in it. Dont miss your golden opportunity!
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