Ten Tips (and One Question) for the UnderGrad in Research

Since I am nearing the end of my Honours course I figured now is the time to write a little something for all the fresh-eyed Undergrads going into research. (Also I don’t want to look at my thesis right now, so this is one of those productive procrastination incidences.)
So first things first. Dear UnderGrad pay attention to the following:

  1. Actually believe when other people (and by that I mean other HDR/Higher Degree in Research students) tell you how gruelling research is going to be. Real life research is very different from what the movies would like to tell you. Though you still get into accidents but it’s usually without the perks of superpowers. Some days you will be excited to start an experiment, other days you would just want to hide under your desk (true story). And then there will be days when nervousness at trying something new will battle it out with the urge to just get it over with. These are all valid emotions. Research for all it’s reliance on numbers IS emotional. You will experience a wide range of emotions, from frustration to pure elation and every miserable thing in between. Remember that ridiculous chart with faces to rate your pain? That chart is you. And you are experiencing most of those feelings all at once on any given day.
  2. Make full use of all the support systems available to you. These include guidance counsellors on campus, your best friend, your significant other (if you have one), your family if you are living close to them (unlike me who is in another country) and your official/unofficial mentors. It’s always a good idea to have an unofficial mentor outside your supervisor/PI who you can go to should things go hay-wire (or even if they don’t). And your program co-ordinator. Seriously, get their contact info and know that they are the one who usually have your back (at least in my experience).
  3. Get a hobby. Research can be physically, emotionally and psychologically draining (see #1). You are going to need something you can cling to when you are going at crashing speed. It can be knitting, writing a blog, photography, gymnastics, cooking… the list is endless.
  4. Be prepared to learn, unlearn and relearn a lot of things. These may include things in your field and/or things about yourself and other people. Evaluating and re-evaluating things in light of new data is part and parcel of science. Embrace it.
  5. Get on twitter. No, I am not kidding. The scientific community on twitter is beyond fantastic and I probably owe them some form of internet-cake for being there for me, be it related to science or science-induced frustrations. They are phenomenal and you should be a part of this community too. It also helps to remind you that you are not alone.
  6. Pace yourself or you will wreck yourself. It’s good that you are invested in your work but please prioritize yourself first before everything else. Think about it this way, if you are feeling wrung out and tired then your productivity drops and you feel even more tired and frustrated and the cycle goes on. You don’t have to do everything all at once, talk to your PI if their expectations of your progress feels unrealistic or is coming at the cost of your mental and physical well-being.
  7. Do NOT compare yourself to others. One of the beauties of being in research is that it is, to some extent, free of the tight schedules of a normal UG semester and is at it’s core, flexible. This means that everyone can set their own pace (again #6) and move accordingly. Just because a fellow student is at a place where you are not (yet) doesn’t mean you have to panic and push yourself to the brink of exhaustion. That will get you nowhere.
  8. Sleep. Just try to get 7-8 hrs of sleep please. Break them down into small periods for all I care, just get some sleep everyday.
  9. Attend other people’s thesis defences, mid-year candidature reviews, final year presentations and if possible journal club meetings. Also, bring a piece of paper with you because you will get so many ideas that you might want to write them down.
  10. Ask questions. That’s the entire reason why you are here. So ask questions. Lots of them.

An extra tip:
Enjoy yourself. Despite all the anxiety and headaches I can honestly say I enjoyed the last 7 and a half months. They were, against all odds, fun!

And a question:
Do you need a hug?

You get a hug!
You get a hug!
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9 thoughts on “Ten Tips (and One Question) for the UnderGrad in Research

  1. Excellent advice…I especially wish I’d started following researchers on Twitter earlier ha ha. I’ve learned a ridiculous amount but could have used all the info a little earlier in my graduate studies!

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  2. Not to rain on your parade, but many of those tips are utter nonsense and following them will only make you a mediocre scientist/researcher at best (which also leads to being paid less than others in your field)… Lets begin…

    1. No issues there, it’s quite valid and generally good advice…

    2. While having support is generally fine, you shouldn’t necessarily need it… Essentially, what you’re saying is that you absolutely need an entire community supporting you in order for you to do your job, and if you lack such support, it’s going to be a problem for you… If you’re hired to do a job, you should be more than capable enough to do it on your own, without any help or support whatsoever (be it physically, mentally or emotionally), , otherwise, you’re just wasting your time, not to mention, wasting other people’s time and money… It’s not enough that you have a job to do, but in order for you to do that job, you also need an entire community of people supporting you, encouraging you, praising you and holding your hand or else it becomes a problem that you simply cannot handle, that’s just not how it works (especially not in STEM fields), employers expect their employees to be fully independent, be able to do their jobs and any other tasks asked of them without question or support… You’re having an issue with something? Figure it out… You’re stressed out? Deal with it! You’re tired and emotionally drained? Too bad, suck it up and keep working… That’s what everyone else does, so why can’t women do the same? Employers want results, not excuses… Period… It’s YOUR job to get those results by any means necessary and as quickly as possible… You were hired as a professional and to perform a function, if you perform that function well, there will be no issues, otherwise you may want to seek another job and a different career path…

