I had an ongoing project under a professor at IITD for the past 1.5 semesters, so I continued working on that. Project work usually begins with the Professor giving you a few research papers. My job at first was to understand them and then proceed to work on something new from there, hopefully culminating in a research paper.
Theoretical Physics requires a lot of background knowledge, and if you're aiming for a paper, it takes about 1 to 1.5 years of work. Like, it easily ends up going to about a year before you begin to feel ki haan ab koi result aayega.
For the summers, I had also got in touch with a Professor at Cornell. I didn't have a lot of background in the field, which I had to cover up in parallel with the project. In the end, I found myself spending way too much time just getting the background, and the communication was not as frequent, either. So, I just decided to drop it altogether and devote my energy to the long-term project.
Academia vs Corporate
To me, the choice of academia and research sort of came naturally. I had an interest beforehand, and it was reinforced after I came to college as I found the content interesting. I didn't sit for placements. I've only applied for higher studies and am waiting for the results. Sitting for placements seemed very time-consuming if I wasn't going to take it in the end, so I preferred spending that time studying on my own.
People often try going for foreign interns too. I did apply for those in my 2nd and 3rd years. But back in the 2nd year, Covid happened. I was still optimistic that things would reopen by May or June and would do a foreign internship then, so I ended up not pursuing that further. In the meantime, I picked up an internship in India itself - a remote intern at TIFR in the field of Astrophysics.
The most important factor is the availability of a professor. Mailing profs can be a draining process, but you just have to keep doing it until something happens.
The project was very challenging, as I had to build a strong background in the field first. I even took courses according to the project's requirements (although I probably would have taken them anyway as my interest lay in that field). You have to spend a lot of time studying, and it has only been in the last few months that I've reached a point where I can reach results.
This was quite different from my second-year internship at TIFR. The work back then was mainly programming software to read inputs and predict specific properties. That is usually the nature of work professors can give UG students for a short time. If you decide to pursue something long-term, on the other hand, then the Professor looks at it from a different angle, as you might get real results if guided for a long time. In fact, the Professor I am currently working under straight up said he wouldn't give farzi projects for cv, long-term karna to batao.
Around that time, I figured out the field I wanted to work in. The seniors I talked to recommended taking a long-term persisting project under a Prof at IIT.
You can't really go in-depth in any field in a short-term project. In fact, most of the work you do in a long-term project is actually updating yourself up to the level where the world actually is in that field and where the work is being done. This requires a very long period of study. Taking up a long-term project might also help out with BTech Project, as you build a rapport with the Professor. In fact, my seniors advised me to turn the long-term project into my BTP, and some people often do this, but I decided to pick up a different one. You are also more likely to get a good LoR from the Professor.
The workload was quite low initially, the same as about one extra course. As I progressed, about equal to 2 courses. As I have been focussing almost entirely on it for the past few months, I'd say it's been taking the same amount of time as three courses. That doesn't mean that there weren't any on-off periods. I would often put things on pause when I felt stuck and then revisit it later. Motivation for a project does tend to go up and down, as there are often doubts whether it will actually lead to something.
The project I did was in the field of Condensed Matter Theory. If you have many particles entangled with each other (have a coherent quantum phase), then quantum effects can have macroscopic consequences. The most commonly known example of this is the superconductor, in which the electrons behave as bosons instead of fermions, leading to its many cool properties such as zero resistance and repulsion of magnetic fields. The work I did involve studying a broad category of new materials which have been theoretically predicted, and we have built models to study them. My work mainly involves predicting the experimental signature produced when two Weyl semimetals are brought together, and a magnetic field is passed through them.
I did feel demotivated a lot of times, but those feelings were usually regarding the project, and that happens a lot in research, but I never questioned my broader decision of pursuing a career in research.
It is very, very difficult to get a research paper out in your four years of undergrad, at least, that is the case in theoretical physics.
That doesn't mean it isn't valuable to work on it. Even if the project doesn't lead to any tangible results, it is still something that you can write about in your application. You can also get a good letter of recommendation from your Professor, which is the most valuable part of your application if you're going for higher education. Professors usually don't give out letters of recommendation unless they are very convinced of your abilities as it also affects their academic reputation. In fact, one of my friends was expecting a Prof to write for them, but he just straight up refused. LoRs are very rigorous, as you have to give the mail of the Prof to the organization, and they reach out to Prof with the questions.
The Road Ahead
There is a continuum of quality in the Universities, and most people, including myself, pick which universities to apply to based on our profiles. If you're careful with this, those who apply usually always get something.
I have applied to a total of 8 universities on a similar basis. Applying to a few elite schools while also having some safe backup options. About 6-7 of these are Ph.D. programs, and 2-3 are Masters. This is because Europe and Canada require you to do a Masters before you can do a Ph.D. there (three years), while the same isn't true for the US, where you can apply directly for five-year Ph.D. programs after your undergrad.
This is a place where foreign interns might prove useful. If you have good relations with a Professor, then your application might be more preferred in their college.
Universities have a holistic approach towards evaluating applications, but holistic at elite school ends up meaning ki sab hi badhiya hona chahiye.
Finances are something you have to take into account while applying. For instance, I didn't apply to UK universities as they don't usually have many internal scholarships, and I didn't want to go through the hassle of reaching out to external bodies. In places like Canada and US, you get employment as Teaching and Research Assistants besides getting your tuition waived off internally, so I preferred the universities there.
Written by: Kanad Pandey