MDM Observatory, Kitt Peak, AZ

Undergraduate Research — Getting Started

Scientific research at Columbia is challenging and rewarding, and there are many oppurtunities for undergraduates to become involved.

A common misunderstanding among undergraduates is that your current level of physics or mathematics renders you incapable of conducting research. You may wonder how introductory linear algebra and classical mechanics could contribute to the study of galaxies or black holes or cosmology (a lot, in fact!).

Learn Who’s Doing What

Part of what makes research so hard to define is how diverse it can be. Columbia astronomers and astrophysicists do research across a broad range of subjects using many different tools. The online profiles of our faculty can give you a brief glimpse at what each faculty member investigates.

Decide what Research is Right For You

It can prove challenging for a young student to decide what sort of investigations to pursue. As you familiarize yourself with our faculty, pay attention to what work draws your attention. Understand their research setting: is it a laboratory or an office? Do they solve equations, program computers or go out observing? What methods would you like to incorporate in your work?

Next, concoct a list of faculty who piqued your interest, even if you're unclear exactly what they do, and investigate further! Email faculty to schedule a meeting to discuss research opportunities. Then visit their personal sites and check out some recent publications, to formulate questions about their work.

Faculty routinely work with undergraduate students, but experience, aligned interests and timing can play a huge role in whether or not you two will “fit”. Faculty will often refer you to other members of the department, who may be investigating work closer to your stated interests, or who have more time to take on new researchers. Emailing or bringing them your resume and course history can help fill in details about what sort of work you could accomplish under their direction. Include all your coursework and work experiences; often some of your best assets lie beyond astro or physics courses (statistics and computer science come to mind).

Finding the right research mentor, like conducting research itself, often involves trial and error: if at first you come up empty, keep searching. Pay attention to how you react to these faculty and the work they do — a gut feeling of excitement and curiosity is a sure sign you're on the right track.

Overcome the Learning Curve

Research is challenging but rewarding! When you first begin, your project may seem hopelessly open ended, and its methods may appear vague or beyond your skill set. Recognize your frustration is typical, and that insights come with time, as experience slowly mounts. Ask questions and seek help in texts, online and among the grad students who work for your faculty member. Weeks go by with little to show for yourself, but you press onward. Often frustrating blocks caused by broken equipment, buggy code or unsolved equations can vanish in a flash of euphoric insight.

Be proactive. With every question that seems to stump you, first ask yourself “Is there any way I can find the answer to this on my own?” You might be surprised to realize the answer is often “yes!” Next ask yourself what simple resources may be able to help: google or wikipedia or a web forum can often nudge you in the right direction. Browse the astro literature over at ADS. If you need help, ask for it! Don’t assume help will come without solicitation.

As you learn all about the relevant tools involved in your research, and the common methods those around you use to solve problems, you may be amazed at how fast your research will accelerate! What once took you months may take weeks or days. Always look for creative new avenues to solve seemingly solved problems. Most of all, as you wade through swamps of technical minutia, always keep the big picture goals of your research in mind (even when the picture is about as sensible as a Jackson Pollock painting).

Who Gains from Research?

Everyone! Research, unlike course work, is open-ended and draws upon and synthesizes a broad swath of the knowledge you’ve accrued while here at Columbia. Research invites you to teach yourself how to work with novel databases, coding languages and mathematical methods. You may never have a job that involves studying black holes or the interstellar medium, but the problem solving skills and autodidactic ethos you acquire during research will prove indispensable in any career setting.

Research invites you to take a deep breath and think creatively and analytically. Good researchers are brave — they tackle problems by diving down roads of inquiry that often lead to dead ends. Arguably, the single greatest gift research can give you is the confidence to tackle problems you find vague or intimidating.