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UG research- Pay your dues?

  1. Jun 27, 2012 #1
    I was reading a book by Cal Newport's book "Win at College", and one chapter he gives advice on paying your dues in research.

    Here's an excerpt from that chapter:

    "If getting involved with original research is one of the best things you can do as an undergraduate, then getting involved and acting as if you are somehow entitled to responsibility is one of the worst. The reason you begin research work early in your college career is so you have time to learn and time to prove yourself. During your first year assisting on a research project, you have to pay your dues. Don't expect anything. Just be as helpful as possible. Be available. Get work done on time. Make life easier for your research team."

    How accurate is this? Do you agree with him?
  2. jcsd
  3. Jun 27, 2012 #2
    I think it's pretty spot-on.

    As an undergraduate joining a new research project, it's important to keep in mind that you really don't know anything about anything. So yes, work hard, be helpful, and get things done on time. The worst that happens is you get a shining recommendation.
  4. Jun 27, 2012 #3


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    You have to pay attention to the context.

    Something that really really irks people is the projection of a sense of entitlement, which the author is telling you to avoid.

    On the other hand, student volunteers are not slaves and do not deserve to be treated as such. I've always disagreed with the philosophy of "I had to suffer through X to get to this point, so should everyone else..." As a student you should be getting something for the work that you're doing. That can be mentorship, experience, development of marketable skills, or even simple cash. But it should be something that's worthwile.
  5. Jun 27, 2012 #4


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    If by "responsibility" you mean "getting your name listed as an author of a published paper," that's not what undergraduate research is (or should be) about. It's about learning something about the research process and showing that you can work effectively as part of a team. The most important credential you can get from the experience is a great letter of recommendation from your supervisor when you apply to grad school.
  6. Jun 27, 2012 #5
    One other thing is that I think the most important thing about undergraduate research is to learn whether or not you really want to do research. Some people find undergraduate research boring and frustrating. Staring at tables of numbers trying to figure out what is going on.

    If that's the case then it's a sign that you probably shouldn't go into research since that frustrating/boring part goes with the territory, and it doesn't get less frustrating/boring as time passes.
  7. Jun 27, 2012 #6


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    Undergraduate research shouldn't be just washing test tubes, although that may be a part of it. There are many sorts of research teams, from the very small to the very large and they all have different dynamics. I feel that a well-managed team should be honest and accurate about expectations, including how credit and authorship is assigned, but of course flexible as required by the science.

    Here are some project descriptions from MIT's undergraduate research programme. http://web.mit.edu/urop/research/openings.html

    Some reasonable guidelines for authorship, although these vary by journal and by field. http://www.pnas.org/site/misc/iforc.shtml#ii

    And good general advice. http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=12192
    Last edited: Jun 27, 2012
  8. Jun 28, 2012 #7
    You shouldn't be suffering at all. If you are, find another research group and/or major.

    As Choppy points out, context is everything... the quote wasn't saying "Expect to be a slave washing test tubes", it was saying "Don't expect to be handed something important right off the bat and to get published in the first month."

    You should *definitely* expect to get something worthwhile out of the experience though, otherwise you are just wasting your time as well as everybody else's.
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