Many students in the Physics and Astronomy program at Beloit College participate in faculty sponsored research during the academic year or summer. This is an opportunity for students to apply knowledge from theoretical classes and laboratory experiences to real world problems that don’t have known solutions, and might not necessarily be solvable.
Since this is student guided research, you should be prepared to spend a considerable amount of time on your own investigating the problem. This is not a course, and certainly not a lecture: you should not be sitting back and expecting that your faculty sponsor will be doing the work and directing your every activity.
Some faculty will require you to sign a research contract.
Expected Responsibilities for Student Research
- For every half unit of research expect to spend an average of six hours per week engaged in the project. Most students find that scheduling regular times each week is the only way to meet this commitment.
- The amount of time that your faculty mentor spends with you can vary between almost none and all. And this can vary from week to week. The burden is on you, the student, to engage in useful scholarly activities when your mentor is not present.
- Research that does not result in a disseminated product is often useless. Expect to write a paper.
What can be done when the mentor is not around?
- Search the literature.
One of the most crucial components of any research is the literature search. This does not require a mentor, it does require patience and determination. Expect to spend time in the library. Expect to spend time at arXiv and Google Scholar and NASA ADS. Expect to need to take a trip to UW Madison to wander their stacks. Expect to borrow materials via interlibrary loan.
- Teach yourself.
Chances are very good that the student researcher does not understand the research project as well as the mentor. Research is not classroom teaching. The mentor likely learned the material through independent study of the journal articles. The research student should do the same. Read the articles that you found in your literature search. If you don’t understand them, find textbooks to brush up on the underlying principles. Go to the library. Not all useful resources are available in the department or online.
- Work with other students.
If you are having difficulty, ask questions of students who might know the answer. Ask other students, even those unconnected to your project, if you can explain the problem to them. This is a great way to clarify your thinking and generate new ideas, as well as letting other students know what is going on in our department.
- Make measurements.
If possible, repeat measurements that have already been taken. Show more care than you think is necessary. Double check your results.
- Organize the lab.
Do this with care; your mentor might have arranged the lab exactly the way they wanted. But chances are good that there are tools that can be put away, items that can be cleaned, computer code that can be commented more clearly. Identify items that are worn or broken or need to be fixed or replaced.
Be prepared for your next meeting with your mentor. Develop your questions. Propose the next stages of the research.
Since a well written research report also contains significant background and motivation material, you can engage in writing portions of the report before the research is finished. You can also spend time preparing the graphs for collected data or figures. You should expect that much of what you write will be heavily edited, or even discarded from the final product, but this is normal.