Let’s start there. Do you, REALLY, want to do research? Or do you happen to want to because everyone’s telling you you should? That’s an important question. Because research is not your easy-as-pie, three-point-essay-and-I’m-done kind of thing. It will probably break your soul to limits you never thought possible. You will have dreams, and nightmares, about it. You will wish at times that you never got into it. All of your friends will know about it, sometimes to nauseating extents. And if you’re serious about it, it’s a big commitment. So start there.
That said, half of the time it is exactly because of these things that research is worth it. If you happen to love what you’re researching, well, all of the above still apply, but for some masochistic reason you tend to love it.
Finding the right research project for you may be harder than finding your soulmate, but at the same time, finding the right research may give you as much satisfaction as anything else in your life that’s worthwhile (Yes, the research can be that good. And so can the life partner. Set your stakes high, please. Both of them are out there, I promise).
Since I jumped around in labs for the entirety of my undergraduate years and I’m still in one, here’s whatever little advice I can give you to make your research matchmaking experience as easy on your heart and soul as possible (of course, it’s non-comprehensive, and it’s only my take on it. It’s also mostly lab-based, not humanities based, though a lot of it applies to both; so take it with a grain of salt):
- Please, for the love of God, be sure to know what you’re getting into. Don’t just walk into a lab and ask if they’ll take you and start working on whatever they throw at you. You will probably be miserable afterwards.
- If you don’t know if you want to work in a lab or not, consider taking relevant lab courses first before getting into a lab yourself. You will get a good survey of the techniques you will be employing in a real research lab and can also ask around in the course for potential research openings.
- Yes, it is true that you will hardly get to the cool stuff until you’ve been in a lab for a while. So starting early is not a bad thing. Do not be afraid to take even an entire semester to find the lab that is right for you, because sometimes that is how long it takes. It took me a semester off from labs entirely to find myself back in the game, and then I switched again. It’s OK. It’s about what you want to do, remember?
- While research is important, the priority it has in your life should be decided by you, and not your principal investigator. If you don’t want to come to lab at night or on weekends to do research, say so. Balance it out. Decide what sacrifices you’d be willing to make before that even comes into question. Likewise, make sure to ask what it means for you to work for a particular lab, including hours, lab meetings and so on. A complaint I heard often was that many people did not realize how much of their time would be spent doing lab-related things.
- Do your research. If you want to work on something that nobody does at Cornell, either transfer, change tactics or see what combination of people may work with you so that you can put together that research project. If your primary advisor is going to be outside Cornell, just talk a lot about it beforehand
- Independent study is an option, but honestly, if you’re not completely into the field that the professors you’re trying to work with are in, you’re working against a current. And you will probably lose. There are so many resources available. Do not waste your time, your energy or your enthusiasm on a project you can’t complete, and be honest and straightforward with your advisors about it before committing to something you may not finish in time.
- Don’t be afraid to ask questions, and remember that professors are there, but so are grad students and undergrads who are themselves working in the labs you are trying to get into. Get the insider’s info: find out which Ph.D. candidates are good to work with. Find out what you can and can’t get away with in a lab. Undergrads sometimes give a more valuable insider’s view than anyone else. Remember that we’re all going through the same things, and if you hear a student complaining about something, don’t write it off immediately … They may be on to something you’ll want to know before committing 10 hours of your week to a project (or more).
- While a thesis is a noble thing to try to accomplish, it’s not worth your sanity. Yes, it is possible to get a thesis finished if you start your senior year. Yes, it is possible to not get a thesis done if you started with the research as a freshman. It’s a case-to-case basis. Just keep in mind what you’re trying to accomplish.
- Last, but not least, remember that people are people, white lab coats or not. Everyone makes mistakes, everyone wants a free weekend once in a while, everyone has social connections that are important, everyone has life fall down on them sometimes. Your lab, if you’re there for long enough, is going to become something like a family for you (or at least it should). Treat it with respect, and don’t be afraid to get involved. After all, if you’re not willing to get involved, there are tons of courses out there that don’t have that as a requirement. Good luck!
Florencia Ulloa ’11 is a research assistant in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior.She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Innocent Bystander appears periodically this semester.