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John Beacom

Alumni Spotlight | September 2016

KU major: Physics and Math, Class of 1991

Current occupation: Professor of Physics and Astronomy

Mentors while at KU: Adrian Melott plus several others





Q: Describe the undergraduate research experience that you had while at KU:

A: At the beginning of my sophomore year, when I had no plans to continue in physics, Adrian Melott invited me to start doing research with him. The topic was cosmology, about which I knew nothing. For some reason, he took a chance on me. It turned out that I loved research, which made me more interested in my coursework, which helped with my research, and back and forth. Adrian and I worked together until I graduated, and that was great. In addition, several other faculty in the Physics and Math Departments provided crucial mentoring. Overall, one of the best things about KU was that I got a lot of instruction outside the classroom. I'm grateful to the many faculty who shared their time and expertise with me.


Q: What do you think was the most important thing you learned while doing undergraduate research? 

A: That the most interesting things are those things that nobody has figured out yet. And that while being successful in research is much harder than being successful in the classroom, it's much better preparation for life after the undergraduate degree.


Q: What advice do you have for undergraduates who might be interested in doing creative work?

A: Find a way! Start by getting to know the faculty. Remember that they love the material and most love explaining it to people who are interested. Don't knock on their door and just ask for a job --- instead, say that you've read about what they're working on and would like to learn more. And do this with lots of faculty. With one or two, you may end up working on research; with the others, you'll grow a network of mentors.


Q: Do you use any of the skills or perspectives gained doing research in your current occupation? How so?

A: I'm now a professor at a research university, so exactly yes. And my memories of getting starting in research help me relate to students who are new at it themselves.


Q: Many undergraduates are making decisions about what to do after they graduate from KU. Having been in those shoes, what do you know now that you wish you’d known then? Do you have any advice?

A: If you are considering going to graduate school, you need to find out more about what that experience is like before making a decision. Sit in for a day on some graduate courses, interview graduate students about what they're doing, and read web pages about other departments. Also, ask prospective departments about what their graduates are doing now.


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