Do Your Research: 3 tips for getting the most out of your undergraduate research experience
Written by Maxwell Tran
If you’re in a science-related program, you know that the word ‘research’ is thrown around a lot. “You need to have research experience on your graduate or professional school application,” your friends will tell you. These same friends will advise you to email a hundred different Principal Investigators (PIs) to ask for a research position. “At least a hundred,” they will say with a confident smile, reminiscing upon the time when they were in your shoes.
I am by no means a research expert, nor am I an expert on research. I have about five months of research experience under my belt. There is a very good chance that my own opinions on research will change within the next year. With that being said, here are some tips and dispelled myths that you may find helpful if you have never done research before.
1. Know your motivation.
The truth is: you don’t need research experience to apply to professional school. So, why do you want to do research? Do you want to lead an exciting venture at the forefront of science? Do you want to learn skills that you might not be able to develop in a classroom setting? Do you want to find out if research is right for you? These are all good motivations for wanting to delve into the world of research.
Do you want to strengthen your chances of being accepted to graduate or professional school? Do you want to pad your CV? These motivations are generally looked down upon, but it would be silly to dismiss them when they apply to so many students. Motivation is motivation – there is no right or wrong.
The reason why it is important to know yourself is because you need to know what you want to take away from your research experience. Regardless of your motivation, there is a strong probability that you will gain newfound skills, knowledge, and connections. However, if you want to find out if you might have a potential career in research, you need to connect with the research process. Is the process of conducting research something that you enjoy? Can you see yourself doing it for years to come?
If you want to do research primarily for your CV, then focus on deliverables. Maximize your research output in terms of papers, abstracts, and presentations. These are, in a sense, objective measures of your productivity. Of course, keep an open mind if you can. Who knows? You might end up enjoying the process.
Your motivations do not have to be mutually exclusive. Most students that I know have hybrid motivations for wanting to do research. Understanding your objectives simply helps you get the most out of your research experience.
2. Do research that you care about.
You will ideally be spending lots of time – possibly hundreds of hours – at your research placement. Don’t waste your time doing research that bores you out of your mind. I can’t stress this enough. Do research that you care about. In first year especially, I found that there was such an immense pressure to become involved with research. This led to many students, including myself, applying for research positions in fields that we had little interest in. We were doing a disservice to ourselves because this lack of interest was apparent to application reviewers.
Instead of mass-emailing a hundred PIs, identify a small group of PIs whose research genuinely interests you. Personally, I was intrigued by epidemiology and health policy. Many of my peers pushed me towards wet lab research, but I knew that it was not for me. (Maybe in the future.)
After you have generated a shortlist of PIs, do your homework. Review their most recently published papers to get a sense of the research that they are currently doing. Try your best to understand graphs, tables, and figures, in particular. Familiarize yourself with common terminology used in the field. If this preliminary reading puts you to sleep, try reading papers written by other PIs or papers from another research field. You’ll eventually find your calling.
3. Look for a mentor, not a supervisor.
When looking for a PI, don’t immediately jump to the first PI who is willing to supervise you. Be wary of email acceptances. If you aren’t offered an interview, request one.
As cliché as this sounds, the interview is not only an opportunity for the PI to find out if you would be a good fit; it is also an opportunity for you to find out if the PI is someone you would enjoy working with. Your PI should care about your career goals and, more importantly, he or she should want to help you achieve said goals.
If a PI has an online CV, look for evidence of teaching and supervising activities. The names of the PI’s former and current students should be available to you, so you can contact these students to find out about their research experiences with the PI.
During the interview, here are some important questions to ask:
If I need assistance or guidance, can I ask you?
You want a PI who is invested in your education. While you may be working with other students most of the time, you should have a direct line of communication with your PI in case you encounter research obstacles.
Will I have an opportunity to interact regularly with you?
You should know how often your PI expects you to meet with him or her. Some PIs hold weekly meetings for all of their research students. Other PIs primarily coordinate with their students via email due to travel or teaching obligations.
Are there other learning opportunities in this research environment?
Some research positions, typically hospital-based positions, enable you to attend research rounds, which are presentations by local or visiting scientists. You may also have the opportunity to attend special workshops or conferences through your PI’s affiliations.
If I perform well, would you be willing to write a reference letter for me?
I hope that you find the above three tips helpful when seeking out an undergraduate research opportunity. All the best on your exciting journey!