Undergraduate research, demystified

So, the other night at Snakes & Lattes (we all need a break to eat cookies and play board games and be nerds every once in awhile, right?), a friend and I were talking about his hopes to gain summer research experience in physics. Fearful that his cGPA might be too low, or that the universe might hate him, or that it’s “too late in his undergraduate career” to begin getting research experience, he seemed somewhat certain that graduate school was closed off from him forever and ever. Except, he’s only in his third year of undergrad. And he’s definitely clever and motivated. Unfortunately, I’ve heard this song before.

Attending a research-intensive university full of hypermotivated students sometimes gets the best of us. We forget that at most undergraduate-centric schools, research activity is a rare gem amongst all but grad students and post-docs, and that generally speaking, if you haven’t published in Science or Nature within two or three years of high school graduation, your life is not, in fact, over.

This post is devoted to undergraduate research opportunities, since it’s summer-research-finding season, and sometimes getting into this seemingly-impenetrable fortress just requires someone shout the password to you from the other side.

More than just a reference letter

Most students with whom I’ve chatted about research experience inevitably talk about how great it will look on their grad school application. That’s probably true, but not nearly the point. Research projects are a good place to test the waters – is research really for you? Are you in the field you are actually passionate about? Don’t assume the antecedent – a huge part of what you’re doing is finding your place. It is entirely possible that your project will bore you to tears and you’ll want to try something entirely different when your contract is up, which brings me to my second point…

Choose projects seriously

I cannot overemphasize this. Most students I’ve talked to about summer research choose profs with whom they’ve built some kind of rapport in class, rather than based on the content of the research program itself. While getting to know potential supervisors might help the interview process, in the end it isn’t worth it if you’re going into a field outside of your key interests simply because you were uncomfortable cold-calling a professor.

Research your research

The first rule of research club is be prepared to talk about research club. Contacting professors whom you may not have met yet, but who specialize in your preferred field(s) is in your best interest, but be prepared for real conversation. Professors are generally welcoming and instructive for students’ inquiries regarding their research programs, but give them the courtesy to read a few of their papers and become moderately comfortable with their sub-field prior to setting up a meeting. This is the only way to know if you’d actually like to be there – and to express your intentions accordingly. I’d really recommend that you know what you’re getting into. From my own experience, it seems that the field that you start in will dramatically filter and channel the types of opportunities you come across in the future, so put time into considering what kinds of questions excite you, and go from there.

Do you get to fire the lasers?

This is a key question when looking for a suitable research program – is the opportunity available something that will help you gain research skills and learn new things? Or is it just some kind of bad symbiosis like “I’ll-do-clerical-work-for-you-if-you’ll-write-a-reference-letter-for-me”? Remember that you came to university to learn things, not to collect gold stars. So, (1) find opportunities that actually challenge you, while (2) keeping in mind that you are new to this, and therefore must relinquish a sense of entitlement and be reasonable in your aspirations for responsibility, early on. A reference letter means little if it can’t express your curiosity, vigilance, and synthesis – qualities that will only be apparent when you’ve contributed in real ways to the research program.

Bridges and tunnels into the academy

NSERC isn’t the only way. While receiving a grant for research is amazing and very possible, there are other ways of finding a place to begin. For me, it was through the Research Opportunity Program in second year, whereas for other students, it might be the Independent Experiential Learning Program in third year. In addition to these programs, there are government-sponsored programs like the NSERC and SSHRC summer research grants (for Canadian students meeting a minimum threshold GPA) and the University of Toronto Excellence Awards for students looking for an NSERC-type project that were unable to get one. Additionally, many 4-12 week summer programs are available for undergrads in hospitals and research institutes in Toronto and beyond, which can be found through advertisements in your field, your department’s undergraduate office, and some intense google-searching. There are also the Centre for International Experience’s research abroad programs which are a cool initiative with an international twist.

For students without the GPA/citizenship/time/interest in the programs outlined above, there are also lots of ways into research as a self-directed student. This can either be in the form of a 400-level project/independent study course through your department or college (for example, through Trinity College), or as a volunteer in a lab of interest. While these positions are generally unpaid (and sometimes have a course fee), they are a more flexible way of gaining experience and finding one’s place.

Questions about getting your hands dirty in academic research? Feel free to post in the comments!

Jennifer

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