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Research and Independent Study

  1. May 9, 2009 #1
    Hi everyone,

    I've finished the first week of my summer research internship, and I think I desperately need help.

    I very naively had thought I had "mastered" the art of learning after repeatedly raking in high marks in my courses, but now I feel like I'm completely out of my league and don't deserve to be where I am. I almost literally got nothing done in my first week. I'm completely lost in the papers I've been assigned to read and cannot go from step 1 to step 2 in the calculations I've been asked to try (I've gone back to one of my supervisors to ask about the same calculation twice - I can't go back a third time with nothing done!). I don't feel like I'm learning what I should be and I don't know what I'm supposed to do.

    At the same time, I don't want to go bother my supervisors about every little problem because I don't want them thinking I'm dumb (which I am, it's still a mystery to me how I got where I am) or lazy or without initiative. It's not even new stuff (they asked me to calculate an integral which I have NO idea how to do - it's the most difficult thing I've ever seen, and I can't even follow similar calculations).

    I feel like I'm very much out of my league, disappointing my supervisors (Read: no future reference letters) and I don't know what to do. It's one thing to study out of a book with supplementary notes and problem sets, and it's another thing completely to get familiar with the conventions of the field when you don't even know what you don't know.

    What kind of advice can you give me about the research experience? Learning from papers, interacting with supervisors, organizing myself (I have very, very, very bad organizational skills - they get me through the term when everything is basically spoon fed to you, whereas after a week here I'm already drowning in papers and spurious calculations)?

    It's been a week in and I already feel anxious and depressed! This is supposed to be the most exciting experience of my undergraduate career and I've been looking forward to it since well before I enrolled in University, but it's already killing me!

  2. jcsd
  3. May 9, 2009 #2
    I can sympathize, because I had horrible organizational skills as well. What I recommend is getting a binder, as many folders as you think you'll need, labeling the folders by subject, and then just sitting down and organizing important papers and throwing out junk. Also, learn to plan your time well. Save Halo 3 until you've done your work. Study an hour or so a day. Work on improving your handwriting if it's bad, or at least make it intelligible.

    Next, you have to figure out where you went wrong. Ask one of your supervisors for a basic curriculum for the subject you are researching. Go through it and say to yourself, "Do I know this?" The first step to learning is to know what you know. After you know what you don't know, learn it. Don't be afraid to ask for help. Most people supervising are doing so because they are enthusiastic about what they teach, and would probably help get you up to speed.

    I hope I helped.
  4. May 9, 2009 #3


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    It's only a been a week so I wouldn't stress out too much.

    First of all, research performance and class performance can be completely different animals, and if you don't have a lot of experience at research, you can't be expected to hit the ground with your feet running.

    Second, at the undergraduate level, most professors understand that they are mentoring a junior researcher and don't expect the undergrad's skills to be on par with either graduate students or other collegues. So if you're not writing a ground-breaking paper by your second day, I wouldn't lose too much sleep over it.

    Third, when a professor agrees to supervise a student, he or she is agreeing to a certain amount of mentorship. In general, you can allow your professor to define what is too much of a "disturbance." On a personal note, now that I'm in a position to mentor students, I find I look forward to our discussions (but I still recall what it was like to walk into an intimidating professor's office, especially when you don't have what you feel is a particularly intelligent question - so I hear where you're coming from).

    Something else that helps is to keep your end goal in mind. Inf this is a summer position, what are your goals with this project. Has the professor told you that it's absolutely necessary to preproduce what's in this paper, or does he simply want you to be familiar with its contents? Sometimes papers can skip what are "obvious" steps because a result is reasonably common. And as a person just learning the field you really have to trace the result back through references if you really want to learn how they got from (a) to (g). If it's just the result that's important, sometimes it's okay to move on and then backtrack when you understand more about the context - if that makes any sense.
  5. May 10, 2009 #4
    If you really feel this lost and it is only a summer program I would not hesitate to go and seek help from your supervisors, other student interns (if there are any), and anyone else that is involved with the project.

    Because it is a summer program you may not have too much time to waste before its too late, ie. you don't want to wait a month (possibly 1/3 - 1/2 the time of the project) before it becomes known that you have no idea what is going on.

    I had a similar experience during my first shot at undergraduate research which took place in a physical chemistry lab doing spectroscopy research. It ended up taking both a lot of individual effort on my part to understand the research but also a lot of communication with my supervisors to help me understand what was really happening. In the end I was given a lot of easier tasks such as setting up new experiments and building equipment but I still learned a lot that summer.
  6. May 12, 2009 #5
    swallow your pride and go ask a third, fourth, fifth, etc time. it's not important if they think you're dumb; it's important that you learn.
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