10 Things to Expect From Your Summer Undergrad Research Experience

06
Jun

10 Things to Expect From Your Summer Undergrad Research Experience

— from the Researcher's bench

For some undergrads, this summer will be spent lounging on the beach reading and hanging out with friends. Days will be spent blissfully sleeping until a parent annoyingly insists that it’s time to get up and do something.

But alas that’s not for you.

If you’ve decided to make the most of your summer by participating in a full-time research experience, you’re about to embark on a new, challenging adventure, and it won’t include much time for lounging. Below are 10 things that will be part of the experience.

  1. Fatigue. During the summer, you might be in the lab more hours in a single day than you spent in the lab in an entire week during the semester. Standing, working, taking notes, and thinking about research for several hours (and days) in a row can be a difficult adjustment. Be patient with yourself as you make the transition from full-time student to full-time researcher. It will become easier after you settle into a routine.
  2. Rewards. More time in the lab means more opportunities to take a greater role in planning and conducting experiments, collecting data, and analyzing results. You might have the option of working on an independent project as the “student PI” with all the responsibilities and rewards that accompany the title. Additional hours in the lab will also lead to more opportunities to learn, contribute, and become an integral member of the research team. And when you are given more responsibilities in the lab, it is a definite sign that you’re doing something right. (See blog post Extra Responsibility = Praise for a Job Well Done for more details.)
  3. Frustration. Being in the lab five days a week for several hours each day will certainly help you meet your research objectives sooner than during the semester. However, at some point your project will likely hit a wall. Without the breaks from lab you’d typically have during the semester, it will be harder to bring a fresh perspective when needed.
  4. Elation. There is nothing better than getting a punishingly difficult technique to work, or coming up with the next research question after interpreting a result. An in-depth summer research experience will give you the luxury of time to think about strategies and perhaps the time to test several. It might be so exciting that you’ll have difficulty sleeping some nights even when you’re soooo tired from working all day.
  5. Hofstadter’s Law. This law states that “it always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law.” This is especially true at the research bench. Therefore, be prepared for everything to take longer than you or research advisor thinks it will, because everything will take longer than you or your research advisor thinks it will.
  6. New and deeper connections. During your summer experience, you’ll make deeper personal and professional connections with your labmates, and learn about their lives beyond the lab. You’ll likely have more spontaneous conversations about long-term career goals (yours and theirs), and about non-lab adventures (yours and theirs). Intensive summer research experiences are, in part, why the friendships formed in a lab often continue well beyond an undergrad college experience.
  7. Incomprehension (from your friends). One of the amazing things about participating in research full-time is the in-depth, experiential learning and focus you’ll enjoy in the lab. You’ll loose track of time, the day of the week, and on occasion the month. If your friends are spending the summer working through a Netflix bucket list, they won’t understand your commitments to the lab, your research project, and your future. Some will continually remind you what a relaxing summer they are having, and compare it to the work-intensive one you’re experiencing. Stay the course. The personal and professional development you’ll extract from your summer in the lab will more than compensate for not having a summer of down-time. (And the stunning recommendation letters you earn as a result will make med/grad school applications that much stronger.)
  8. Personal growth. When you spend the better part of a summer engaged in full-time research you’re bound to experience significant personal growth. Perhaps you’ll refine your critical thinking or organizational skills. Maybe you’ll develop a sense of self-reliance or self-discipline that you didn’t know was missing. At the very least, you’ll like discover your pain tolerance for research, and perhaps whether your career path should include it or not.
  9. Feeling like you’re a real researcher. Arguably, this is the best part of an epic summer research experience. After a summer of long hours dedicated to making a contribution to science and overcoming challenges in the lab, you’ll finally feel like a real scientist. After testing your resiliency, self-motivation, and self-discipline over and over again, you’ll realize that the summer experience has made you a more confident researcher, and more connected to your project. Then, when a new undergrad joins the lab in the fall, you’ll still remember what it was like to be new and nervous, but you’ll also be confident enough to say, “Don’t worry, I’ll help you find what you need.” And it will feel great, because you’ll know you’ve got this, and you’ll realize just how far you’ve come.
  10. Resenting the return of the semester. Wrapping up a full-time summer research experience is exhilarating and exhausting at the same time. But sometime during the first few weeks of the fall semester, a harsh reality will become evident: you don’t have as much time for research. Not near enough time. And what would have taken you part of a morning to do in the summer, will now take a week to complete during the semester. Those long blocks of summer research time will have evaporated, along with your increased productivity. You’ll once again make overly ambitious to-do lists before you readjust to the fall schedule. Making the transition back to a full-time student and part-time researcher will be a challenge. Be patient with yourself during this time as well.

A version of this article appeared in Student Doctor.net