Category: Research

Why and How You Should do Research as an Undergraduate

Why and How You Should do Research as an Undergraduate

Careers in the sciences are centered around research. Whether you want to be a scientist doing the research, a journalist writing about the findings, or a policy-maker or environmental manager using those findings to make decisions, a thorough understanding of the scientific method and the process of research are vital. There is no better time to get acquainted with research than college, when you will likely be surrounded with faculty and graduate students working in a wide variety of fields. Working in a research lab will help you to narrow your professional interests, inform your future career decisions, and give you a taste of what graduate research is like.

How do I get Research Experience?

Depending on your school you have a few options. Most labs are constantly strapped for cash, so they are always willing to accept undergraduate volunteers. If you are a student at a research university (or if you just happen to live near one), all you need to do is find a lab that sounds interesting to you on the school website and email the PI (Principal Investigator) offering your time. In many cases he/she will have a hard time turning away free help! Some schools may offer course credits for working in a lab. If you can get your PI to sign off on it, this is an excellent way to document volunteer research experience on your transcript while (possibly) giving your GPA a boost.

The ideal find would be a paid position working on a research project. Unfortunately for reasons stated above, these are few and far between. There are paid technician roles in many labs that do more repetitive or menial work however, and you may be able to use these as an “in” with the lab manager or PI. For example, if you’ve been working as a tank cleaner or animal feeder for a semester already when the lab has a need for help on an existing project, the PI might offer you the spot before advertising it to other students. Your school might also offer undergraduate research funding that you can apply for, which may or may not include a stipend for you. Consult your PI or your school website to find out what is available to you.

Some schools require an undergraduate thesis or capstone project during your final year. If you haven’t gotten some experience with a research lab by that point, this is your chance! Every school handles this a little differently, and some (mostly American schools as I understand it) only require a thesis of Latin Honors graduates rather than all students. If your school has a formal process of choosing a lab in which to do your thesis then that is the process you should use. Otherwise, it would be wise to start volunteering in a lab well in advance of your thesis time so you are familiar with your lab-mates and the available resources. An undergraduate thesis/capstone project is also a perfect experience to leverage when applying to graduate school.

Finally, I recommend you look into the National Science Foundation REU (Research Experience for Undergraduates) program. I’ve written about the program here, but the idea is that you apply to one or more REU Sites where, once accepted, you get to conduct a research project in a PI’s lab. You are given a stipend, research mentoring, and sometimes room and board. REUs are typically more involved than research at your home institution because most programs last 3-4 months over the summer and are typically a full-time job. The REU program can be helpful if you want to do research in a field not studied at your home institution, or if you aren’t sure whether graduate school is the right path for you.

These are all excellent ways of getting research experience as an undergraduate student. I heavily recommend that anyone working toward a science degree of any kind gain experience with a research lab before graduating. Having a hand in the scientific process early in your academic career can give you an edge in graduate school applications, help you figure out which career path is best for you, and make you a more scientifically literate citizen.

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When and How to Talk to your Research Advisor about Asperger’s

When and How to Talk to your Research Advisor about Asperger’s

Whether in academia or not, you will almost always have a superior, mentor, manager, or advisor of some sort to work under. In most cases you are under no obligation to become close with this person, but in some settings you would be wise to become friends as well as coworkers. This is particularly true in academia, where your research will more than likely take place under the umbrella of a laboratory, and you will need to work very closely with your lab-mates.

The head of a research lab at a university or research institute is often called the “Principal Investigator” or PI. The lab typically caries the name of this person (e.g. Smith Lab). Under the PI, depending on lab size and funding, are one or more Post-Doctoral Research Fellows, graduate students pursuing doctorates and master’s degrees, and sometimes undergraduate staff or volunteers and/or full-time technicians. Depending on where you fit into this hierarchy, you may report to a technician, the grad student or post-doc in charge of your project, or possibly the PI themselves. In each case, there may come a time when you need to discuss your Asperger’s with your superior.

