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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).

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.

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. This year (2018, for the summer of 2019) we held the information session on Friday, November 16, at 12:30 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 movie], Eva-Maria Collins [pdf and movie], Mike Brown [pdf], Adam Light [pdf], Eric Jensen [pdf], David Cohen [pdf], Tristan Smith [pdf]. 

Students who wish to apply for a position during the summer should fill out this form, which is due by November 30. Students are encouraged to talk with faculty they're interested in working with before submitting the form. The department will assign students to faculty member research groups based on the student preferences (though of course it is generally impossible to give everyone their first choice). We anticipate informing students whether they will have a position or not, and if so, with whom, by December 14 and we will ask students to accept or decline an offer by December 21. In some cases it is possible to accept a position provisionally and for a student to apply for off campus positions too. 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.

Students are not guaranteed a research position, but we do our best to accommodate as many students as possible. Typically there are about a dozen students who get 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, however - and not everyone who's placed will get a position (though those with guaranteed positions will definitely get them). The College has a limited number of positions. The College requires that each student fill out an online application to be submitted in early February. 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).

Students who provisionally accepted a position and students on the wait list can expect to be notified of the College's funding decision by early March. At that point students should talk to their assigned research advisor about plans for the summer and any preparation that the student should do. Students and faculty members can then discuss any other (off-campus) positions the student might have been offered.

To recap, some faculty members may be able to offer a limited number of guaranteed summer research positions when they notify students in December. Students who accept these guaranteed positions would have to promise to take them and to not apply for any other (on- or off-campus) positions for the summer. The faculty member and student may agree to begin work in the spring in preparation for full-time work in the summer.

Practical Aspects of On-Campus Summer Research

The summer research positions generally last ten weeks and come with a $4,500 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.

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.

Off-Campus Summer Research

Finally, there are numerous research opportunities off campus during the summer. Many universities, national labs, and observatories host "REU" (Research Experience for Undergraduates) programs. Often these are quite competitive, and require applications to be submitted (typically) in February. If you are thinking of participating in an REU program off campus, you can check out the National Science Foundation's list of REU programs. There is also a list of astronomy summer opportunities compiled by the American Astronomical Society. Talk to faculty members to get advice and to request letters of recommendation. And ask other students who've done REUs in the past about their experiences. Our Society of Physics Students (SPS) chapter is a good way to find these students. We also keep binders with physics and astro REU information in the Physics lounge and there are posters advertising specific summer programs posted around the department. Because it is not guaranteed that a given student can do summer research on campus any given summer, we strongly encourage students to start looking into off-campus research opportunities starting in December or, at the very latest, in early January.

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, 2018, the symposium was held at Middlebury and seven Swarthmore students attended and 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, 2019

Official REU programs generally prohibit non-US citizens from participating (KNAC is a notable exception - all students are eligible). However, there are several summer programs that do not have this prohibition.