A foot in the lab door

Nowadays, research isn’t something done only by doctors or career scientists. Students who want to get ahead in life, even undergraduates, should be getting out there and establishing themselves as competent researchers.

Photo © Horia Varlan/Flickr.com
Photo © Horia Varlan/Flickr.com

Nowadays, research isn’t something done only by doctors or career scientists. Students who want to get ahead in life, even undergraduates, should be getting out there and establishing themselves as competent researchers.

That’s easier said than done, though. Getting your research recognized when there aren’t any neat degrees listed after your name can be difficult. That’s why students—particularly in the sciences—should be excited about the upcoming student research symposium here at Portland State.

Students currently involved in research projects have until March 8 to apply for a spot to present their work. The students selected will have the opportunity to present either in a poster format or in a 15-minute presentation of a paper they authored or coauthored.

This is not only an excellent networking opportunity for students eager to move forward in their careers, but also a great way to learn how research is presented and to practice doing so for the future. And these days, any practical experience is worth its weight in gold.

Dean Atkinson, an associate professor in the chemistry department, believes undergraduate research is particularly important for students considering graduate school. “In my area of expertise, virtually all graduate students are involved in research,” Atkinson said.

According to the article “The Importance of Undergraduate Research” published in Science, “publications are great,” but it’s the practical experience gained and the connections formed that matter. “Without those things, today’s top tier-graduate programs may not even look at you,” the article says.

Atkinson thinks students who present at the symposium will benefit from it in more ways than one. “It will be good for practicing scientific communication, which is especially important for conveying one’s thoughts clearly to other professionals,” he said.

The symposium also benefits the school. Studies have shown that departments with undergraduate research tend to have a higher student retention rate than those without undergraduate research.

Additionally, the symposium will likely garner the attention of research-oriented organizations or programs. Not only does this increase the likelihood of receiving more funding, it puts PSU on the radar as a research institution like our partner school, Oregon Health and Science University.

Never underestimate the power of a good reputation.

With any luck, the symposium will encourage students to think about becoming involved in research. According to Atkinson, the benefits students reap from research prior to graduate study are significant.

“There are two key reasons undergraduates should get involved in research,” he said. “First, the real-life experience is valuable, particularly for those considering graduate school or a laboratory career.” The second is developing a working relationship with a faculty member. “The closer collaboration is good for mentorship and letters of recommendation,” he said.

This is all well and good for students who have already started their research, but what about those who haven’t yet begun establishing themselves in the field? Although it may be too late to start a project for this year’s symposium, it’s not too early to start a project for next year, as the symposium is meant to be an annual event.

Trying to find good research experience is difficult. Anybody can tell you that. It’s more like looking for a job or applying for prestigious scholarships than what students usually associate with academic pursuits. It involves three main components: networking, thorough investigation and persistence.

Atkinson, an adviser himself, says that faculty advisers, particularly in the sciences, can point students in the right direction. PSU has numerous options available, including the McNair Scholars program, the National Science Foundation Research Experiences for Undergraduates program in physics, and funding for faculty research that allows professors to take on undergraduate students to assist in their research.

Upon finding a potential research experience, a student then needs to check it out carefully. The research should be performed under an advisor with a doctoral degree and at an institution with a good reputation. Ideally, the research should be relevant to the student’s eventual career goals, but this may not be possible in all cases.

Finally, students should be ready for rejection. Paid research positions, in particular, are difficult to obtain as an undergraduate without prior experience, so persistence is key.

Atkinson recommends performing research without pay—possibly as an intern—before doing it for credit or income. This not only helps get one’s foot in the door, but also helps students become more confident in their abilities as researchers.

For those who already have research projects underway, the symposium is a fantastic opportunity to connect with other students and professionals. And for those who have not yet begun a research project, perhaps next year’s symposium could be the inspiration needed to take the plunge and join the world of research.