Research

Attempting to find research in general is a pretty intimidating task. Unfortunately, initially, the only hard and fast rule about finding research is that there are no hard and fast rules for finding research. There are, however, several things you can do to prepare for doing research, and getting in contact with people who you might be able to research with. This guide applies specifically for Astro research, but the ideology extends to other stem fields as well.

Current Opportunities

Updated List of Current Research Opportunities - This Wiki maintains a list of currently available research positions with Post-Docs and Professors. If you are a post-doc or professor and would like to list a research opportunity on this wiki, please send an email to ipasha@berkeley.edu with your name, contact info, a brief description of the research, desired qualifications, and duration of project (if applicable). We will list it on the site to be available to the undergraduate community.

Qualifications for Research

  • Take Astro 7A and Astro 7B, as well as the lower division physics classes ([H]7A, [H]7B, [H]7C). These classes will give you the base skill set needed for doing research, and most professors will be more likely to take you if you have completed them. That said, you can still start trying to look for research earlier- for example, after having Astro 7A and Physics 7A/7B under your belt.
  • Know how to program. This is almost essential; almost all astronomy research relies heavily on programming in languages like IDL, Python, and C++. The astronomy department offers two classes (student facilitated) that can give you the programming skills needed to do research (or the upper division lab). (See here)
  • Take the Upper Division astronomy lab (either A120 or A121). This is not essential; you can certainly find research before doing this, but having it is always a big bonus.

Research is an important part of your undergraduate experience, but it is not at all necessary for you to jump into it as a freshman. You may find that taking the time to acclimatize to the college environment, and taking care of the classes listed first, will put you in a stronger position for doing research. Most students start doing research in their sophomore or junior years.

Picking a Project

General Advice

One of the first questions you will need to ask when looking for research is, What type of research are you interested in? which is really an extension of the more basic question, What interests YOU? This in itself can be a daunting task as research as an undergraduate is often your first experience doing any type of real science beyond the classroom and the first time you can pick to study exactly what you're interested in.
If you don't know the answer to this question then that's okay; part of being an undergraduate in astronomy is studying a wide array of topics in astronomy, physics, mathematics, computer science, etc. so that you can make a good decision as to what you would like to pursue. Also just because you are a major in astronomy does not mean you should feel confined to working with the members of the astronomy department; a good number of undergraduates explore research opportunities in the math and physics departments and also internships outside of campus.
If you don't know what you're interested in then a good first step would be to attend the multitude of talks held by the department (Cosmology, CIPS, etc.). As an undergrad you are welcome to attend these anytime and will hear talks from people from all over the world working on various projects. If you are not already on the undergrad email list talk to Dexter so she can add you and you can get announcements about upcoming talks. Here is a link to the department current events. On the right panel you'll find a list of the regular talks with links to more information about each.

Individual Experiences

One of the best ways to learn how to pick a topic is to listen to the advice of others on how they chose theirs. Below is a compiled list of personal advice/ stories from various undergraduates detailing how they came about choosing the projects they are working on.

