Types of Undergrad Projects

I saw a discussion on twitter recently, about PhD programs in the US. Apparently universities are putting more and more weight whether prospective students published a paper during their Bachelor’s degree. For some, it’s even an informal requirement. Some of those in the discussion were skeptical that the students were really contributing to these papers much, and thought that most of the work must have been done by the papers’ other authors. If so, this would mean universities are relying more and more on a metric that depends on whether students can charm their professors enough to be “included” in this way, rather than their own abilities.

I won’t say all that much about the admissions situation in the US. (Except to say that if you find yourself making up new criteria to carefully sift out a few from a group of already qualified-enough candidates, maybe you should consider not doing that.) What I did want to say a bit about is what undergraduates can typically actually do, when it comes to research in my field.

First, I should clarify that I’m talking about students in the US system here. Undergraduate degrees in Europe follow a different path. Students typically take three years to get a Bachelor’s degree, often with a project at the end, followed by a two-year Master’s degree capped with a Master’s thesis. A European Master’s thesis doesn’t have to result in a paper, but is often at least on that level, while a European Bachelor project typically isn’t. US Bachelor’s degrees are four years, so one might expect a Bachelor’s thesis to be in between a European Bachelor’s project and Master’s thesis. In practice, it’s a bit different: courses for Master’s students in Europe will generally cover material taught to PhD students in the US, so a typical US Bachelor’s student won’t have had some courses that have a big role in research in my field, like Quantum Field Theory. On the other hand, the US system is generally much more flexible, with students choosing more of their courses and having more opportunities to advance ahead of the default path. So while US Bachelor’s students don’t typically take Quantum Field Theory, the more advanced students can and do.

Because of that, how advanced a given US Bachelor’s student is varies. A small number are almost already PhD students, and do research to match. Most aren’t, though. Despite that, it’s still possible for such a student to complete a real research project in theoretical physics, one that results in a real paper. What does that look like?

Sometimes, it’s because the student is working with a toy model. The problems we care about in theoretical physics can be big and messy, involving a lot of details that only an experienced researcher will know. If we’re lucky, we can make a simpler version of the problem, one that’s easier to work with. Toy models like this are often self-contained, the kind of thing a student can learn without all of the background we expect. The models may be simpler than the real world, but they can still be interesting, suggesting new behavior that hadn’t been considered before. As such, with a good choice of toy model an undergraduate can write something that’s worthy of a real physics paper.

Other times, the student is doing something concrete in a bigger collaboration. This isn’t quite the same as the “real scientists” doing all the work, because the student has a real task to do, just one that is limited in scope. Maybe there is particular computer code they need to get working, or a particular numerical calculation they need to do. The calculation may be comparatively straightforward, but in combination with other results it can still merit a paper. My first project as a PhD student was a little like that, tackling one part of a larger calculation. Once again, the task can be quite self-contained, the kind of thing you can teach a student over a summer project.

Undergraduate projects in the US won’t always result in a paper, and I don’t think anyone should expect, or demand, that they do. But a nontrivial number do, and not because the student is “cheating”. With luck, a good toy model or a well-defined sub-problem can lead a Bachelor’s student to make a real contribution to physics, and get a paper in the bargain.

2 thoughts on “Types of Undergrad Projects

  1. Andrew Larkoski

    This is really challenging and there are multiple destructively-interfering effects that limit many students, especially if they are interested in theoretical physics. First, if you attend a liberal arts or only bachelor degree-granting school, it is almost certain that there is no course on QFT. (I never took QFT as an undergrad though I attended a large state university, on the excellent advice to not take it, and instead wait for graduate school.)

    Second, if you are an international student in the US, then common pathways to research and therefore papers like REUs are not open to you. This sometimes leads to the effect that excellent students are only able to get letters from people at their own institution. Three letters from people all at the same place (especially if it is small) may appear a bit parochial.

    Third, a paper as an undergraduate will really only happen if an advisor is sufficiently motivated and interested in mentoring, in addition to having a very compressed and finite time scale (unlike in graduate school). This can self-select for advisors who already have large research programs, like one would find in large departments.

    I don’t know what the solution is, but actually eliminating the GRE may have an unintended consequence. Yes, the GRE isn’t representative of how physics is done, and it has all sorts of historical biases and baggage, but if a student coming from anywhere gets a great score, that can change the tide in favor of their application. A great student from a small school with only letters from that faculty without a paper seems to now have no shot at graduate school in physics in the US.


  2. Jim

    I managed to publish a paper during my time as an undergraduate that now has over 900 citations. Experimental Physics, but still. But I was at a research institution that expected that sort of thing and gave the resources to make it happen. It doesn’t happen like that outside the top tier universities.

    Which means we are now sorting at the high school level, which means mainly sorting by whose parents already know how to game the system. A bright kid who gets excited about Science in her junior year doesn’t have a chance.



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