Doing Research

Finding a topic

Being a part of the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory is an unparalleled opportunity for a student in planetary sciences. Virtually every subdiscipline has representatives here, from observers to geophysicists to chemists. No matter what you're interested in, there's someone here who, if they're not doing it themselves, can point you to relevant literature or even contact people. Not everyone knows what they want to do when they get here, though, and the Department encourages you to work on different projects--both independently and in connection with your classes--before you settle on your thesis work. Some people do work in completely different areas each semester until they find something they really like.

How do you find out who's doing what? There's a list of faculty and their projects, but a better way to find out is to talk to people--namely, the students, the faculty, and the researchers themselves.

The LPL grad students tend to be rather sociable creatures. Hang out and talk to us. We've had to find this same information out, and we're only too glad to pass it along to you. Tell us what you're up to and ask us what we're doing. If you're shy about talking about your ideas (say, because you haven't got any), try talking about the really good (or unbelievably foolish) stuff you've been reading. This leads naturally into the topic of what to do next. Ask about people's advisors and collaborators, both what they're doing and how friendly they are. Ask about the discussion groups that exist (like Asteroids Lunch or the Women in Science and Engineering meetings) and ask to get on the mailing lists.

Potentially the most rewarding, but also potentially the scariest, thing to do next is to knock on faculty doors. Before doing this, remember that you were admitted here because you're bright and capable, and the faculty here want to encourage you, not bite your head off. Pick a few faculty members based on what you've heard they do well, and brush up on some of their references (again, see the faculty section). Schedule a convenient time with the appropriate administrative assistant. Then take a deep breath and meet with them on your own. Introduce yourself as a new (or continuing!) grad student at LPL and mention your broad area of interest (physics, geology, etc.) Ask about their current projects. They'll probably be overjoyed that someone is interested in what they do and talk a blue streak! If something particularly interesting comes up, ask if they'd like a student working on this or if they have a current reference for that. Most faculty members are friendly and fairly generous with their time. The Lab faculty are a fabulous source of information.

When you begin working on a project, pick the brains of people in that research group. Ask them to pass along interesting papers or references. Ask about other people in the field and other labs where relevant research is being conducted. The more different people with whom you can get connected, the better (also see Networking). Don't give up, though, on other projects you've heard about simply because you've picked one. Maintain contact with those other groups to show you're still interested, so that if you need to switch projects for whatever reason (money, interest change, personal conflicts, etc.) you'll have some options. And when you stop working on a project, try to continue communicating with that group by sending relevant papers or through occasional conversations. Again, it is in your best interest to have a little knowledge in a lot of areas as well as a deep understanding of a narrow discipline.

Day to Day Research Tips

  • Be organized! Take notes, and date them. Keep files organized, with logical file names in logical directory structures. Remember, this is a long term project - you won't remember everything you did three years ago when it's time to write your dissertation.
  • Back up your files!
  • Try to think in terms of long-term schedules. Here's an example schedule for your last year, but you could adapt it to any stage within graduate school: Dissertation Schedule (PDF)