  • (Joe) The winter of freshman year I went to AAS (see below) and basically ended up spending the entire time listening to the results of the Kepler mission and other new results in planetary astrophysics. What I found most effective after coming back from AAS is asking myself what topics in my various classes did I enjoy and why did I enjoy them; what part of what assignment did I really view as fun? To give some examples, during the optical lab I really enjoyed looking at the raw telescope images and trying to find the best way to reduce them to images that could be used for scientific analysis. I also really enjoyed the discussion we had in Astro 7A where we learned about exoplanet detection/ characterization methods. Using examples like these (I had a much long list in my head than the above two examples) I found that I really enjoy planetary astronomy and decided to make a point to have a project at least focused on that. From there it was a matter of emailing various people in the department and meeting with a few professors to talk about possible projects before I settled on working with the GPIES campaign pipeline. Long story short; go to conferences, make mental notes about what you found fun in classes, pick a general area of interest and see what is available on campus or elsewhere.
  • (Malena) During the summer of my freshman year, I decided that I wanted to become involved in research to get a better idea of what it would be like. At this point, I had no idea of what subject I wanted to conduct research in, but I wanted to learn more about what research would be like. I started emailing professors and ended up finding a position to work with the ATLAS and Mu2e teams (both in the field of particle physics) at LBNL. I took this position for the fall semester, but I did not have regular meetings with a mentor, and I often was not entirely sure of what I was supposed to be doing. I then studied abroad for a semester and took a short break from research, and, during this time, I began applying for summer research positions all around the country. By then, I had decided that I wanted to work on some sort of astronomy research so that I could get a feel for how it would compare with particle physics. I ended up working on a planetary atmospheres project at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center for the summer, and I found that I really enjoyed this position. However, I also discovered that I was more interested in astronomy outside of the solar system. After the summer ended, I returned to Berkeley and applied through URAP to work with the GPIES team, a Berkeley-led exoplanet project. By this point, I was much more familiar with research and no longer felt quite so unconfident about my research abilities; as a result, I have enjoyed this project very much. I found that my main areas of interest grew with my research experiences, and my current research interests include atmospheric exoplanet studies and exoplanet system formation. All in all, I realized that you get out of research what you put into it - it can be either very fun or very dull, depending on the time and effort that you put in. It's important to be excited about your work and to really want to contribute. And, just because it may be difficult at first doesn't mean that you're not “good at research” - like many worthwhile endeavors, it takes practice! Don't be afraid to ask for a position, and don't be discouraged!
  • (Imad) During my second semester as a freshman I learned about what are called REU's- NSF funded research internships at schools and observatories around the country. REUs are awesome because a) they are designed to help you get into research, with mentors and projects specifically tailored for that, and b) they pay you a nice stipend, and you get to spend the summer in a new part of the country. As a freshman with no experience with research (but knowing python), I got into an REU at NCSU for computational astrophysics. That project was really rewarding: I got to do a lot of research in a short time, learned some hydrodynamics, SNe nucleosynthesis, etc., and I also learned that when looking at REUs and even grad schools, it's not all about the major names and many schools have awesome programs. Once I got back, I started working with Mariska Kriek on galaxy evolution, and that's carried me through to now. This summer, I'm attending another REU, this time on a project for gravitational lensing. I think the major thing I've found is that exploring multiple subfields in astronomy has really helped me start shaping what direction I want to go in. Getting a bit of simulation, a bit of theory, and a bit of observation has made me more broadly skilled as well, and I highly recommend not getting locked into just one type of research your whole undergrad. In grad school you'll have to pick a specialty and stick with it, so explore the options now!
  • (Goni) I started research in observational astronomy with Alex Filippenko at the end of my freshman year by e-mailing post-docs in the department (highly recommend this method) and was able to bypass the Filippenko group waitlist by having one of those post-docs meet with me and then vouch for me. Later on, I used my connection with Alex to get a paid research position in my international hometown for the following summer. I highly recommend that if you want to go abroad or elsewhere in America to do research, you make use of networks that exist through people you know at Berkeley. The astronomy community is small and tight-knit, and if you hate applications as much as I do, you can use that fact to your advantage instead of applying to official programs. I worked on a couple more observational projects in high-energy astrophysics that I mostly enjoyed. In my junior year, I decided I wanted to try computational/theoretical research instead, so I got in contact with a post-doc at Berkeley and started working with him. This was super fun because I was still working on the same astronomical phenomena - supernovae - but now from an entirely different perspective in terms of the methodology used to study them. My main takeaway advice from working on 5 (do not recommend) different projects during my undergrad experience is this: who you work with matters, a lot. Find an advisor you feel comfortable going to with questions, enjoy working with, and feel supported by. Obviously, the science you do matters too, but for me, the advising relationship is what makes or breaks my enthusiasm about a research project.
  • (Nick) I started research by timidly emailing postdocs (in retrospect, these emails were very cringeworthy). Eventually a postdoc who was as new to Berkeley as I was agreed to take me on. He was great, and taught me a lot. I highly recommend working with postdocs – they've got a lot more time to help you out, and you don't have to schedule meetings with them weeks in advance. Plus, when you mess up (which you will), they are a lot less scary to talk to….and most of them are young and cool. I worked with the same postdoc for about a year and a half during the school semesters, but in the summer in between I picked up a project at the University of Michigan (near my hometown). Because I was (am) afraid of applying to REUs, I just emailed people at UMich who I thought were doing interesting things (read the “People” section of department websites, they exist for a reason!) directly, until some of them responded. I've been working with my advisor there for the last year and a half (we work remotely when I'm at Berkeley) and it's been great! Next summer I'll be in Paris continuing some of my research with my first advisor, but under the supervision of a collaborator of his who's nice enough to host me! Here are some of my key takeaway research advice takeaways: The learning curve in a new subfield can be steep, but don't get entrenched in one thing (for a lot of people, this just ends up being their first undergrad project). Don't commit yourself to theory or observation for a while – and, in particular, look for people who are willing to do a mix of both. Also, you can avoid applying to things by making use of connections of postdocs/faculty that you know.

Finding Research

Once you feel you are prepared to actually start doing research, you are going to want to make a CV (like an academic resume). You should list all the relevant classes you have taken. Once you start doing research, you can add it to your CV as well. You can make a CV in various ways- a usual method is in a typesetting language called LATEX. You can find many examples of CV's online, and we will have some examples available in the code portion of the site.

