Step One: Identifying Interesting Research
So you want a research position. The first step is figuring out what kind of research you want. We’re writing this assuming you’re searching for physics research, but don’t limit yourself! Physics majors in the past have been successful at research in a variety of departments ranging from ECE to Agriculture. Much of the advice given here is applicable to all sorts of research positions in all sorts of departments.
Experimental, Theoretical, or Computational?
These are the three main branches of physics research. You probably already know a little about each. While experimental and computational research are most accessible to undergraduate students, 24% of undergraduate students with research have worked in theory at some point.
What Subfield(s) do you want research in?
Illinois has one of the largest physics departments in the nation with professors studying a wide variety of subjects. Listed below are the different categories of research with the number of faculty dedicated to each one. Figure out which you are most interested in. This can help you narrow your search before you go to physics.illinois.edu/research to look up specific professors’ research.
Atomic/Molecular/Optical a.k.a AMO – 4 faculty – AMO is the study of the small. Quantum Physics will be very relevant to any research in this subfield. Some of the hottest topics include quantum information, quantum computing, laser physics, and ultracold physics.
Astrophysics/Cosmology – 11 faculty – Physics and Astronomy go hand in hand. If you love space, astrophysics is a natural choice for you. Hot topics include general relativity, the Big Bang, the early universe, star and galaxy mechanics, and dark matter.
Biological Physics – 13 faculty – Biophysics is one of the newest fields of physics. As such, a lot of exciting work is being done in this subject. Some hot topics include understanding the dynamics of biological molecules, modelling photosynthesis, developing biotechnologies, understanding protein interactions, and more.
Condensed Matter – 30 faculty – Illinois is the #1 Condensed Matter university in the world. We have some of the foremost minds in the field working here. Condensed matter physics is the physics of solids and liquids. It studies a wide variety of unusual phenomena like superfluidity and superconductivity.
Cross-Cutting Research – 4 faculty – This is a name for professors whose research is so interdisciplinary it cannot be described by anything more specific. If you are interested in applied physics or statistical mechanics, this is a great place to look for research.
High Energy – 17 faculty – Heard of the LHC? Fermilab? The physicists who work there are predominantly high energy physicists. They study fundamental particles, the standard model, and all things subatomic. We have professors working on a wide variety of subjects and with a wide variety of particle colliders.
Nuclear Physics – 9 faculty – Nuclear Physics also studies subatomic structures, but at lower energy levels. Work in this field not only has large implications for fundamental physics and scientific instrumentation, but for medicine where new technologies are being developed to improve imaging and treat diseases like cancer.
Physics Education Research – 4 faculty – PRE is the study of how students learn physics. UIUC has been a leader in this field, turning our 211 and 212 courses into experiments. Our PRE professors have developed the iClicker, the prelabs and the iLab devices all intending to improve how physics students retain information.
Go to physics.illinois.edu/research to learn more.
Research Facts & Statistics
More than 45% of Physics majors during any given semester are involved in some kind of research. Most of them work in the physics department, but by graduation more than 20% of our students will have experience doing research in other disciplines. Here are some more facts about Physics research at UIUC:
- Typically, students begin looking for research during their sophomore year.
- The most popular areas are Condensed Matter, Astrophysics, and High Energy.
- 74% of students engage in experimental research at some point, 24% in theoretical, and 33% in computational.
- Many of our undergraduate students get REU positions- paid summer research positions at other universities. UIUC students have gone to Berkeley, Johns Hopkins, Princeton, and Caltech, just to name a few. Some even travel internationally to countries like Japan for their REU. Applications to REU programs typically open in Fall and are due during in Winter or Spring.
- Physics students also research in other departments: Math, CS, ECE, Astronomy, Mechanical Engineering, NPRE, and Bioengineering are some popular choices.
- Every summer we have students intern at national labs like Fermilab, Argonne, Los Alamos, and SLAC.
- Most students involved in research have found the experience rewarding, though several change groups before they find a project they are passionate about.
