10 Things to Expect From Your Summer Undergrad Research Experience


10 Things to Expect From Your Summer Undergrad Research Experience

 A list of 10 things that are split between two columns. The first column lists 1. Fatigue. 2. Rewards. 3. Frustration. 4. Elation. 5. Hofstadter's Law. The 2nd column lists 6. New and deeper connections. 7. Incomprehension. 8. Personal growth. 9. Feeling like a real researcher. 10. Resenting the return of the semester.
A list of 10 things that are split between two columns. The first column lists 1. Fatigue. 2. Rewards. 3. Frustration. 4. Elation. 5. Hofstadter's Law. The 2nd column lists 6. New and deeper connections. 7. Incomprehension. 8. Personal growth. 9. Feeling like a real researcher. 10. Resenting the return of the semester.

— from the Lab Manager'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 during your work week. (Of course, we hope you're able to fit in leisure activities. Finding time to decompress, participate in social activities aren't in conflict with conducting research full-time during the summer.)

Whether you're participating in a summer undergraduate research as part of a program away from your home campus or with the same group you work with during the semester, below are 10 things that might be part of the experience.

  1. Fatigue. During the summer, you might be working on research in the lab or conducting fieldwork more hours in a single day than you did in an entire week during the semester. Focusing on the task at hand, taking notes on procedures or observations, and thinking about the question you're trying to answer 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 learn how to schedule breaks during the day, and to prioritize eating lunch and staying hydrated. (This is important for field researchers, of course, but it's also matters for those who are conducting wet and dry lab research too!
  2. Rewards. More time in the a wet 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 conducting research regardless of where it takes place will also lead to more opportunities to learn, contribute, and become an integral member of the research team. And when you're given more responsibilities as an undergrad researcher, 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. Conducting research 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 or you'll experience difficulty with a procedure. Without the breaks you’d typically have during the semester, it might be harder to bring a fresh perspective when needed. You'll need to learn to work through this to get back on track. Some possibilities might be taking a short break to clear your mind and return with a fresh perspective or asking your mentor for suggestions based on how they overcome similar frustration.
  4. Elation. There is nothing better than getting a punishingly difficult technique to work, coming up with the next research question after interpreting a result, collecting samples to help answer your research questions, or knowing the information you're contributing adds knowledge to the universe. An in-depth summer research experience will give you the luxury of time to be more deeply involved in a research project..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 in research regardless if it's done in a wet or dry lab, field station or a combination of more than one place. 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 the members of your research group and learn about their lives as people beyond the walls of academia.You’ll likely have more spontaneous conversations about long-term career goals (yours and theirs), and about non-research adventures (yours and theirs). Intensive summer research experiences are, in part, why the friendships and mentoring connections formed in a research group often continue well beyond an undergrad college experience.
  7. Incomprehension (from some friends). One of the amazing things about participating in research full-time is the in-depth, experiential learning and focus you’ll enjoy. 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 your research project, and your future.Some will continually remind you what a relaxing summer they are having, and compare it to your experience. And that might be annoying, but it's okay because you've decided to do different things with your summers. The personal and professional development you’ll extract from your summer in research will help you achieve future goals, maybe decide on a career path, or learn about something you don't want as part of your future. (And the strong recommendation letters you earn at the end of the summer will make future job/med/grad school applications 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 likely discover your pain tolerance for the type of research you're conducting, and perhaps whether your career path should include it.
  9. Feeling as if 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 research challenges, 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 research group 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, it was hard for me at first, too” or offer other helpful or reassuring advice. 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. If you're done conducting research until your next summer, you might miss it until the next opportunity. But if you're retuning to your former research group (or simply reducing your hours) 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