Staying Motivated and Productive During COVID-19 as an Undergraduate Student

By Jack Moody

Social distancing, college campus shutdowns, and the transition to online learning have left most of our routines in tatters. But as the school year comes to a close, how do we budding physicists continue pursuing our personal and professional goals? What can we do during the summer to help us get ready for the fall?

Below is a list of thirteen topics we young physicists can work on to take control of our situation and keep moving forward regardless of social distancing or the uncertainties we now face. Our goal should be to make incremental progress on these suggestions in hopes of maintaining momentum during these difficult times.

Take care of yourself. First and foremost, make sure you are taking care of your physical and mental health. No progress can be made if you aren’t up for the task. It’s okay to take a step back from everything and take time to process current events. Do not let anyone make you feel the lesser for needing to take time for yourself. Everyone processes things differently. However, once you are feeling up to it, there are definitely some questions most undergraduates can tackle during the summer to keep progressing as young physicists.

undergraduate student with mask

Begin updating your resume and LinkedIn profile. The summer is a good time to do some self-reflection on all you’ve accomplished during the last academic year. During that self-reflection, write down all the new skills you’ve learned. Maybe it’s soldering, programming in C++, or 3D printing. Regardless, you can update your resume and LinkedIn with these new skills and other relevant classes you’ve taken in the last year. You never know who looks at your LinkedIn profile or when you may need to send a copy of your resume to a potential principal investigator (PI) or employer, so updating it regularly is a good habit [1, 2].

Brush up on and bolster new skills. The summer downtime is a good opportunity to begin either learning new skills or strengthening current ones and there are plenty of online resources to help in that process. Take coding for example: there are tons of free resources online to learn new coding languages and delve into interesting projects. Some good starting resources are MIT OpenCourseware, Codecademy, Coursera, and YouTube [3].

Find research data online and do computational work for the summer. A way to get a direct application of those skills is by reaching out to professors at your university to try and participate in some computational research. A PI could potentially send you a dataset from their lab to do some self-study on. However, there are also many websites that offer datasets for free like Google Trends [4]. This could be a great way to strengthen computational skills, make new contacts, and possibly learn some new physics.

Set aside time for finding REUs. One of the most common concerns for an undergraduate is finding research opportunities during the summer. Research is a great way to prepare for graduate school and get some real-world physics experience. One way to prepare for this is to start looking for Research Experience for Undergraduate (REU) programs [5]. Be sure to bookmark ones you like or make a running list in a spreadsheet with the program name, school, URL, PI name, and projects being offered. Most deadlines for REUs aren’t until January or February, so you have time to work on this. However, making an ongoing list of projects you find interesting can help make applications easier once it’s time to start applying.

Stay connected to your community. It can be hard to maintain new or even old friendships when not on campus. But thankfully this is the age of technology! Make group chats and message each other at least once a week. You could set up a group where you play virtual board games, host a Netflix party, or even set up an informal seminar series with you and your friends to learn about each other’s research and other summer projects. That way you can figure out what everyone else is up to and continue fostering your friendships.

It’s okay to make last-minute class changes. Hopefully, you have met with your advisor and added all the classes you plan on taking in the fall. But is that one-off modern art history class still nagging in the back of your head? Or maybe that solid-state physics class? If so, reach back out to your advisor and get their thoughts on adding the class. Having even an introductory grasp of a broad range of topics is a great way to stay engaged and expand one’s horizons. If you can’t find room for it or don’t want to be graded for it, try emailing the individual professor and seeing if you can sit in on the lectures, it’s still a great way to learn about a new topic and you never know when the knowledge could come in handy. As an important aside, if you experience added stress due to COVID-19, it is okay to drop a class and take it at a later time.

