John Pearson






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Dear Undergrads: How to win at research (or at least get a good rec letter) Pt. 2

07 November 2014

This is the second part of a series on how to have success as an undergraduate researcher. It’s somewhat in the spirit of the much better How to Be a Good Graduate Student, albeit a little more tongue-in-cheek. Mostly, I’m trying to be honest about two infrequently acknowledged truths about undergraduate research:

  1. We know you need a recommendation letter. Rightly or wrongly, many students with little inclination toward research feel that they absolutely must get research experience in order to be competitive applicants to certain graduate programs (cough cough medical school). And maybe this is true. And if it is, I’m not going to judge you for that. When I was an undergrad, I badly wanted to get into graduate school, and if someone had told me I had to spend a semester working at a pet shop to give myself a fighting chance, I probably would have done it. Bottom line: I don’t expect students to idolize me or my career choices, I just don’t want them to suck so badly that writing a letter for them becomes an agonizing experience.

    This is why I began laying out in my last installment The Guide to Being Remembered, a set of principles for success in undergraduate research. The first, if you want to save yourself the reading, is that it pays not to be a flake.

    In this installment Precept Number 2, but first, the other unacknowledged truth:

  2. We’re kind of setting you up. Not on purpose, of course. But many students’ expectations of what research will be like (or can achieve for them) are wildly unrealistic. This is due in part to universities. At my graduate alma mater, every undergrad had to write a senior thesis, and in advance of this daunting prospect, students were handed a publication filled with stories of super-high-achievers. This at a school full of super-high-achievers. Which basically means that the stories filling this publication were stories of hard workers, the exceptionally talented, and in many respects, the lucky.

    Reading this publication was not a recipe for success. Because the undergraduate research experience was billed as the capstone of an entire college career, many of my very smart, very hard-working (now PhD-holding) undergraduate friends were devastated when their senior thesis science projects failed. This, despite the fact that science involves a tremendous number of projects that don’t work. The way the system was experienced, you got one shot, and the outcome of that project branded you a success or a failure.

    Ironically, many years on, I now understand that in many cases, this failure was inevitable. First, because progress at the limits of knowledge is small, even for professionals. Second, because it’s really hard to pick a project for an undergraduate. For PhD students, it can take several years before they understand enough to choose a good research topic, and even then, picking one that is realistically achievable requires lots of mentor guidance. And this is the situation for people dedicating five years (and often more) to the process. Many undergraduates would like a first-author paper (like a friend of a friend’s cousin had when she was an undergrad and a Marshall Scholar), and they would like it to happen in ten hours a week over two semesters on a schedule that works around their classes and extracurriculars.

    You can also get very, very rich betting everything on black at the roulette table and letting it ride.

    The good news is, there are lots of things you can do to increase your chances of having a good (meaning fun, educational, career-advancing) research project. And many of them are simple and do not require you to be either lucky or a genius.

And so we proceed to…

The Guide to Being Remembered

Precept 2: Spend time in the lab. Go to lab meeting.

Most of the science I know I did not learn from reading papers. Or let me put it another way: no one has enough time to learn science by reading papers. When I was a student and totally in love with physics, I used to leaf through textbooks on advanced topics and make mental lists of all the things I needed to learn to be prepared for research. These were very long lists. What I didn’t know at the time was that my lists were hopelessly misinformed—not because they were filled with the wrong things, but because I had no idea of how all the items on them fit together. The list of important items, as it turns out, was much smaller, and fit together in a conceptual framework that gave me ways of organizing what I did know and roughly mapping what I didn’t. In psychological terms, I lacked a schema for physics. And, surprise, surprise, the most efficient way to build that schema is not by constructing it on your own.

So I am telling you to hang out in the lab. Do everything possible to attend lab meetings. I am assuming, of course, that you are working with someone who has a lab, or at least a place where the group members congregate, as well as some kind of weekly meeting to verify that the grad students have not been eaten by wolves.

But why, you ask? Why go hang out in an uncomfortable place with strangers when you can study much more efficiently at the library or in your dorm room — on your own schedule, no less (which is, let’s face it, probably late at night). Two reasons:

  1. If you hang around, we will get to know you. And we will remember you fondly and write you a better letter.

  2. You will learn a ton more. Your biggest problem when tackling a new research field is learning where to allocate your effort, figuring out which topics and concepts are most important. Experienced researchers are a little better at this, but mostly, we just do it by asking friends what we should be reading and paying attention to. The key here is that by hanging out in the lab, you will get this benefit for free. You will get lots of content out of reading textbooks and papers, and there’s no substitute for that, but it’s only through the many informal conversations and lab discussions that take place within a research group that you really learn how to think like a scientist. That’s a process of socializing, and I don’t know any better way to do it.

Note also that there’s a positive feedback effect: when you take part in lab culture, both intellectual and social, you have more fun working on research. You have more informal conversations with lab members. You get more mentoring. Most importantly, you think of yourself as part of a group, and as you do, you probably think more about your research and will probably have better ideas and better results. Science, like CrossFit, is a cult; we’re not going to make you join, but the more you put into it, the more you will get out of it.

Next time: Okay, but how do I actually do good science?