Out of the Classroom, Into the Lab

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Pathways - Advice from Experienced Voices

Out of the Classroom, Into the Lab

Tips for Getting the Most Out of Summer Research


Josh Fuchs at the University of North Carolina

The author stands in front of the Gemini North Telescope located on Hawaii's Mauna Kea, where he spent the summer of 2010. Photo courtesy of Josh Fuchs.

The school year is ending, and you have accepted a research position for the summer, either at your school or somewhere else. Pause for a moment. You don't want to wander blindly into it without thinking ahead about how to make the most of this opportunity.

I was fortunate to work on different research projects every summer I was an undergraduate student at Rhodes College. Those experiences taught me a great deal of physics, helped to clarify my interests, and led me to what I currently study in graduate school.

However, it was certainly not an easy path. Science never is. There are many things I learned during those summers and later on that, had I known them at the time, would have helped me make the most of my undergraduate summer research. Here are a few tips:


THINK about whether the project you're considering has a well-defined beginning and end. Depending on your situation, you will either be given a project to work on, or you will get to decide between a few different projects. Either way, it might be helpful to work with your advisor to write a few paragraphs about the project's motivations and goals. You want to understand the project before you get started. Try to plot the path you will follow.


If you get to choose a project, do not immediately choose the one you know the most about! Remember, one of the primary benefits of undergraduate research is learning something new. If you choose a project you know very little about, it will push you in a new direction, and you might discover something new you enjoy.


Read up on the subject you will be exploring before you get started. Reading abstracts of papers or sites such as Astrobites (http://astrobites.com) or Chembites (http://chembites.org/) can be helpful. But remember that you are not expected to know everything about what you will be researching. Otherwise, there would be no point to the research!


Take the opportunity to talk to other students around you and learn about their summer projects. Many programs or schools organize weekly meetings; if yours doesn't, take the initiative and start meetings yourself. Something as simple as getting together once a week at lunch will help you learn a great deal and also strengthen your network and relationships with the others in the group.


If you're doing research at a new institution, take the opportunity to learn from other researchers. Ask what they are doing and request lab tours. This is a great way to learn about all the variety of research projects happening at different places.


Cultivate a good relationship with your advisor. Odds are, this person will write you a recommendation letter in the future. The best way to connect is to communicate clearly. Discuss expectations for the summer. As the summer progresses, ask for feedback so you can improve. Communication is the key to this whole process. Be open and honest.


Ask questions. You are there to learn, rather than to know everything at the onset. As the summer progresses, see if you can answer your own questions first. One of the most difficult things about learning to research is recognizing the progress you have made. You should ask a lot of questions early on as you learn different processes and methods. Eventually you will reach a point where you do not need to rely on your advisor for small things. It is a hard balance to strike, and one that I did not do a good job of at the beginning. But the growth you will achieve when you reach this step will be enormous.


Expect bad days. Research is hard and not always enjoyable. You will make mistakes. The best insight on research I ever heard came from the beginning of a National Science Foundation Research Experience for Undergraduates Summer Program. The director of the program told us all, "We make discoveries here everyday. Ninety-eight percent of them turn out to be mistakes.” This is the nature of science.


Set goals along the way, so you know how the project is progressing. These checkpoints might change as the summer moves along, but they will help you to keep moving along.


Present your work at the end of the summer or at a conference. These are both great things to do. Communicating your science with different audiences is a skill that is imperative to learn.


Most importantly, enjoy yourself. You are probably getting paid to do science. That is a beautiful thing. Learn as much as you can and work hard. But take some time to breathe too. Your research will suffer if you are worn out. Especially if you are in a new place, take the time for explorations outside of the laboratory and learn other things besides physics. //

Josh Fuchs poses with the telescope at Rhodes College that he used in public outreach projects. Photo courtesy of Josh Fuchs.

Beyond the Summer

Want to publish the results of your summer research project? Consider submitting it to the Journal of Undergraduate Research in Physics, a peer-reviewed  online journal of SPS and Sigma Pi Sigma. For more details, visit www.jurp.org.

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Pathways - Advice from Experienced Voices