How to Email Professors
Nearly every undergraduate student with research has been in your position. How do you approach a professor and come away successful with a new research position? You have two options:
- Write an Email.
- Talk to the professor after class or find them during office hours/in their office.
Option 2 is typically more effective but it can be challenging, especially if you have never met the professor before or have no idea where their office is. In most cases, students send an email first.
Tips on Crafting the Perfect “Cold” Email
In the business world, a cold email is one sent to someone you have no prior relationship with. A cold email is personal, concise and written for a specific recipient, just like your research email should be.
- Have a meaningful and interesting subject line.
Subject lines are super important. The more interesting it is, the more likely a professor will read it. “Student seeking research” is acceptable, but not quite as good as “Physics major interested in observational astrophysics research” or “Engineering Physics major with programming experience interested in condensed matter research”
- Write a unique email specific to each research position you are interested in.
It’s okay to email multiple professors at once, but never send out a one-size-fits-all message and never send out a bulk email.
- Pay special attention to the first paragraph.
This is the first part of the email they will read. If it is poorly written, includes spelling and grammar mistakes, or doesn’t get to the point, it might be the only part of the email they read.
- Make a personal connection but don’t ramble..
This is an extremely common mistake. Don’t waste a lot of time introducing yourself or explaining why you want a research position with that specific professor. The professor will want to meet you before they accept you into their group either way. Spend 1-2 sentences stating your name, year, major and any minors or important and relevant skills you have. Important skills might include programming languages or electronics experience. It’s good to mention if you have met the professor before, taken a class with them, or seen a talk they gave.
- State explicitly that you are looking for a research position.
Make sure you let them know why you are emailing. A good way to phrase it could be: “I am really interested in what you are working on, do you have space in your group for undergraduate students?” or “I would love to meet and talk about your research.”
- Don’t be afraid to be a little informal.
There exist no persons that desire the an erroneously formal disclosure. It’s completely fine to include contractions or informal language in your email, so long as it is grammatically correct and respectful.
- Don’t be afraid to email more than once, but be patient for a response.
Professors are busy people, sometimes they don’t see your email or accidentally delete it. Sometimes, professors simply take a while getting around to respond. A good rule of thumb is to wait two weeks, if you get no response by then, email back, or better yet: find them in their office where they can’t ignore you. If you get rejected, don’t feel bad. It probably isn’t about you. More likely the professor doesn’t have space in their group.
An Example Email
Subject: Engineering Physics major interested in quantum information research
Hi Professor [[ last name ]],
My name is Adeline Smith, I am a Freshman majoring in Engineering Physics with a minor in Computer Science. I’m very interested in quantum physics research, especially in quantum information and computing. While I do not have a lot of experience, I have read up on recent advances in quantum computing and am very excited to learn more. After I saw the colloquium you gave two weeks ago, I read some more about your research on your physics.illinois profile. It sounds really interesting, and I’d love to ask you some questions about it if you have the time to meet with me.
- Adeline’s email is short. It takes less than a minute to read through and doesn’t include unnecessary information. She introduces herself in one line, explains why she is interested, and asks to meet up. Nothing more is needed.
- Adeline is clear about her intentions. Immediately in the subject line she states she is interested in a research position. At the end of the email she asks to meet with the professor in person. This is a great way to ask for research; most professors love to talk about their research, and it is much harder to reject someone in person.
- Adeline did her homework. She looked up the professor online and read about their research. She even went to the professor’s colloquium talk. Her email is tailored specifically to this research position.
- Adeline is personal. The tone of her email is friendly, and she talks about her personal interest in quantum information. Moreover, she is able to convey a lot about herself in just five sentences.
- Adeline is frank about her level of experience. Many freshmen worry excessively about their lack of experience when searching for research. While some professors are only looking for upperclassmen and will reject freshmen out of hand, many professors are happy to work with freshmen with the expectation that they will spend a lot of time learning on the job. If you end up liking the research, having started as a freshman can be a great advantage: by the time you graduate you have years of experience in your lab. Notice how Adeline qualifies her lack of experience by saying she is excited to learn more.