The Experience of Research as an Undergrad

Ah, research! Cutting-edge technology, exciting chemicals, pushing the limits of knowledge with your own two hands! But is that all there is to it?

The reality is that pushing the limits of knowledge requires a lot of inspiration, and takes a really freaking long time. Doing research is not your run-of-the-mill undergraduate lab. There, you do one experiment, say, synthesize aspirin, which has already been well characterized and done numerous times by a vast number of people You then you write about your specific attempt and all is well and good. In research, you don’t have the luxury of previous renditions of the same experiment because they’ve already been done, so what’s the point?

Instead, you need to find a new topic to study so that you can appease: 1) your supervisor, 2) your advisory panel, and 3) a funding agency, if you get there. Each of these require a more original and “exciting” experiment, and often those are quite hard to find. In fact, losing your research topic because someone else has already studied it, Usually, people tend to find new topics by looking into similar topics and tweaking them slightly, or delving deeper into a topic that has only been generally covered. This involves reading A LOT of papers so that you can become an expert on the current status of the research area you’re interested in. Also, keep in mind that while you will have help along the way, ultimately you must decide on the topic on your own because it is YOUR project, not your supervisor’s; otherwise, what’s the point?

Finally, after digging through trawls of papers, you have solidified your research topic and you are pretty confident that it will be exciting enough to give you a degree (let’s not get ahead of ourselves to the grant stage yet). However, since your topic is so new and exciting, you have no idea how you’re going to do it or if it will even work. You can ask around for help from people in your surroundings, but odds are they are not familiar enough with your topic. After all, you chose this topic specifically because it is new, and nobody has really researched it yet. So how do you proceed? By, guess what, reading more papers! In this case reading papers is like an extension of asking people in your surroundings. You won’t get the exact answer you’re looking for, but you can get an approximation of what you can do to get results. Also, thanks to modern technology, there are now internet resources such as research gate to help you in addition to reading a ton of papers, so all is not lost.

After much scrounging around, you are finally ready to plunge into research, exciting! Time to collect data!

…but collecting significant data also takes a long time and along the way you will inevitably have experiments that fail, reagents that degrade, part of your project getting scooped, etc. Eventually, you will succeed in enough experiments to get data to write a thesis and get your graduate degree, but if you plan on pursuing academia look forward to having to do this all again for your PhD! And then your post-doc! And maybe another post-doc! And then if a university accepts you into their faculty, your assistant professorship, which is like a more intense post-doc! And at the very end of the road, when you are finally offered tenure, you’ll realize that the things you have been doing this whole time are the same things you’ll be doing from now on as well: reading papers, creating experiment proposals, reading more papers, doing experiments, etc. This is also why professors always seem so old – getting to that stage takes a long time.

All this may sound really daunting and maybe even discouraging, but this is just a run-through of the drier parts of research. When you’re knee-deep in some sprawling experiment (and they always become sprawling), it’ll seem like there is never enough time. When your experiment fails and you have to read more papers, you’ll learn cool things you didn’t know even from all your previous education. You’ll meet people who will be experts about things you’ve never even heard about. You’ll get to use cutting-edge technologies and exciting chemicals just like you thought you would. And, at the end, when your experiments do succeed and you have collected enough data on top of all the knowledge you have amassed during the process, you will really have discovered something that nobody has ever seen before and nobody yet knows about, until YOU tell them about it! Now tell me that isn’t the coolest thing ever. (You really can’t.) The long path of research definitely has many downer moments and dry patches, but it is equally full of excitement and discovery. As long as you have patience and are undaunted by occasional failures, you truly will be on the frontline of pushing the boundaries of human knowledge.

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