Breaking into research: a guide for undergraduates and high schoolers

academic advice High School research
By Max Y.

Research is the crucible of scientific innovation. But to many young undergraduate students and high schoolers, participating in this space can seem daunting, untenable, or even impractical. However, if you keep reading, I hope to demystify getting involved in research as a budding scientist and convince you that working towards a publication and contributing to the wider body of scientific knowledge is indeed within your grasp.

Disclaimer: My experiences are predominantly in STEM research. However, these tips can easily apply to any field of academia!

Okay, so I just said a lot of platitudes that might sound nice in theory, but why should you get involved in research? Here are three significant reasons:

Reason #1: For the cause

First, research is a chance to contribute to science, rather than solely learning about what others have already discovered, which is the basis for how progress and change occur. Though it is hard work, helping in research can contribute towards solving the biggest issues facing society today like climate change, incurable illnesses, social inequality, and more. 

Reason #2: For the resume

Second, working in a research lab or with a group looks great on a resume or application. It demonstrates that you can work independently, think critically, and are passionate and interested in important topics. Whether you plan to pursue a career as a scientist, attend medical or other professional schools, or enter the job market, research work and a publication can help you stand out in a competitive pool. 

Reason #3: For the network

Third, this time will help you build important relationships with scientific mentors that can prove beneficial for your growth as a student. Often a close research mentor can write an exemplary letter of recommendation or help you pursue your future ambitions in other manners.

Okay, so how do I go about becoming a researcher?

Find your area of interest

It is crucial that you find an area that excites you and you will enjoy working in. Joining a chemistry lab because you think it will look good on your medical school application, even though you hate chemistry, will make for a miserable time, and probably won’t make for quality work. You don’t have to be a content expert already, but the project should be something that makes you excited and look forward to learning more. Shop around on university websites and try to keep the bigger picture of a project in mind. 

Mentorship is key

Once you know the general area you want to work in, such as cancer research or artificial intelligence, reach out to professors, PhD students, or other research personnel that work in this area, near you. Share who you are, your background, your interests, and try to find a time to meet with them so they can explain their work more. Usually if you ask a researcher what they do, they would love to tell you about it! 

Your mentor on a project is the one that will be responsible for teaching you new skills, guiding your work, and even getting you on a publication. Make sure this is someone you are comfortable with and someone that will help you achieve your goals.

Work hard, be curious

What you may lack in previous knowledge and skills, you can easily compensate for in hard work and genuine curiosity. In research, people notice hard work, and this will often afford you more responsibility and independence in future projects. Ask questions whenever you can to help your understanding and demonstrate your critical thinking skills. Try and delve into previous work published by the group or new papers in the field and ask your mentor about unknown concepts you may run into. 

Don’t lose sight of the forest for the trees

Research can be laborious, tedious work. If you have a slow day, a bad week, a failed experiment, try and not lose sight of why you are doing research and the end goals. Pipetting 400 times in a row might not seem immediately thrilling but contributing to a new cancer treatment or getting your first publication can make it all worth it in the end.   

I wish you the best of luck as you begin your journey in research. Stay curious!

Max is currently working on his MPhil in Population Health at the University of Cambridge on a Marshall Scholarship. He previously earned a degree in Biochemistry from Montana State University.

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