How to Make the Most of your Research Experiment

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How to Make the Most of your Research Experiment

Top five habits of highly effective undergraduate researchers


Steven Feller, SPS Advisor, Professor of Physics, Coe College, Cedar Rapids, IA
Jennifer Hampton, Associate Professor of Physics, Hope College, Holland, MI
Catherine Mader, Professor of Physics, Hope College, Holland, MI

Hope College

Kyla Koboski (Hope College '14) and Jennifer Hampton work with a scanning electron microscope used by a variety of research groups at Hope College. Photo by Catherine Mader.

1: Clarify Expectations

Research is not necessarily a punch-the-clock type of job. Exactly when and how the work gets done can depend significantly on the type of project you are working on. Your advisor might expect you to be in the lab at specific times or for specific shifts, or might be more flexible about exactly when you work as long as deadlines are met. It’s important to understand your advisor’s expectations about your schedule and the amount of work you will be doing.

2: Document Everything

Make careful, detailed records of everything in a dedicated research notebook. This includes the conditions of your experiment, analysis, or simulation, as well as the names of files and the locations where they are saved. Print things out and tape them in your notebook, if that is useful. While doing so, think about the researchers who will come after you and whether they will be able to understand what you’ve done. Use the lab notebook as a journal to record what you’ve done, as well as your thoughts about the results. It’s important to record observations and conclusions (even if they are only tentative), not just raw measurement data or analysis parameters. Ideally, writing your notes and making your records should happen at the same time that the work itself is being done. It’s inevitable that you will get behind from time to time, but don’t let yourself get too far behind! And don’t forget to add units to your numbers!

3: Reflect and Plan Regularly

Regularly review what you have done and what you plan to do next. The time you spend doing this might be scheduled by your advisor (group meetings or individual/small group conversations), but even if someone hasn’t developed a schedule for you, do it for yourself. It will help you to keep on track and make steady progress.

4: Ask Questions

If you don’t understand something your mentor says or asks you to read, ask questions. It’s important that you understand what you are doing and why you are doing it. Similarly, your mentor may ask questions of you. Don’t take this as a sign of lack of trust or an indication that he or she doesn’t think you are capable. Your advisor needs to understand what you are doing and why you are doing it. Your advisor also needs to be certain that you understand what you are doing and why you are doing it.

5: Take initiative and become independent

Learn as much about your project as possible and make as much progress as you can. Ask lots of questions. Think about the details of your project. How does what you’re doing contribute to the big picture? If you’re not sure of the answer, ask! Have conversations with the other people in your research group, whether they are other undergraduates, graduate students, or postdocs. Talk about all the projects in the group and how they fit together (or not!) into the bigger picture. Make suggestions on how to proceed or what steps to take next in the investigation. Be willing to make decisions on how to proceed when mentors aren’t around, within the scope of your understanding of the project. //

On Doing Research: A note from advisor to student

Why do faculty do research with undergraduate students? It is a part of our commitment to teaching.Faculty research mentors want not only to generate new knowledge in their fields, but also help their students become researchers and continue generating new knowledge. Remember the motivation of your mentor as your research experience progresses, and treat a research opportunity as a learning experience in which you develop skills, not just as a job in which you do what you are told to do.

When you first start a research project, you will be given papers to read. You will be encouraged to help others in the group with their experiments and join group meetings. You will learn to make samples and use instruments or software. You will be given your own research notebook for recording background information, experimental details, errors, and comments on how things went with earlier work. At this stage, the student–faculty relationship is designed to be less formal than it is during class. It will involve much discussion and encouragement.

As you progress, you will become more independent. You will no longer just help others but will take on more significant roles in specific investigations. You may present findings to outside audiences, rather than contributing information to be presented by others. You may even have the opportunity to publish articles on your findings, with input from the team. You can step out of your “home base” and explore research opportunities in new groups and new institutions, or even in industry.

Once you’ve become a proficient undergraduate researcher, you will start to mentor younger students. When you do, reflect back on your own experience and find ways to help your mentees develop good habits like those listed on page 14. //

Tales from the Lab

"I remember an undergraduate from a large university who wasnít doing well and wasn't certain he should even continue to major in physics. One of his faculty mentors convinced him he should give research a try so he could see what doing physics was all about.  He then participated in the Hope College Physics Research Experiences for Undergraduates program. Not only did he do an awesome job on his projects, but he found out he really enjoyed doing physics research. He has since completed his bachelor's degree and is continuing to do exciting research while pursuing his PhD.” //

—Catherine Mader

"My research depends on equipment shared by a number of groups on campus. This means that the group must be flexible with the timing of when the work is done. Communication is vital, not only between me and my students, but also among the students themselves. One time last summer, that communication began to break down, which led to a backlog in planned tasks and some frustration among the group. After talking through the issues, the students took matters into their own hands. They put together a weekly schedule on the whiteboard in the lab where everyone could record equipment-use plans for the coming days. This helped the whole group be more aware of what was coming, and helped me know what the group was doing as well.” //

—Jennifer Hampton

"Several years ago a student in my lab took the initiative late one evening to make a borosilicate glass.It was a high-silica-content sample, and he kept pushing the temperature of the furnace higher and higher. Finally at around 3 a.m. he called to say he couldn’t find the platinum crucible in the furnace! It took me a few seconds to comprehend what had happened, but then I told the student to turn the furnace off and check it in the morning. Josh had melted the crucible, and a small plug of platinum remained at the bottom of the furnace! I didn’t mind really; the student had made much progress before that point and stumbled upon the fact that the furnace doesn’t have uniform temperature. This work led to a comprehensive study of alkali borosilicate glasses.” //

—Steve Feller

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