Navigating Your Research Experience and Making the Most of Rough Waters

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Navigating Your Research Experience and Making the Most of Rough Waters


Victoria DiTomasso, Summer 2016 SPS Intern, City University of New York – Hunter College

Hunter College of the CUNY

 Drs. Jackie Faherty, Emily Rice and Kelle Cruz. Photo courtesy of Victoria DiTomasso

If you sit in on a group meeting of the Brown Dwarfs in New York City (BDNYC) research team, you will see a group of students and research scientists discussing their astronomical research on brown dwarfs, colloquially known as “failed stars.” You may notice the group members receiving feedback on their work, as well as on how they present it. You will probably note that BDNYC consists mostly of women.

Led by Drs. Kelle Cruz (CUNY1 Hunter College/AMNH2), Jackie Faherty (AMNH), and Emily Rice (CUNY CSI3/AMNH), the members of BDNYC investigate a variety of topics in brown dwarf science, have published over a dozen research papers, presented the group’s work at dozens of conferences, and have traveled to observatories in Arizona, Hawaii, and Chile to use telescopes there. I have been a member of the BDNYC research group since the summer of 2015, and I have found that my own success, and that of my fellow BDNYC-ers, has been largely thanks to the mentorship of our group leaders and the support of the group as a whole.

Drs. Rice and Cruz agree that the quality of your research experience and your relationship with your research advisor are limited by the mentoring skills of the advisor and the environment of the lab. As a student, however, you can be proactive about finding a supportive research advisor and a lab in which you can succeed.

Before pursuing a professor to work with, Dr. Rice recommends, “[T]hink two steps ahead—know what you want to get out of the research experience.” This isn’t just a chance to see what you like in research or an opportunity to practice presenting at conferences. You should also think of your potential research advisor as someone who will be writing your letters of recommendation for graduate school or for a job application.

You will need to do your research (pun intended) into a lab to assess if it could be a good fit for you. Dr. Cruz warns, “In physics, there is a culture of making the most out of one's accomplishments that one possibly can, and that can be very intimidating to a lot of people. It seems to disproportionately discourage women. In my experience, the more women there are in a group, the less of that there is.”

Dr. Rice has had a different experience. Her PhD thesis advisor was a male, senior faculty member, “but he was supremely understanding of personal and family issues.” It was from him that she learned “the more understanding and supportive you are, the more your students can thrive.”

Although the gender makeup of a lab can be an indicator of how collaborative or competitive it may be, it is best to talk to students that have experience working in the lab.

Dr. Cruz suggests, “If you've figured out that you like more individual attention from your advisor or that you like to work more independently, the people in the lab can give an accurate description.” She says, “It is even okay to send an ‘I don’t know you’ email. Like, ‘Dear Julie, I see that you worked in the Smith Lab last year. I’m considering joining that lab. Would you have five to ten minutes to chat on the phone about that experience?’” This is an especially important step for women students, who are at higher risk of facing harassment throughout their career, because “if a lab has a problem, people will let you know about it privately.”

Despite even the best research, you might find yourself in a lab or with a research advisor that is not a great fit for you. Dr. Rice had a research experience early on in her career in which the advising and peer community were less than optimal for her. To students in a similar situation, she suggests, “As you’re going along, evaluate your relationships and what you’re getting out of them. You may need to find someone else to fill the gaps…make the mentorship you need, and that includes peer mentorship as well as faculty mentorship.” Dr. Cruz also stressed the importance of building a network of peers. “It takes a village of mentors at all seniorities, [and students should] be deliberate about recognizing the mentorship opportunities.”

If you are in a lab and having a negative experience, Dr. Cruz recommends, “taking as many learning opportunities as you can away from it so that you don’t reproduce [the experience later].” If you had a bad research experience, it is important to be cognizant of what made it bad. “Was it the science, the advisor, the place, or the research?” Dr. Cruz says.

Be careful of falling into the trap of thinking your experience was negative because you felt that you were not making progress in your research. “There is very little wasted time in research,” notes Dr. Rice. “Inefficiency [in research] is where the interesting things get done. The inefficiency is necessary because that’s what research is. It’s not a linear path to an answer.”

Research experience is extremely valuable to students, because, as Dr. Cruz says, “Being a good scientist is not about getting good grades in a science class—it’s about being good at research.” Students have the capacity to set themselves up for a positive experience and to get the most out of a less-than-ideal situation. Even a wholly unpleasant experience can provide you with insights that will impact your decisions when it comes to your career path.

  1. City University of New York.
  2. American Museum of Natural History.
  3. College of Staten Island.

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