Academic research opportunities are no longer exclusively reserved for graduate students. At many colleges and universities, undergraduates are given the chance to assist professors with research studies and sometimes conduct their own. Research positions are available in both the physical sciences and social sciences.
Admissions on Track interviewed two college students about their summer research experiences. Ryan is a junior at Hamilton College and spent his summer working as a research fellow to a biology professor. Julia is a junior at Colgate University and spent her summer working as a research assistant for the Religious Studies Department.
Did your college or professor assist you in finding the summer experience?
Ryan: Professors love to talk about their research whenever they find the opportunity. I learned about research positions at Hamilton in my biology classes. I attended a biology department meeting where professors presented their research plans for the summer. We were required to complete a formal application.
Julia: My advisor approached me with the opportunity to be her research assistant for the summer. In order to conduct research over the summer, Colgate University students must either submit proposals for original research or be chosen by professors to assist them with projects they already have in mind. My advisor requested that I conduct preliminary research for her book.
What were your responsibilities?
Ryan: I worked with two other students over this summer. Our research focused on vitamin C synthesis of invertebrates. Our responsibilities had no limits. Our research advisor wanted us to be as independent as possible in our project. Besides teaching us some basic research techniques and helping us with logistics and planning, this was our project.
Julia: I read nine books that had different areas of focus but were all loosely related to the topics of Biblical interpretation, political affiliation, social issues, and religious movements. Because the summer stage was the preliminary portion of her research, I took extensive notes, which she would then use to guide her subsequent research.
What skills did you learn? Professional as well as interpersonal and life skills?
Ryan: In terms of research skills, I learned the often-overlooked importance of keeping an organized and detailed lab notebook. Without this important documentation, your research is virtually invalid and illegitimate. I also learned an array of biology skills from running assays to vitamin C analysis by Liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry (LCMS). Unexpectedly, I learned the important life skill of cooking for myself, as there was no meal plan over the summer
Julia: Because my project was very hands-off, which resulted in little accountability, I acquired self-discipline. I held myself to a tight 9-5 schedule because I knew that if I did not strictly regulate and enforce my hours, I would succumb to a slippery slope of laziness. I learned that work should never consume all other areas of life. For example, I took a three-day weekend in order to attend my favorite artist’s concert; I simply worked a few extra hours in the days leading up to the show.
Did this experience give you any insights into your possible career path?
Ryan: This experience made me think about a career in research. The hours can be difficult since science does not necessarily follow your personal schedule. However, it can also be extremely rewarding. There is no feeling like finding something that no one has ever thought of before, no matter how small.
Julia: When reading about the connection between politics and religious issues, I reacted strongly to the injustice that certain groups experience due to the imposition of others’ religious beliefs into the political arena. I would like to pursue a career path that either involves grassroots political work to overturn these policies, campaigning to change public opinion or assistance through non-profit work to those who are being adversely affected in the current condition.
Was this a paid position or did you receive college credit?
Ryan: This was a paid position. We were required to make an official poster presentation explaining our research and it will be presented to the biology department this fall.
Julia: This was a paid position. With my advisor’s guidance, I am currently working on a piece about the relationship between religion and feminism. I will submit the essay for online publication.
What advice would you give other students looking for research positions?
Ryan: Do not wait for the professors to come to you for research opportunities. It is never too early to start talking to a professor about research. I got my position by volunteering my time during the year by taking care of living research specimens for my advisor’s senior thesis students.
Julia: The best route to landing a research position is to forge a close bond with a professor or advisor. She will then either offer you an opportunity directly because she trusts you to do high-quality work for her, or will point you in the direction of other rewarding experiences.
Admissions on Track wishes Ryan and Julia much success for this academic year and in their future careers.
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