A laptop computer with the screen open. A coffee cup to the left of the computer and a stack of scientific magazines to the right.

—from the PI's desk

No matter if your long-term career goals include research, medicine, or using your STEMM degree primarily for science communication, policy, or another direction, participating in an undergrad research experience is a unparalleled opportunity. This is in no small part due to the personal and professional development you gain from the exposure to in-depth, experiential learning--especially one that takes places over the course of a summer.

In addition to learning new research skills, communicating your results, and making a discovery to solve a problem or answer a question, you have the opportunity to earn a recommendation letter to support future applications for grad, medical, or professional school, and graduate fellowships.

However, if you are early in your undergrad career, you may not need that letter until a few years after your summer research experience. Sure, you could come back to your mentor after that time and request a recommendation, but that approach has some major disadvantages. Most importantly, the more time that passes between when you leave the lab and when you ask for a recommendation letter, the fewer the specific details about your strengths and successes your mentor is likely to remember—and it’s those specific details that can turn a strong letter into an epic one.

 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.

a sandy beach

—from the Lab Manager's bench

Should I stay, or should I go?

For most researchers, working in the lab over a holiday break is somewhat different from working in the lab during the rest of the year. For example, if an experiment has flexibly, it can be started or stopped when it's convenient for the researcher instead of planned around seminars, classes, and campus parking issues.

In addition, some researchers take a vacation, adopt unconventional work hours, or hide in their office to work on a manuscript and only visit the lab to search for inspiration, a snack, or a temporary distraction.


Your Guide for Considering a Gap or Personal Year

—from the Lab Manager's bench and the PI's desk

Exploring the Process

Figuring out if you should take a year off between finishing your undergrad experience and enrolling in a graduate, medical, or professional program isn't always an easy path. So, if you're feeling stressed out about the uncertainly of it all, know that it's part of the process. Deciding what to do, wondering if taking a break will be worth it, if you should even consider it, (or feeling frustrated because a gap year wasn't part of your 10 -year plan) is stressful.

A sticky note that says Grad School Applications: If you want to work with a specific PI, Ask them if they are accepting new students

Question: Is a specific PI is accepting new grad students this cycle?
Solution: Contact the PI directly.

If you want to work with a specific PI, then you need to know if they are accepting new grad students for the degree program you’re pursuing (MS or PhD). If this wasn't obvious to you don't worry because many undergrads on the path to grad school have asked for advice on this subject.


Dr. Blake Guests on Twitter for #GradRecruitWeekSTEM

photo of Dr. Blake. and scheduling details of the twitter chat @youinthelab. Chat date scheduled for Thursday, September 16 at 11 AM CDT (GMT-5).

Dr. Nicquet Blake is the associate dean for admissions & student affairs at the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio. As part of our Graduate Student Recruit Week in STEM, (#GradRecruitWeekSTEM) she will answer our (and your) questions about the graduate school admissions process while uncovering some parts of the hidden curriculum for diverse students.