How to Make the Most Out of Your Summer Research Position
Congratulations on acquiring an undergraduate summer research position! Paid or unpaid, this can be a great chance to explore what academic research is like and acquire skills both at the bench and beyond. In this article, I will primarily address how those in experimental life sciences can make the most of their summer; however, many things will translate to other fields. Please keep in mind these are simply observations/ suggestions, and that everyone has their own priorities and goals.
Before you start your new job, outline why you are doing this job and what you want to get out of it. From testing out if research is for you, learning about a field to improving your scientific communication skills, have these goals in mind during the summer as various professional development events occur. In addition, ensure you and your supervisor know what your goal for the summer is (ie. learn experimental techniques, have your own research project, help a graduate student finish their project, continue onto a thesis) and if that goal is realistic. I found having these goals and objectives written out helped me prioritize how much time I spent going to talks, giving presentations, writing, and doing experiments etc.
In the lab, it is vital to be open-minded. It doesn’t matter if you worked in another lab before, each lab has their own quirks that you should consider before you decide if it is for you. If you are mentored by another graduate student or post-doc, be as considerate as possible. Specifically, if you promise to do something or show up at a certain time, follow through with it. If you are unsure about a procedure, it is better to rephrase what you think you are suppose to do than to simply nod and mess it up. Be upfront with your time commitment and what you hope to gain during your time in the lab.
On the other hand, be inquisitive and think while in the lab. There is no one way to do a protocol, so it is important to understand why steps are done and which ones are extremely crucial vs those which are salvageable. Furthermore, if you see someone else doing an interesting technique, consider asking them if they can explain their experiment and let you shadow them for the day.
Finally, keep a record of what you are doing. Even if you don’t think you need it, it is better to have a copy of a protocol for future reference (especially if you work at another lab that does not use that technique). Concentrations of stock reagents, and how buffers are made are important things to note down.
Away from the bench, make the most of your time in an academic research setting. Go to seminars/ journal clubs, interact with graduate students & post-docs, and perhaps even give your own presentation(s)! This summer is a good chance to see what it is really like to pursue graduate school. I found talking to graduate students & post-docs extremely helpful since they tend to have a more realistic viewpoint of how “hard” academia research is, and will bring up factors you may have never considered.
At the end of the day, have fun in the lab. Research can be extremely frustrating as you troubleshoot, but getting along with your labmates can make the process more enjoyable (or at the very least, misery loves company right?). Good luck with your summer research!