How (NOT) to Get Involved in Research: Part 3 (Starting Research)

We are back with the final part of our series, How (NOT) to Get Involved in Research!  Now you have done it!  After some emails and maybe even an interview, you are now part of a real research lab and ready to begin your journey in undergraduate research.  From one undergraduate researcher to another, keep reading for a few tips on how to make the most out of your first few weeks of your research experience for both you, your research mentors, and your advisor.

  • Show up.  Be there when you say you will be and when you are asked to be there.  In addition to labtime, definitely prioritize group meetings, coffee hour, and colloquium/seminars in your division.  Depending on office space and your lab’s policies, maybe be there more than you are required to be.  When I first joined my lab, I used to study and spend most of my free time in the office, and I learned so much by simply overhearing the conversations of my labmates and watching different techniques.  This also demonstrates that you are taking this opportunity seriously.
  • Do your homework.  Ask your research mentor or maybe the other undergraduate or graduate students in the lab for recommendations of what literature and other resources they recommend for background on your project, techniques, and other relevant information.  I remember going home every night during the first two weeks of my summer research internship at the University of Georgia and reading dozens of Wikipedia articles about G protein signaling, His tags, column chromatography, and all the related hyperlinks, just trying to orient myself in a completely new field.  Eventually, all my hard work paid off, and I moved on to reading actual scientific journal articles, but you have to start somewhere.
  • Ask questions.  Don’t be afraid of seeming stupid.  All of us were new at some point, so you are not alone.  If you do not acknowledge when you are confused or admit that you do not know something, you cannot learn.  Also, everyone would rather you ask a “stupid” question than guess and make a costly mistake.
  • Listen.  We understand that you are new and may not always be able to remember every little detail.  That is not a problem.  However, if you are arrogant and eager to prove yourself and show how smart you are, this usually is a recipe for disaster.  There are few things more frustrating about a new labmate than an unwillingness to listen and an unteachable spirit.
  • Keep an open mind.  Very few people have an accurate understanding of what research is like until they actually try it.  Also, each project, each PI, and each lab is different, so your experience will be unique.  In other words, do not compare yourself to others–either their horror stories or their highlight reels.  Comparison truly is the thief of joy.  Instead, fully engage in your research experience, invest in your project, and connect with your lab.
  • Show gratitude.  It does require significant time, energy, and resources to train someone new in lab, and everyone in the lab already has too much to do in too little time between their own projects, lab maintenance, writing, and other tasks.  A genuine word of thanks can go a long way and can make a positive impact on a tired fellow undergrad, graduate student, or postdoc who took the time to teach you something new or help you in some way.
  • Be patient with yourself.  The learning curve to joining any new research group is steep, so do not get discouraged.  You will make mistakes.  Your research project (even when you are experienced) will run into setbacks.  Progress will be slow.  Just keep persevering, and you never know what might happen!

Do you have any tips for new undergraduate researchers?  Share them in the comments below, and happy researching!

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