Here the road splits, and everyone has a slightly different story for how they actually got their first research position. A more universal trend, however, is that once you have one research position, it becomes much easier to find others. Assuming our Current Research list has been unsuccessful for you, here are several ways you can attempt to find research.

  • Email professors: This is the “classic” method. It is also the most hit-and-miss. You can find professors to email on the Astronomy Website. Look into what they are researching, find some you are interested in, and send them an email. Spend some time writing about why their research interests you, and what skills you have (like a mini-CV). Don't feel bad if you don't get a response. Many professors are busy, don't check their emails, or don't respond if their research teams are currently full. If you've taken a class with a professor, and they remember you, try emailing them/ your GSI from the class to see if they know of anyone looking for an undergraduate researcher.
  • Email Postdocs: Postdocs are people who have earned their PhD, and are working under or with a faculty member towards earning a tenure track position. Postdocs are a fairly underused resource in terms of research, and many are willing to work with undergraduates. You can find postdocs (and grad students) on the astronomy website. For both grad students and postdocs, try throwing in a line like “if you don't have any research positions right now, but know of someone who does, please let me know!”
  • URAP: URAP stands for Undergraduate Research Apprenticeship Program. Every semester, professors around campus who are looking for undergraduate researchers post positions to the URAP page. You can fill out an official application for up to three positions that interest you (there usually aren't more than three astronomy related ones anyway), and you might be selected for an interview with the professor. In principle, this is a good program, and many students have had success getting research that way. But the URAP program is run through the Biology department, and ultimately not many astro opportunities end up showing up there.
  • Talk to people: This seems sort of self evident, but it can actually work. A good place to start is Dexter, who is the (awesome) person you will be talking to about planning your schedule and taking classes. She hears lots of gossip around the department and may know of someone looking for students. Also talk to other astro majors, who are already working in groups; they may know of seniors graduating or spots opening up with the professors they work with.
  • Apply for REUs: An REU (Research Experience for Undergraduates) is a type of summer internship, funded by the NSF at colleges around the country. You can apply for them late in the fall semester / over winter break / sometimes early in the spring semester. These are a great way to get research experience, if you are accepted to one (some can be very competitive). Best of all, you get paid! Keep in mind that for REU's, you are going to need Letters of Recommendation.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but trying combinations of these methods should get you a research position somewhere. Remember not to be disheartened if your first round of emails and applications don't turn anything up; you have plenty of time in your undergraduate career to do research.

Conferences

If you are interested in learning more about what is going on in the astronomy community – and, specifically if you already have research experience - you may be interested in attending conferences. There is a really great reference for conferences on the BADGrads wiki page (http://badgrads.berkeley.edu/doku.php?id=conferences), since these become a vital part of life for graduate students. Conferences may also be of interest for undergraduates, however, and they are a fantastic way to become more immersed in your field of interest, to meet others with similar interests, and to learn about the most recent research results and theories that may be relevant to your own work.

To reiterate from the BADGrads page, here are two comprehensive lists of astronomy-related conferences:

One conference that may be of interest that is meant specifically for undergraduates is the Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics (CUWiP): https://www.aps.org/programs/women/workshops/cuwip.cfm This is an introductory conference with workshops and poster presentations, and it is a great opportunity to meet other undergraduates from other institutions with similar interests. Keep in mind, however, that this conference targets all realms of physics and does not specifically focus on astronomy.

A particularly large and well-known conferences for general astronomy is the bi-annual American Astronomical Society (AAS) meeting. Below is a quick guide to the AAS conference, including tips and tricks for success.

Regardless of what conference you go to: If you are presenting, you will have to make a research poster. Here's some tips and tricks for doing so!

AAS Guide

AAS (the American Astronomical Society) has a huge meeting where you can present research (once you've done some), learn about research (if you're deciding what to work on), and network with astro people from all over. If you're interested in going, there's a few resources available to you:

Resources

  • The Astronomy department has a new travel-allocation system that you can fill out to get funding to travel to conferences. Just email Lochland (or the current department manager), and they'll get you set up. You need a faculty sponsor to say “Yes, they're going to present our research” and such, and then you're good to go.
  • If you write a 2-page essay on what happened the national SPS will give you 500: https://students.berkeley.edu/myberkeley/misc/opfund.asp

Strategy

If you are presenting a poster get started early and figure out how you're going to print the #@*& thing. Making a poster takes a lot of time and nitpicking (here's a guide for how to do it).

When you arrive you will get a book with a schedule with way too many things to do. Definitely go to a few Plenary Sessions (these are the ones that everyone goes to and the speaker is usually important) but also go to a few press conferences. They bring science to a general level of understanding. You know how you get bored/get lost halfway through most talks? That doesn't happen during a press conference. Also go to the undergraduate reception (obviously) since it's where you get to network.

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