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Undergrad Research: Advice?

  1. Aug 31, 2012 #1
    Freshman year, I knew that I wanted to get involved with research but had so many interests that I thought I could just pick any lab and be happy. I started working in a neurobiology research lab in January of this year and continued through the summer until now. I'm planning on continuing in the same lab until the end of this academic year (at least), but I'm having trouble deciding if it's the right fit for me.

    The work I'm doing is very theoretical and involves creating mathematical models of ion channels in neurons. I've always been very interested in neurobiology and math so I thought that I would love the research, and I wanted to join a lab that looked at biological questions from a quantitative perspective. It turns out, although I find the topic and questions interesting, I just don't enjoy the nature of the research very much. I essentially go into the lab and play around with mathematical models on the computer. I don't enjoy the process of actually DOING the particular research. I feel like I might enjoy it a bit more if I had a better grasp on programming, but even the topic of neuroscience isn't as appealing as it once was.

    I've been considering changing to a different lab with a completely different focus. I would like to find research that is not only interesting but that I also actually enjoy doing. I've been thinking of trying out either optics or geophysics. I've been interested in lasers since high school and enjoyed reading about how them and even bought a couple of my own burning lasers (I'm kind of a pyro :biggrin:) and I think messing around with the instrumentation would be interesting in itself. Geophysics is appealing mainly because I enjoy being outdoors and I've heard that there can be a field component to the research, but I also find the earth sciences interesting and again math/physics.

    My question is, how do you know when it's time to try a new lab/field and how do you know when you've found the "right" lab? Is it the interest in the questions being asked, the actual nature of the work, or both that really matter? A friend told me it was like magic and she just knew that she'd found the right fit. I know research takes a lot of patience but I really feel as though I should move on and try something else.

    Would anyone care to share their experiences?
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 31, 2012 #2
    I think you are on the right track. I made extremely good experience with switching from a prestigious field that sounds super-cool but is annoying to actually work in to a field which sounds completely boring but I enjoy working an an everyday basis (and as a result also am much more successful in).
  4. Aug 31, 2012 #3
    Could you share a bit more detail about this? What was the field you started in and what did you not like about it? What are you doing now and why is it so much more enjoyable?
  5. Aug 31, 2012 #4


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    There's no clear criteria for knowing what a perfect fit is. In my experience the only practical approach is trial and error. It's good to figure this out in undergrad if you can. If you donate a year worth of your time to a specific project, I'd say that if you're not happy, or if you're just curious, it's okay to move on. Most professors won't expect undergrads to stick around for much longer than that anyway.

    The only thing that might hold me back, if I were in your shoes, would be if sticking around a little longer might result in getting my name on a publication. I wouldn't stick around for another year if this was a maybe - but perhaps an extra month or two for a certainty.
  6. Aug 31, 2012 #5
    I had the same experience. Usually, the more prestigious something sounds, the more boring actually working in it is (since you'll only get to chip away at a tiny part of a problem), and the more boring something sounds, the more you actually get to do.
  7. Aug 31, 2012 #6
    If you would have told me that a year ago, I wouldn't have believed you.Would you mind telling me about your experience?
  8. Aug 31, 2012 #7
    I worked in biomedical research at one lab in my 3rd year and worked in a materials lab the 4th year.

    The job I got in biomedical research involved nothing to do with my major - it was labeled as "chemistry" but was 100% biology. Something to do with cancer research. The PI was never there, hell, his assistant research professor was barely there. The lab was run by postdocs with an iron fist. Since I wasn't able to contribute besides washing glassware and doing electrophoresis, I decided to quit. Too bad I was inexperienced and said so out loud, so the *never there* PI gave me an F.

    The materials research was in polymers. I helped with a few steps of organic synthesis, did size exclusion chromatography on the stuff that was synthesized and looked at chain length distribution under different processing conditions, fabricated molds, used SEM/AFM to look at surface morphology and saw the whole thing get incorporated into a functional device (done by the grad student; he patterned the surface, did X-ray diffraction, evaporated gold electrodes onto it and did electrical testing). The advisor was always available and he had personal contact with everyone in the lab.
  9. Sep 1, 2012 #8
    I could of course tell you what I did, but I don't see how that would help you. My point was not that prestigious fields were often boring (though that may well be the case) but that I believe that enjoying your work on an everyday level is more important than an interest in the field as a whole.

    As an example: As everyone with an interest in physics, I find astrophysics somewhat interesting. But I would not want to work in the field if that meant spending my time with debugging C code whose only purpose is to brute-force integrate some equations of motion. On the other hand, I consider complex dynamics a rather dubious field with little useful or interesting output and no clearly defined field of research. But as far as I can tell, the people in the field are having a lot of fun with modeling the growth and shrinkage of bubbles in a foam, and I can well imagine having fun with that, myself. Especially if that involves that the question "what happens if I do/change X" can quickly be answered by just doing/changing X.

    What one actually likes is individual of course. My point is that I made good experiences with focussing on the abstraction level of liking my job on the almost everyday basis. Simple as that.
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