What It's Really like to Do Undergraduate Research, and Other Adult Things You Should Know

I’ve found undergraduate research to be a great opportunity. By practicing the tools I learned in class and working with my peers, I was able to answer a challenging but cool question. Undergraduate research offers amazing benefits. However, interested parties should also know some key facts about the trials and tribulations that undergraduate researchers face in the “field.”

Sure, you can start with just observations, but eventually you'll need a question or it won’t go anywhere.

The basis of doing undergraduate research is to have some question you want to answer based on the research you have been assisting. Therefore, you could start a project by simply examining some observations you have found in your field of interest. However, you don’t have a project until you start a question.

This will sound strange, but forming a question can be hard. You may start with one question, but when you design your experiment or talk with your professor it may change. Perhaps you do have all the data for your original question or not enough time to examine the full question or perhaps you lack a skill to do analysis. One way or another, the question will change and you need to keep track of these changes. You need to know what your question is for yourself ─ there is not a teacher to tell you if your question is right or wrong because it is your project! This can be harder in a group because people have different views on what is happening within the process.

I think this is also good advice to apply to real life. It is perfectly fine to start your career following any random interest you have and seeing where it goes. However, you are unlikely to reach higher or more interesting positions until you set a goal for yourself. 

You need to really love your topic.

One of the most important steps in undergraduate research is to find a topic that interests you. This is pretty obvious, since no one wants their name attached to a topic that doesn’t interest them. However, it becomes even more important when you realize how much time you need to spend working to finish the project. My professor told me that submitting a project to the Undergraduate Research Conference is like taking on another 2-unit class. At the time I thought it sounded easy, but it wasn’t. My group had to meet frequently to discuss what we were doing. We spent weeks waiting for each other to finish out individual parts. I had to spend time outside of class to work on my part. I have spent countless hours trying to figure out how on Earth I was going to finish! Not to mention the anxiety; if I did something wrong, the whole project would be a waste of time.

Loving your job is very important in the “adult” world. There will definitely be some things you do not love, but you should love it overall. For now, finishing school is the main goal, which is critical for getting a job. Sadly though, most people don’t seem to like school. I do not know if they do not like the system of education or the subject they are studying. I hope they don’t like being in school because getting a degree in a subject you hate doesn’t seem worthwhile. Admittedly a degree is a piece of paper, but you need it to show bosses that you are capable of following tasks and thinking outside the box. This piece of paper has the power to help you do something you actually like, so put some effort into it!  

Image source: Abby Chung

No smiley faces for a good job on each task or directions to do each task for that matter ─ it is all self-motivated.

One thing about research that doesn’t sink in until you try it is that it is self-motivated. In real terms, this means you need to think of the tasks and goals to answer your question by yourself. It is nice to be in charge for once; you can do your research without assignment rules. At the same time, this is scary though: a teacher cannot bail you out when you are stuck. Self-motivated work means no smiley faces or grade for a job well done on individual tasks or finishing the whole project. Unfortunately, Americans are taught from a young age to seek out approval by authority, in the form of grades during school, so this is hard to do at first. Eventually, you get used to it though and you can feel proud of doing your own work.

Alas, most work is not entirely up to you in adult jobs. However, it is up to you to break down your own tasks into manageable chunks. Plus, you cannot ask your boss for help all the time. So really everyone needs to learn to fend for themselves at some point.

It’s better to try for yourself first, but you can ask for help. 

This statement is a bit of a repeat, but it is still important. In doing individual research, professors like for you to try by yourself before asking for help. It isn’t a crime to ask for help though. Make sure to try to solve it before asking so that you can discuss your thought process with the professor. That way the professor can show you where you went wrong, and you can prove your abilities. Many students do undergraduate research in the hopes of becoming a researcher themselves, so it is good to show potential recommenders what you are capable of!

As a side note: keep your professor up-to-date on what you are doing, unless they ask you not to. I did not keep my professor updated and he thought I had quit on the project! I had not quit ─ I was struggling with a task. I told him that I was struggling and what I had managed, and then he helped me out.

In a full-time job, asking for help from your boss may not an option. If it is an option, still try the task by yourself first. If not, you can ask co-workers for help or email old professors!

Give yourself two weeks for every task.

This last piece of advice is very important. No matter what the task is, assign extra time to finish it in case of a hiccup. My graduate student supervisor told me this and it has been invaluable. A step may sound easy, but there are so many other things happening in your life, tools, or other parts of the project that may lead to delays. I did not realize when I started my research how long data clean up would take! Once that was done, it took forever to analyze the data. It was very frustrating ─ another reason to research something of interest ─ that I had to stare at the same information for so long! The length of time needed to find and answer a question, plus make a poster makes breaks critical. Allot break time into your schedule or risk slight insanity….

In a real job, projects and other tasks will probably always be available. This makes time management even more important. If you want to be a reliable co-worker, you need to be able to finish your tasks when you say you will. So, learn how much time a project takes on average before promising results to anyone! Give yourself sufficient time to do a good job and to take breaks.