One of the most valuable educational experiences offered by the department is the opportunity to participate in research projects with faculty members. Projects can involve laboratory work, data analysis, or computational research in particle physics, plasma physics, condensed matter physics, biophysics, or astronomy. Virtually all qualified students who seek an undergraduate research project will find a suitable project, and some students carry out research with more than one research group during their time at UCI.
Whether you are planning to attend graduate school or pursue a career in industry or any of the many other possibilities that will be available to you, taking advantage of research opportunities is an important part of your undergraduate experience as a physics major, and one of the most enjoyable and rewarding aspects of an undergraduate education.
As a minimum, we encourage all of our majors to be involved in research during their senior year. But, we encourage students to start talking with faculty at the end of the sophomore year or during the beginning of the junior year to plan summer research projects and senior thesis research work.
There are a variety of arrangements for research during the academic year and during the summer. These include:
Course credit and Senior Thesis projects
Students who take Physics 196 or H196 for a year complete a Senior Thesis in Physics while satisfying their upper-division writing requirement. (This sequence also counts as two quarters of "coherently related" courses for the departmental degree requirement.) Alternatively, students can enroll in Physics 195. A senior thesis can be a stand-alone project initiated at the start of senior year, but it can also be the culmination of research started at an earlier stage, for example as a summer project that later expands into a senior thesis.
We strongly recommend that students begin working on identifying possible Senior Thesis projects during the junior year. See below for advice on finding research opportunities in the Department.
Students who are carrying out Senior Thesis research are eligible to present their findings at the annual UROP Symposium, held at the end of Spring quarter. Consult the UROP web site at the start of Spring quarter for information on submitting an abstract for the Symposium. Students can choose to give either an oral presentation or a poster presentation.
Employment or volunteering as an Undergraduate Researcher
In addition to Senior Thesis research, many students take part in research opportunitites during summers, or during academic years prior to senior year. Starting early on research projects can be a great way to learn more about different areas of physics and gain experience in a variety of experimental or computational techniques.
The Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) web site is a great resource for finding research possibilities at UCI and elsewhere. UROP maintains a list of faculty who have undergraduate research openings in their groups, but it's important to be aware that this is a very incomplete list: many Physics faculty will have openings that aren't listed on the UROP site. The best way to find research opportunities is to contact faculty directly, regardless of whether they have an advertised opening.
The UROP program has an annual call for proposals for research grants that can be used to help fund student research projects. UROP also sponsors various other undergraduate research fellowships, which are listed on their web site.
Finding a research project takes initiative. It's up to you to find research opportunities. Think about what areas of physics you're most interested in, and what research techniques. Are you most interested in working with lab equipment and electronics, or analyzing data from large experiments or astronomical surveys, or carrying out computer modeling and simulations of physical systems? Look through the research pages and faculty pages of our department web site and think about which research groups you'd be most interested in working with. Contact the faculty and introduce yourself- send an email to set up an appointment to talk, or just stop by their offices to introduce yourself if the door is open. Faculty will generally be happy to tell you about their research and possible opportunties for undergraduate participation.
Do not be discouraged if your first inquiry is not successful! Research programs continually evolve, and at any given time faculty might not have projects available that are a good match to your skills or interests, but students who want to find research projects are very likely to find opportunities.
Research projects done during the academic year are usually done for course credit. During summer, students often receive pay for summer research either through a fellowship program or through their faculty advisor's research grant. Not all faculty will have funding available to pay summer research students, however, and some students volunteer in a lab if funding isn't available. This is something to discuss with faculty members when planning your summer research projects.
Participation in a UCI summer program
UCI has organized research programs for undergraduates that provide financial support as well as mentoring and guidance on applying to graduate school. Application deadlines for summer programs are generally in winter or spring quarter. Programs include:
- Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF)
- California Alliance for Minority Participation (CAMP) Summer Science Scholars
Summer research programs at other institutions
There are a great variety of summer research programs in physics at many institutions in the United States and abroad. The summer before Senior year is usually the best time to take part in a Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program. Most of these programs have application deadlines during the winter, and it's up to you to identify which programs you're interested in applying to, and to make sure that you submit an application by the posted deadline. Admission to these programs can be very competitive, so take the time to prepare a complete and well-written application to optimize your chances of being admitted.
More information and listings of REU programs in physics and astronomy can be found on these sites:
- NSF-Supported Physics REU Programs
- NSF-Supported Astronomy REU Programs
- American Physical Society description of Physics REU Programs
- The Physics Nucleus REU Program Listing
- American Astronomical Society listing of REU Programs