Friday, February 6, 2015

Research experience as an undergraduate student (or earlier)

Courtesy: National Science Foundation
Whether you're an undergraduate biology major or a high-school student figuring out whether or not you want to be a biology major, getting research experience is a wise idea. In fact, it's arguably even essential, depending on what stage of your education/career you're in.

More people are getting their undergraduate degree than ever before. Many students do well in terms of grades and have excellent recommendation letters from their professors. By gaining research experience, you set yourself apart from the majority in a competitive field. You show that you can use all of the knowledge from the books and apply it, and moving beyond the book smarts is important. I think it's in most (if not all) students best interest to gain research experience before graduating.

There are multiple ways to do this: choose coursework that includes independent research as part of the course, do an independent study with a professor in your department or a department you're interested in, do an undergraduate thesis if you're really willing to take on the work load, or gain your research experience over the summer.

Many universities have research experience for undergraduates (REU) programs that take place over the summer. These are programs specifically designed with undergrads in mind. They typically don't require any previous research experience, although some may require certain coursework or that you be in you junior or senior year of your degree. You'll work with a faculty member and you'll be paid to do research. Housing is also usually provided.

Courtesy: National Science Foundation
The experience you have in an REU will depend on the project itself and the faculty member running the project. You may find yourself working under the guidance of a graduate student on a daily basis or you may find that you do your assigned work and check in with the faculty member every few days or so. Most REUs accept only ten or so students and they can be quite competitive. Check out this PDF from the University of Wisconsin-Madison on what an REU is, applying for one, and why you should do one.

If an REU isn't for you, there are still plenty of other options. Doing an independent study for a semester or two allows you to work one-on-one with a professor and assist with his/her research. You can develop a deep understanding of a specific topic, learn about what the research process is like, and earn a grade and credits for your efforts. If you play your cards right and enjoy the experience, that professor you work with can also be a great reference, as he/she will really get to know you over the time.

There are many parts of the research process: the initial design, applying for funding, preliminary data collection, experiment design, redesign, data analysis, and writing up your results. Try and get experience in as many of these areas as possible or talk to your professors or supervisors about their experiences. This is a time in your life when you can gain experience and learn a lot from your supervisors and other project mentors. It may seem a bit intimidating, but everyone knows you're an undergraduate, a newbie. The point is to contribute and learn. 

Whether you choose to do an REU, an independent study, a larger undergraduate thesis, or purposefully enroll in courses with research as a component, there is nothing like gaining hands-on experience. You'll discover whether or not you like working in a lab or want to work in the field. You'll find out if you're great at designing your own projects or if you're better at following directions. A career as a research scientist is not for everyone just as fieldwork is not for everyone or lab work. The only way you will find any of this out is by exploring it yourself. Having these experiences will set you apart and make you more unique as an applicant for jobs or graduate programs. I don't think it's a stretch to say that you need to have some sort of research experience to be a competitive applicant for graduate programs, as more and more people are pursing post-graduate degrees. Potential graduate advisors want to know that you can do the research you're applying to work with them for. They don't want to send you out to the field and find out you can't stand the bugs and want to come home! Regardless of whether you want to apply to grad school, you should gain some research experience because you'll leave university with a better understanding of the work you are best at and the work you enjoy.

This is around the time when some REU applications are due. I've listed some REUs below, some of which are funded through the National Science Foundation (NSF).

NSF-funded project with the Enchinacea Project with opportunities for undergraduates, recent graduates, or even graduate students.
Experience for high-school student, undergraduates, and even teachers with Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory.
REU with Models in Evolution, Ecology, and Systematics through Kent State.
Aquatic Chemical Ecology REU through Georgia Tech sponsored by NSF.
NSF-sponsored ten week program for undergraduates to do independent and collaborative research in the Chihuahuan Desert

For more REUs, check out the NSF website.

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