Get involved in research or teaching in the fall. No matter where you are in your physics journey, it is never too late to get involved in research. It’s a great way to learn new skills, support your resume, learn to work in teams, and collaborate with new groups of people. Begin on your college website, there is more than likely a “research” tab at the top of the screen, click on that, and begin reading through the different subfields your university offers and then what each professor does specifically. This is a great way to learn about your university and different fields of physics. Once you figure out four or five professors you’d be interested in working with, reach out to them! [6]. If your university doesn’t have research, maybe try finding a teaching assistantship, join a physics outreach club, or a local Society of Physics Students (SPS) chapter. These are still good resume building opportunities that can help provide a new perspective on the world of physics.

Start looking at MS or PhD programs. The summer is another great time to start planning for the next big education goal in your physics career. Maybe it’s a PhD or master’s degree. If so, you can start looking at websites like the AIP grad school shopper to start finding programs [7]. You can also watch the Lunch with the Grads Panel session from the APS April Meeting for further advice from current graduate students [8]. Some things to consider: the kind of research done at the institution, geography (are you okay living far from home, or living in a city or rural area?), size of the department, stipend and benefits, student union, career assistance programs, funding opportunities, specific opportunities like working with industry or national labs, etc. You can follow the same recommendations as the REU paragraph to catalog schools you find interesting.

Begin thinking about your professional network. Whether you are applying to an REU, grad school, internship, or full-time job, the institution you are applying to will probably ask to speak to someone that knows you well or they will request a letter assessing your performance. It’s best to start making a list of those people as soon as possible. Perhaps it is a professor whose class you did particularly well in, a professional you developed a rapport with, or your academic advisor or PI. Making a list of people who can vouch for you is paramount [9].

Develop that network. With everyone working from home, now is a great time to reach out to professionals you find inspiring to learn more about their careers and conduct short informational interviews. Informational interviews are a great way to learn about grad schools, jobs, careers, or types of research. These can be done over the phone or video and can provide some context and perspective on a potential project or career aspiration [10]. That person can also possibly help you get in contact with other professionals who could help foster future learning opportunities.

As always, the GRE is looming. Despite the uncertainty right now of when the GRE will occur, it is important to prepare as if it is still going to happen [11]. You can begin by finding resources online: the 1996 Physics GRE Subject Test is the usual go-to. There are also plenty of practice books online. You can also try reaching out to friends or grad students in your lab to see if you can borrow their copy (but be sure to treat it well).

Start thinking about full-time jobs. Did you know that about 50% of physics bachelor’s degree recipients go straight into the workforce? [12]. If this is your path, the summer is a good time to explore the APS Careers Website [13]. Once there, you can find great resources on career types [14], physicist profiles [15], and see available jobs [16] that you can use to determine a future career to pursue.

Once you are ready, begin chipping away at these things. A great way to make steady progress on these topics is by establishing SMART goals [17]. Beginning this adventure with Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound goals will allow you to stay on track and make sustained progress throughout the summer. For example, it could be looking at two graduate programs on Monday from 9 to 11 am, completing a chapter of an MIT OpenCourseWare class about Python coding by Wednesday at 6 PM, and reaching out to three potential professionals for an informational interview by Friday morning at 9 am. Making clear and specific goals helps you complete them more easily and faster.

We will get through this pandemic. All of us can make progress; it is important we stay connected as a community and rely on each other during these unprecedented times. We can all use this time to do some self-reflection and self-study on what we can do during and once this is all over.

APS encourages the redistribution of the materials included in this newspaper provided that attribution to the source is noted and the materials are not truncated or changed.

Editor: David Voss
Staff Science Writer: Leah Poffenberger
Contributing Correspondent: Alaina G. Levine
Publication Designer and Production: Nancy Bennett-Karasik

June 2020 (Volume 29, Number 6)

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APS President Sends Letter to House Science Committee Regarding COVID-19 Policy Initiatives
The APS Forum on Education
Physicists Mobilize to Combat Coronavirus
Exploring the Cosmos with Nobel Laureates
Going Deep into Black Holes
Supporting Early Career Physicists Virtually
New Webinar Series for Students and Early Career Members
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This Month in Physics History
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