I teach a lot. Mostly to undergraduate students, but occasionally to high school and postgraduate students as well. At the end of every teaching stint, there’s always at least one or two students who stick around to ask me questions about what steps they could take to pursue a research career. This is what I usually tell them…
Bearing in mind, this is all just based on personal experience, whether it be through observing my own actions or other people. I am a wet lab based Bacteriology student, and I’m writing as someone who resides in Australia.
“How do I know if I’ll like doing lab work?”
This is probably the most common question I get from undergraduate students.
I started to write giant paragraphs addressing each demographic (secondary school students, undergrads, etc) and realised it was just going to have to be a separate post. I’ll write in more detail another time.
I think the key point here would be to just… bite the bullet, so to speak, and just apply for whatever you can get your hands on. You never know whether you’ll enjoy this until you get to do it for a bit.
Whether this means googling research institutes, finding labs and then emailing/calling Lab Heads… or applying for internships, scholarship programs and the like… Just do it!
Some universities offer undergraduate subjects that are research projects based in actual labs. While you don’t get paid, still pay fees, and have to do assessment tasks, you also get subject credit, maybe a decent subject score (work on that WAM), and most importantly, NETWORKING OPPORTUNITIES.
It really is as they say. Knowing the right people at the right time will open doors for you.
A Semester worth of lab work is a nice little taste test for what is to come, as you pursue further degrees toward that research career track. After that, Honours or Masters will really tell you if you’re cut out for it.
All labs love free (slave) labour.
Provided you don’t set the lab (or yourself) on fire, most labs would welcome students volunteering their time to do little things around the lab and get some work experience. Just contact the Lab Head or research institute. The place I’m based in gets occasional circulating emails asking for labs to host students. It’s a normal thing for us.
Scholarships/award programs are nicer, because they pay you money to do something you may end up loving. Unfortunately most don’t get advertised anywhere near enough, so you may end up having to do a bit of groundwork and look for them yourself. It’s not too difficult, though. Just look up research institutes and organisations and see if they have programs like that.
At the end of the day, it’s better to have applied or enquired about something and get rejected, than to do nothing at all. At least you made an effort.
Also, if you’re anything like me and love your introverted circle of comfort, it can be quite scary to make that first step… I found emails easier to deal with (I HATE PHONE CALLS) as a “testing the waters” type of activity, and just had to work on face to face interviews.
(I’ll probably post a “this is how I ended up a Ph. D student” type thing later)
Now, if you’re successful (got to do some volunteering, a subject, internship, etc)… and you LOVED IT. That’s awesome. Keep going. Ask people what you can be doing to help you move up further.
But if you hated it…
That’s also okay! Now you know it wasn’t for you. At least you found out now rather than many years later. Experience is experience. If you ended up hating every minute of it, at least you know now.
In saying that, though, I think a lot of this “is it for me?” type exercise requires you to have a lot of self-awareness and be prepared for some introspection. Did you love it because you liked the people (but not the content)? Did you love the content but not the people (maybe the field is right but the people weren’t)?
Did you hate it because you weren’t entirely committed? Was it the people you were working with?
So many things could change your perspective, so it’s good to be aware of who you are as a person, so that you can really understand why you loved/hated research or the lab environment.
Hopefully this helps you figure out whether you want to give research and labs a go.
A Ph. D graduate in Microbiology, residing in Victoria, Australia. Currently working in multiple locations but still in the STEM field. 👀 🦠 🧫 🧬
This is great stuff. If I was still teaching I’d copy it for all yr 11 and 12 students.
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