Student Research

Liquid Crystal Research Lab

How do I get involved in student research?

Summary of on-campus summer research timeline for 2017-18: Dec 1 info session > Dec 13 preference forms due > Dec 18 students told of possible pairing with mentors > Feb 7 paired students apply to the College for their stipend > by Mar 15 students find out if they're funded.


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) 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 (2017) we held the information session on Friday, December 1, at 12:30 pm. We anticipate holding the information session around the same time in the fall semester each year.

Here are pdfs of the presentations given by faculty members this year: Eva-Maria Collins [slides and video] (Biology Department), Catherine CrouchMichael Brown, Adam Light, Carol Guess, David Cohen, Eric Jensen, Amy Graves, and Tristan Smith. If you are interested in working in a faculty member's research group, you are encouraged to talk with them.

Student who wish to apply for a position during the summer will fill out this form [pdf] and turn it in to Carolyn Warfel in the department office by Wednesday, December 13 (email submission is fine). 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, at the beginning of the following week.

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. The College has a limited number of positions. The College requires that each student fill out an online application to be submitted by February 7. The College then judges each application, and 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).

Because funding availability is impossible to predict with complete certainty, students are not formally guaranteed a position until their application to the College is accepted. Students can expect to be notified of this 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.

This year, some faculty members may be able to offer a limited number of guaranteed summer research positions when they notify students in mid-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 $4,350 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 (air conditioned dorms this year!).

Research is a part of students' education and one that is different from, but complementary to, classes and seminars. Some student begin their research in the spring and/or continue or wrap-up in the fall, further integrating research into their academic experience.

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, 2017, the symposium was held at Colgate University and eight Swarthmore students attended). 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, 2018