First, you need to determine whether this conversation is necessary or advisable at all. For short-term positions like seasonal fieldwork or situations where you report to a lab manager or graduate student, you might not have to bring it up. If you are comfortable passing as neurotypical and don’t have any serious sensory issues or stimming requirements that would come up while working, I don’t see how explaining your Asperger’s to your supervisor upfront would be necessary. Small accommodations, like needing noise-cancelling headphones to prevent sensory overload in an office environment are often reasonable and common, and most advisors would probably agree to this without an explanation of your diagnosis. More significant accommodations will probably require you to fully discuss your Asperger’s, but if you can get away without this conversation and are comfortable doing so, go for it. If, however, you are enrolling as a graduate student and plan on studying under a PI for 3-7 years, this conversation will probably need to happen sooner or later. The relationship between a research mentor and their student is a unique one, and it frequently requires very open and comfortable communication. Having your mentor on the same page as you will be necessary.

Once you’ve decided that your working relationship will require a conversation about Asperger’s, the question becomes when to broach the subject. This depends a lot on your social confidence. Over the years I have become comfortable enough discussing my Asperger’s that I consider it no secret. I often mention it when appropriate during job interviews as evidence of my learned ability to understand and work closely with others. If you have built your social confidence and feel the same way, I’m sure you will be able to read your advisor and find an appropriate and relevant time to mention it. If you haven’t yet built this self-confidence, I have some very good news for you: Understanding of the autism spectrum is at an all-time high, particularly amongst educators, and many academics are autistic too. Honestly, there is a decent chance that your advisor is on the spectrum as well. Take a deep breath and remember that your advisor is on your side and wants the best for you. When should you bring it up? If you are a graduate student, you likely have regular meetings with your advisor to discuss your project. These are an excellent time to have a respectful, face-to-face conversation with them, and to answer any questions about Asperger’s they might have. The same goes for post-docs. If you’ve been hired on as a lab manager or full-time technician, you may have a more difficult time getting the PI alone. Travel to and from field sites, if this applies, can be a good time for this. Otherwise, it is perfectly acceptable to ask for a one-on-one meeting to discuss this.

Finally, what should this conversation look like? The priority should be making sure everyone is on the same page. Your advisor has a vested interest in supporting you and your work, so make sure they know what you need to succeed. If you struggle with communicating via email or text because you need facial expressions and tone of voice to fully understand, say so. Video chatting exists for a reason, and in my experience advisors are more than willing to accommodate. If you need to wear noise-cancelling headphones while working at your desk to avoid sensory overload, tell them. If you stim in a particular way and need your lab-mates to not make a big deal out of it, explain that. Odds are, you won’t be the first person on the spectrum that they have worked with. Or the tenth. Besides, a good advisor will be willing to learn from you just as you learn from them.

My last piece of advice is to make sure all of this isn’t blurted out suddenly and quickly. I made this mistake with one of my early academic advisors, and the conversation just muddied the water. Your priority should be to calmly, politely, and genuinely explain what Asperger’s means for you, and what that means for the lab. Talk about your strengths and weaknesses, what you feel you add to the work environment, what you need to succeed, and how you would like to improve. Your advisor is training you to be a scientist. These are the sorts of subjects you need to discuss with them even before Asperger’s comes into the picture. I know some of us dread this conversation, but imagine how much it would mean to have your advisor on board as a supporter and an advocate.

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The Academic Roadmap Explained: How to Make Science Your Career

The Academic Roadmap Explained: How to Make Science Your Career

I made it all the way to college before knowing the difference between a master’s degree and a PhD. Seriously. I knew they came after your four-year college degree, but not much more. If you’re spending any amount of time on this site you may be considering a career in the sciences, in which case you should be aware of how the academic roadmap generally works. Learn this now and use it to inform your career decisions going forward. The last thing you want is to get a graduate degree only to discover you don’t need it for your intended career path, or to assume your bachelor’s degree will be enough to land your dream job when a PhD is absolutely necessary.

Quick disclaimer: Academic careers are highly variable; no two people will take the same path. This post is not designed to be a be-all, end-all guide. That said, there are some constants. You will not be considered for a full tenure-track professorship without a PhD, for example. My intent here is to show you the general flow between degree programs and jobs in academia.

An academic career generally starts with earning a four-year degree, called a bachelor’s degree. People in a bachelor’s program are called undergraduate students. Two-year associate degrees can be enough to get you into some fields as a technician, but if you want to continue in academia you will need to then earn your bachelor’s. This can be done at essentially any four-year college or university, depending of course on where your desired major/program is offered.

