More Advice For Inexperienced Students Beginning Research

In addition to communicating effectively and demonstrating that you are driven, here are some more pointers for students who are starting a research position (or any job for that matter). If you think that what is written below is common sense, great. I, however, am surprised by the number of young students I meet who’ve never learned professionalism basics and need to hear advice from someone. Keep in mind that if you are a minority/disadvantaged student, you may be judged more harshly for transgressions.

  • Be on time for meetings. Your mentor is a busy person. If you show up late to a scheduled meeting, you may be perceived as disrespectful, disorganized, unreliable or clueless. If you show up late to an interview, you won’t be hired. If you are running late due to unforeseen circumstances, call or email to let the person know.
  • Be present during meetings. Take notes because you won’t remember all of the things you discuss with your mentor. Don’t check your phone, read or send text messages. Listen attentively and ask questions if you don’t understand something. If you come back to a future meeting and bring up the same questions/issues that were already addressed without showing any progress, this will reflect poorly on you. Don’t pretend that you know things that you don’t know. Be honest. Send follow-up emails after meetings to explicitly state what you are doing next and what you think your mentor is doing to help. This will help ensure that there are no misunderstandings.
  • Schedule meetings to discuss important issues. Even if your mentor has an “open door policy,” do not barge in and assume it is a good time to discuss something that is important to you (e.g. talk about work performance, ask for a job/raise, complain about a coworker). This approach often backfires and you receive a negative reaction, compared to having a dedicated time during which you can calmly raise an important issue. Remember, your mentor is a busy person so catching him/her off guard with an issue that distracts heavily from the activity he/she was engaged in may be annoying. If you want to discuss your research goals at length, schedule a time.
  • Do not procrastinate. Do you have a presentation due in a month? Don’t prepare slides 1-2 days before they are due, and send to your mentor for feedback, expecting he/she will drop everything to look over slides that you made at the last minute. Even if he/she can look at them, you won’t have time to do anything with the feedback before your presentation. You will miss out on learning opportunities if you don’t plan in advance, and you again risk being perceived as disrespectful, disorganized, unreliable or clueless. Even if you think your mentor is a procrastinator, you cannot afford to be one.
  • Take initiative. With some jobs, you are told exactly what to do, and you are paid specific amounts to complete tasks. For example, you may have had a clerical job in which if you complete an assigned task (e.g. filing papers) before your allotted time runs out, then you may get to relax for the remaining time because your job is done. You may even feel like you are gaming the system by getting paid to do nothing. Or, if you’ve had a front desk job that depends on people calling/showing up, then you may sit back and relax while no one is around and text your friends or surf the internet. Again, you may feel like you have a cushy job that pays you to do nothing. Research doesn’t work this way. Professional jobs don’t work this way. How much you accomplish is up to you. Sure, you cannot do whatever experiments you want or spend your mentor’s grant money, but if you have been given a task to learn something or find something out, then how much you learn or find out is dependent on how much effort you put into the task. Your mentor will notice if you are learning based on the sophistication with which you engage in conversations with him/her and others in lab. To move from lower-paying hourly jobs to higher-paying jobs that require deeper thought, independence, and leadership, you need to take initiative to acquire technical skills, learn to think on your own, assign tasks to yourself, and be helpful to others. If you are being given a chance to prove yourself, then take full advantage of the opportunity! If you are not fully committed, then step aside and let someone else have a go.
  • If you think things are easy, then you aren’t doing enough. Related to the previous point: science is hard, medicine is hard, engineering is hard, all subjects are hard. There is a lot we don’t know, both as individuals and collectively as humans. If you think a subject is easy, then you don’t really understand it. Sure, a class you’ve taken on a subject may have been easy for you, or you may be better than your peers at understanding some or many subjects. However, if you put some personal effort into learning any given subject, even one that you are naturally good at, you will notice there are many unanswered questions and plenty of work that can be done to try to answer some of those questions. If you think your mentor has assigned you a very easy research task, then complete it, figure out how it fits into the bigger picture and demonstrate to your mentor that you “get it” and are ready for more.