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 any of our faculty research areas. 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. 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.
Students must be in good academic standing, major and cumulative GPA of 2.0 or higher. UCI students are given priority for conducting undergraduate research in the Department of Physics and Astronomy.
Finding UCI research projects
We recommend three ways to find research projects at UCI:
- Browse research projects with current openings for undergraduate researchers through our Department of Physics & Astronomy Undergraduate Research Project Marketplace.
- Use the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) web site, which maintains a list of faculty who have undergraduate research openings in their groups and some opportunities off campus. Please be aware that this is a very incomplete list: many Physics faculty will have openings that aren't listed on the UROP site.
- Browse research pages from the department and individual faculty. Then contact faculty directly, regardless of whether they have an advertised opening. Send an email to set up an appointment to talk, or 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 opportunities for undergraduate participation.
Finding a research project takes initiative. 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? You can get ideas from browsing the resources above and talking to faculty, grad students, and other undergraduates already involved in research.
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 funding and summer research programs
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, and may require that you have already been working with a faculty member for one quarter. Programs include:
- Summer Undergraduate Research Program (SURP)
- California Alliance for Minority Participation (CAMP) Summer Science Scholars
In addition, the UCI Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) awards research grants that can be used to help fund student research projects, as well as other undergraduate research fellowships. They also host workshops and provide resources to help you write and apply for research grants through their program.
Support for research over the summer at other universities is available through NSF's REU program. Each university usually runs its own application process, and students apply to each university's program individually. Most of these programs have application deadlines during in early winter, so it's important start looking and applying early. Admission can be very competitive, so take the time to prepare a complete and well-written application to optimize your chances of being admitted. Your faculty advisor can help you with this process.
More information and listings of REU programs in physics and astronomy, or similar summer research programs, can be found on these sites:
- All branches of physics
- NSF-Supported Physics REU Programs
- NSF-Supported Astronomy REU Programs
- American Physical Society description of Physics REU Programs
- The Physics Nucleus REU Program Listing
- Department of Energy Summer Undergraduate Laboratory Internships Program (SULI)
- Department of Defense summer internships
- Cal-Tech summer wave program
Course credit for research 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. Students who are carrying out Senior Thesis research are eligible to present their findings at the UROP Symposium.
Volunteering as an undergraduate researcher
In addition to Senior Thesis research, many students take part in research opportunities 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.