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Student Research

Liquid Crystal Research Lab

How do I get involved in student research?


There are several different ways that students can get involved in research, but most student research has traditionally occurred in the summer, although a significant amount also happens during the semester.

There are opportunities for both on- and off-campus research during the summer. Planning for off-campus summer research ("REU programs" though not all summer research programs are formally REUs, which are NSF-funded) should start in December, as applications are due in January and February (more information about REU programs can be found at the bottom of this page). This year, due to the pandemic, it's not clear how these programs will be run. Last summer, some were canceled while others were run remotely. Several students in the department did remote REUs last summer. For now, our advice is to check the websites of specific programs.

The mode of summer research on campus is to join one of the faculty research teams for eight-to-ten weeks of full-time work, sometimes coupled to preparation in the spring and/or follow-up in the fall. In the Department of Physics and Astronomy, meaningful student research almost always involves students learning about and participating in projects devised by faculty members and incorporated into each faculty member's ongoing research program. See this overview and also faculty members' websites for descriptions of research projects - and specific project presentations are collected together and linked below.

To one extent or another, student research involves interactions with not only the faculty advisor but also other Swarthmore research students and also quite often scientists and students from other colleges, universities, labs, or research institutes. Participating in research is a good way to experience many aspects of science that are not commonly seen in the classroom and we view it as an important, challenging, and fun aspect of students' physics and astronomy education.

Some faculty members actively recruit new students into their research groups year-round, and provide research opportunities either for credit (see Phys 94 and Astro 94) or for hourly pay during the semester. Interested students are encouraged to talk to individual faculty members about opportunities to get involved in research during the semester.

Most honors thesis research involves at least one summer of full-time research, followed by one credit of thesis-writing (Phys 180 or Astro 180) in the fall. Note that a thesis is optional for students doing honors in our department.

Late Fall: Faculty Research Presentations and Student Preferences

Late in the fall semester, all faculty members who have openings for students during the summer give a short presentation on their research and available projects for students. Some faculty also present about semester-time research opportunities as well. Last year (2019, for the summer of 2020) we held the information session on Wednesday, November 6, at 4:30 pm in SC 199. You can view the slides from the faculty presentations: Amy Graves [pdf], Catherine Crouch and Ben Geller [pdf], Hillary Smith [pdf], Cacey Bester [pdf and movies], Eva-Maria Collins [pdf], Mike Brown [pdf], David Cohen [pdf], Tristan Smith [pdf], Debbie Schmidt [pdf], and Jesse Rivera [pdf]. Peter Collings [pdf] is offering a semester-time research opportunity as well. This year, because of the uncertainty related to the pandemic, we are postponing our presentations until the beginning of the spring semester.

Students interested in applying for a position last year during the summer filled out a short form by November 6. The department tentatively assigned students to faculty member research groups and also placed some students on a waitlist. We informed students whether they will have a position or not, and if so, with whom, around the end of classes and we asked students to accept or decline an offer by December 21. In many cases it is possible to accept a position provisionally and for a student to apply for off campus positions too and decide if they will ultimately accept the offer in March. In other cases, students may be offered a guaranteed position in which case they may also be able to start research during the spring semester, but will generally be asked to forgo applying for other summer positions. This year, we will likely follow a similar process, but starting at the beginning of the spring semester.

We have many more students apply than there are positions available in any given summer, and we do our best to accommodate as many students as possible. Typically there are about eighteen students who have on-campus research positions each summer. And sometimes this includes a few rising sophomores, though some priority is given to older students if they haven't yet had the opportunity to do research.

Early Spring: College Applications

For students who the department places into a summer research position the process is not complete at this point. The College requires that each student fill out an online application to be submitted in early February in typical years. This year it may be somewhat later. This includes students on the waitlist. The College then awards a limited number of student stipends. Most of the funding to support student summer research stipends (sort of a salary/scholarship, that's paid all at once at the beginning of the summer) comes from the College, while some comes from research grants obtained by individual faculty members (from the National Science Foundation, for example). There is always some uncertainty about the total number of stipends available until the spring.

Students who provisionally accepted a position can expect to be notified of the College's funding decision by early March. Students and faculty members can then discuss any other (off-campus) positions the student might have been offered. Students on the waitlist might find that positions open up for them around then (more stipends than expected are available) or soon after (other students decide to accept offers outside the department).

Again, we will have to see how summer research plans at the College evolve (it's not yet known whether research students will be allowed to be on campus, for example), and adjust our plans accordingly. We are hopeful that we can provide a fair number of research opportunities even if some to all have to be remote.

Practical Aspects of On-Campus Summer Research

The summer research positions generally last ten weeks and come with a $4,800 stipend. Students typically apply for housing in a dorm in early April (or make their own housing arrangements for the summer). The College has information about housing (but again, this is far from decided right now).

Off-Campus Summer Research

There are numerous research opportunities off campus during the summer. Many universities, national labs, and observatories host summer research programs for undergraduates, and the ones funded by a specific National Science Foundation initiative are called "REU" (Research Experience for Undergraduates) programs. Often these are quite competitive, and require applications to be submitted (typically) in February. You can start with the National Science Foundation's list of programs. The American Physical Society has a database of summer internships. And we've compiled information about summer programs, including many non-REU programs that allow non-US citizens to participate. NASA, the National Labs (Los Alamos, Sandia, Livermore, Fermilab, Oak Ridge, and a few others) have their own summer internship programs. And there are increasingly opportunities at privately funded (often theoretical physics) research institutes (Santa Fe Institute, the Perimeter Institute in Canada, the Flatiron Institute in Manhattan) for undergraduate summer research.

Talk to faculty members to get advice and to request letters of recommendation. And ask other students who've done summer programs in the past about their experiences. Our Society of Physics Students (SPS) chapter is a good way to find these students.

Of special interest to astronomy students: The Keck Northeast Astronomy Consortium (KNAC) is a consortium of eight small liberal arts colleges: Swarthmore, Haverford/Bryn Mawr, Colgate, Vassar, Wesleyan, Williams, Wellesley, and Middlebury. Students from these eight schools can apply to spend the summer at one of the other seven campuses, and work on a project with a faculty member at that school. The consortium hosts a meeting every fall at which students present the results of their summer research (this year, 2019, the symposium was held at Vassar and twelve Swarthmore students attended and several presented their research results). The meeting is open to all students, not just ones who have done the summer exchange. Applications for the KNAC exchange program will be due in early February, 2020. All students - not just US citizens - are eligible for the KNAC program.