    3. No, don’t get a hobby, you want as little distractions as possible in your life so you can focus on your work and studies… If you think simply studying to become a scientist/researcher is too draining and stressful, to the point where you can’t handle it, you may want to find a different career path altogether, because when you’re finally hired in the industry, you’ll find that it’s orders of magnitudes more draining and stressful compared to college… If you can’t handle 4 years of it during college, will you really be able to do this for the rest of your life? Save the hobbies for when you’ve already found a job and can afford it, you already have enough distractions in college (parties, going on dates, going to see movies, hanging out with classmates and so on…), you don’t need yet another thing that takes time away from your studies/work…

    4. Completely valid, and I agree 100%…

    5. This goes back to #1 and #3… No, don’t waste your precious time on social media nonsense like twitter, you need to learn to deal with things on your own and not always rely on others for help or support…

    6. No, do not prioritize yourself first, otherwise, you’ll be stuck in the lower tier of researchers, the entire reason those at the top are there is because they put the work first, and everything else a distant second…

    “talk to your PI if their expectations of your progress feels unrealistic”

    And that is a sure fire way to get you terminated or for them to make sure you never see a promotion again, never get any bonuses an end up staying at the bottom of the totem pole… Everyone else is able meet these expectations without the need to whine about it, why can’t you?

    7. Yes DO compare yourself against others, if you don’t you risk playing catch up with everyone else and that’s not where you want to be if you want to be a successful researcher/scientist… If you want to be considered a top tier scientist, you need to set the pace and have everyone else play catch up, that’s how you get to become 1st author rather than settle for 3rd or 4th author… If you’re not setting the pace, you’ll be playing catch up with whoever is, AND you also have to worry about those behind you looking to take your place… I don’t think I need to point out how the more successful researchers/scientists who set the pace for everyone else (IE: lead author or first author) are paid a hell of a lot more than those who don’t push themselves or complain that what’s expected of them is too much… Sure, they may hold the same title (IE: Dr.), but they’re not considered equal, not by a long shot…

    8. Again, no, this is similar to #3 and #6, 8 hours of sleep is unnecessary, sleep only as much as you require so you can still be functional and able to learn and make smart decisions… If you’re wasting 1/3rd of the day on sleep, that’s time lost and wasted that you can never get back… You can sleep for 8 hours a night after you’ve graduated or finished whatever paper you’re writing…

    9. This is a contradiction of #7, and I agree, you DO want to keep up with what others have done or are currently doing, as I stated above…

    10. Agreed…

    Also: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vXwxXuk-alc

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    1. Holy cow, John. This is honestly the worst advice I’ve ever read for undergraduates (or graduate students or postdocs or anyone else) who are interested in pursuing science as a career. It is, however, an excellent recipe for mental illness and burnout. Even if you don’t personally burn out, it is a miserable environment in which to work. (Been there, done that.) Especially if you’re not giving yourself a chance to get away from it for at least part of the day.

      Dinahere’s advice is wonderful. I wish I had read this as an undergrad or a graduate student and took better care of myself then. I would have been much more productive and much happier.

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      1. No it’s not, it’s bloody terrible advice, aside from a few tidbits of deferring to peers and paying attention to surroundings. For anyone who wants to be more than a nominal scientist with a mediocre resume, you need to understand LUXURY and COMFORT are not part of the process. If someone was training for a marathon you’d encourage them to push themselves and strive for better, faster, strong, not coddle them and hope they are comfortable while training, and telling them mediocrity is fine as long as you feel like a winner. Science is no different. The best scientists, the most prominent and revered also worked the hardest. No one wants to hire a bunch of arrogant narcissists who think their bare minimum, self-absorbed mediocrity, and general laziness is a hireable quality. No one doing top tier research wants some slug who decided to sleep and paint instead of analyse and re-analyse their data and constantly think about ways to improve methodology or experimentation because they don’t take a break from it. When you’re in the workforce you’ll have more time for yourself, when you’re studying you should be focusing on being the best. Leave it to an undergrad pretty princess to tell the world how she slugs off through her coursework, doing mediocre work and being oblivious to her peers by not comparing, further reinforcing her delusion that she is special and accomplished with her ‘everyone gets a trophy’ mentality. I’m sure you scoff at the Asian kids who go into the library for 12 hours straight on their off days, studying and learning constantly, but then you’ll conveniently claim discrimination when they get hired to the better jobs, better grad programs, etc.

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      2. You know what I am going to approve this comment. Mostly because I am done laughing my ass off at these people commenting on this post from 6 months back! 6 months!
        The advice to get a decent amount of sleep and to maintain a healthy work-life boundary (which is difficult if you are in STEM fields as it is) isn’t asking for luxury.
        I graduated with a 4.0 GPA with Hons at the top of my class in July this year (yes it was a research project with ‘experimentation’ that I improved on for the first 5 months of my course, thanks for asking). And even if I didn’t or I was ‘mediocre’ by your standards? I still would have been a hell lot happier than being whatever robot you think scientists are supposed to be.
        Thank you for the pretty princess reference, the sexism in your post would have been harder to detect without that little touch. Oh and before I forget, I am in fact Asian. Bengali to be exact. And studied abroad.
        Thanks for playing. Bye.

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