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I'm going to be choosing a university course soon, and I want to go into a branch of physics. A dream job for me would be to work in research, however, I do realise that this isn't for everyone and is difficult to reach. So what is the best way to go about achieving this aim? What things can I do which will help me?

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Relax and enjoy the subject for its own sake. If "research" means a permanent job doing fundamental/academic research, then the odds are overwhelmingly against you. Therefore you want your undergrad education and graduate coursework and research to be a process that you'll take pleasure in, so that later you can look back on it and say it was a blast and you don't regret a minute of it. Enjoying the heck out of that process is also completely compatible with the small chance of winning the lottery and reaching your goal. Of people I know who have won the lottery, all of them enjoy their work. – Ben Crowell Jul 24 '11 at 15:48
In the absence of a single right answer, I'm making this Community Wiki. – dmckee Jul 24 '11 at 15:59

Take the physics courses you plan with your advisor not with an eye towards getting through easily but with a passion for the subject. If you are passionate about the work you do, if you enjoy studying hard problems and finding even harder ones, the road towards research will be easier, because professors are looking for the dedicated spark in future graduate students and post docs.

It is similar with going into professional athletics: you have to enjoy the challenge and be willing to work to the limit of your abilities. If you think of a research job as a career maybe you should change your objective.

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Make sure that you have some sort of life skill when you're done that isn't research, too. Teach yourself to program, or work on an experiment where you build things. It will enhance your research, and make you more employable should reasearch not work out.

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Agreed, and having useful skillz like programming or electronics or data analysis is an excellent way to get in the door in research as an undergraduate. – user1631 Jul 25 '11 at 20:17

I'd say study hard, but also learn about the fundamentals of experiment design, learn how to write proper scientific papers, and learn how publish your work. These things aren't (in my experience) typically taught in the undergraduate or even graduate level coursework, but are absolutely crucial to "success" in a research environment.

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First of all, if you consider science as an ordinary career choice, then the effort and the risk is not worth it.

But if you are genuinely interested in science, and really want to do research for your living, here they are:

  • stay curious,
  • learn hard, especially the things you are interested the most,
  • participate in workshops, student conferences and summer internships,
  • ask professors (or even grad students) if they can give you a research task, or know some opportunities.

However, most of time there is no secret. Try to be a good student and you will see if you are or are not (it does not require to be 'the best student'). The only two things which may not bre obvious (from the student's perspective) are:

  • courses and grades are not everything and
  • information and personal contacts are crucial.

While doing something extra requires extra effort, it's stimulating, allows to learn skill that are really needed and gives insight in how the real research work. Also, it is crucial to learn what are the possibilities, where is good to go for your PhD, etc.

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