I know this might seem like I'm worrying about something too early, but I am a rising sophomore (undergrad) that is anxious about independent research. I am currently in a physics lab right now that I think is decently interesting. However, my current role is helping out the grad students and postdocs with their projects, whatever they need me to do.

Part of the reason that this is my job right now is because I haven't come up with an idea for my own project. I have lots of things that I think are interesting regarding this field (optics/quantum), but the physics being done is way above the level that I can understand in my current year of schooling. Although I just started here, there will come a time where the professor will approach me and ask if I want to start something on my own, and I just don't know what to do. Should I be asking people now? Trying to learn these things on my own? Or is this common in physics labs?

To put it in perspective, I am the only undergrad in the lab, so I'm not sure anyone really knows how to deal with me either.

  • I think you should do all, start an independent work, and also collaborate with others. There is no unique way, each has its original way. You can start by reading papers in some direction and when you come across something you have a familiarity with, then approach more in this direction.
    – Nikey Mike
    Commented Jun 22, 2016 at 21:10

3 Answers 3


There is no sure path to research. And it is never too early to think about it.

A colleague on another side of SE claims:

Spending two days in a lab can easily save you up to one hour reading literature

You are lucky enough to be in the right place. Start asking people, be gently curious. Some won't answer, some will. Some may begin to give you more and more interesting tasks. And on the side, read. Some books won't tell you anything. Some will.

There is no sure path to research. But doing nothing is unlikely to help.


I can't comment on your specific field1, but you should understand that there are fields where there is absolutely no chance for an undergraduate to come up with a good research idea on their own, however strong their commitment is. And sometimes it might be hard even for a graduate student toward the end of their studies.

However, you are in a perfect position to rapidly improve your knowledge, discuss your ideas and understanding with others, listen to other people's idea and get the gist of what research is. When you will integrate this hands-on experience with a sound theoretical background, you will be ready to start your first steps on your own.

Be patient, then, and take profit as much as possible of this experience.

1 I had been in love with quantum optics for a long time when I was a student, but too much time has now passed to comment on the current situation.

  • 1
    I disagree, and you are not correct. T. Padmanabhan was an undergraduate when he published his first paper see here and also E. fermi as well. I can find many contra examples.
    – Nikey Mike
    Commented Jun 22, 2016 at 21:15
  • 4
    @MikeyMike And so? I neither say that there's no chance in all fields nor that there is no chance in the op's specific field. Commented Jun 22, 2016 at 21:20

First of all, let me start by saying that you are currently doing EXACTLY what you need to be doing to put yourself in a fantastic position to do research as a graduate student: in particular, working with graduate students in whatever capacity you can and regularly working in a lab. You are learning the skills necessary to perform the job while developing a professional network. Stay inquisitive and engaged and you will be fine. Your future research project will most likely be from an area where you are interested. In a nutshell, here's my advice: keep doing what you are doing (working in a lab), keep asking questions (on stack exchange and in person), and begin reading articles in your subject area that you have an interest in. You are on the path to becoming a great researcher by being exposed to great resources (stack exchange, your professors and co workers) and by starting early.

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