In the natural sciences, a bachelor’s degree is not always enough to start a career. There are exceptions of course, but the pickings can be slim. I know folks working as animal caretakers/zookeepers and government field technicians who only hold bachelor’s degrees, but these jobs are often quite competitive or will only hire you seasonally at first. I don’t mean to discourage you from taking this route, I just want you to be prepared for the job hunt. This is also where people who want to teach grade school science typically exit the academic pipeline. There are teaching programs nested within colleges which net you a teaching license while you earn your bachelor’s, allowing you to pursue, for example, high school science teacher positions. You may also find a paid research position in a university lab that mentors you as a budding scientist while also being a full-time job. This is called a post-baccalaureate (or post-bac) research position.

After earning your bachelor’s degree, the next step in the academic pipeline is often a master’s degree program. Depending on your program, this may take anywhere from 1.5 to 4ish years. It is important to note that, unlike other fields like music or education, you can sometimes skip over a master’s program and start a doctoral (PhD) program right after your bachelor’s! This of course varies from program to program, so check the websites of the schools you are interested in. In any case, while Bachelor of Science (BS) degrees generally teach you what to know, research-based Master of Science (MS) programs begin to teach you how to uncover new knowledge through the research process. There are also course-based MS programs that don’t require any research on your part, only classes. A research-based MS will generally require a capstone research project/report at the end called your master’s thesis. Course-based MS programs don’t often require a thesis. Other master’s options also exist, like a Master of Professional Science (MPS) program. These vary quite a bit from place to place, so you’ll have to check the program’s website to see how exactly each one works.

With an MS, your career options expand significantly. Depending on the subject and type of your degree, you can apply for positions in the public sector (Government positions at the Environmental Protection Agency, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Marine Fisheries Service, various state agencies, etc.), private sector (Company positions at places like Sea World, environmental consulting companies, privates zoos or aquariums, etc.), nonprofit arena (Oceana, The Wildlife Conservation Society, The World Wildlife Fund, The Ocean Conservancy, etc.), academia (Research positions at colleges or universities, often as lab managers or full-time technicians), and any number of other places. Master’s programs are so varied that I can’t possibly list everywhere you might work after completing one.

Continuing along the academic route, you will need to enter a doctoral (PhD) program. These can take anywhere from 3-7 years depending on your program requirements, research project, and even country of study. A PhD graduate needs to have made a significant, original contribution to the body of human knowledge. What this means is that, whether your program requires coursework or not, you will be doing a lot of research. At the end you will present a massive final research report called a dissertation, and upon graduation you get to put “Dr.” in front of your name. In the research sciences, where you earn your doctorate is often much less important that in whose lab you earn it. The school you attend may not be the best, most advanced school in the world, but if the narrow sub-field you’ve chosen to study has three professors working in it you go wherever they are.

In addition to (potentially) higher-level positions with each of the organizations open to master’s degree holders, your doctorate will allow you to apply for tenure-track academic positions! However, you may not be as competitive for those until you complete one or more post-doctoral fellowships (post-docs). These are limited term (often 1-2 years) research positions in a professor’s lab that allow you to better your research and lab-management skills while working on a funded project. They are not easy jobs, and the stress of not having a guaranteed income beyond one or two years turns a lot of people away from this step of academia. But, with perseverance and some (a lot) of luck, you can land a tenure-track professorship! This is kind of the golden goose of academia, and usually allows you to set up your own lab and start taking on graduate (master’s and PhD) students. From there, you can advance along the “tenure track” from Assistant Professor, to Associate Professor, to Professor.

There are also non-tenure-track positions, such as adjunct professors or lecturers. While these are certainly academic teaching jobs, they generally have lower pay, less job security, and little to no research involved. There are also many other academic positions available (research only professorships, teaching professorships, etc.), but these vary a lot from place to place and may be part-time, temporary, or both.

This is the general academic pipeline, from undergraduate student to tenure-track professor. The exact route any one person takes may vary heavily from this roadmap, and your results may vary (especially during the post-PhD period). Many folks take breaks from academia in between these steps, most commonly after earning a bachelor’s degree. That is ok! This post is not intended to funnel everyone down the same path, I just feel that anyone operating at any level of academia should be aware of how the system works. Use this roadmap as a career planning tool, not a set-in-stone path. Best of luck!

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