Making the Commitment
When you agree to join a research project as an assistant or intern, you’re making a serious commitment of your time. The faculty mentor(s) who are bringing you on to their team are expecting that you take the commitment as seriously as they do.
Make sure you understand the expectations and have determined that you’ll be able to meet the expectations before you commit.
Questions to Consider:
- What are the expectations of the position?
- How many hours per week will you be expected to work? Do they need you to work specific hours or can you choose your hours?
- Is the opportunity paid or unpaid? Is there a chance to earn credit?
- What will you be able to get involved with? Will you be assigned a specific piece of a project?
- Who will be your direct supervisor? Do you feel you will work well with this individual?
- What projects have past undergraduate assistants been able to get involved with? What was their role?
Undergraduate research is a mutually agreeable arrangement between you and your faculty mentor. If you don’t feel you can meet the expectations without compromising your academics, especially with regard to the time commitment or the fit with your academic schedule, speak up before you accept the opportunity. It’s better to ask questions and clarify expectations early than to commit and then have to resign your position after you begin working.
During the Experience
You’ve put a lot of time and effort into securing a research experience – now you want to make sure to capitalize on the opportunity and avoid common missteps that impact success.
- Learn the culture – Every research and work environment is different. Take time to observe and ask questions in your first days and weeks to learn the norms. How are ideas expressed – group meetings, one-on-one supervisory meetings, or informal exchanges? Are regular status reports expected or do you only check-in with your supervisor when you have questions or completed tasks? Who do you approach for questions – should your first stop be the graduate assistant or do you go directly to your faculty mentor?
- Seek feedback – Assessment of your performance and constructive feedback on areas for growth is important. Everyone provides feedback differently. When starting a new position, ask about performance evaluations, and how often you can expect supervisory meetings. It’s unrealistic to expect constant feedback and evaluation on all tasks you complete – much of your routine work will not be evaluated unless you are not performing to satisfaction – but periodic performance reviews will help you learn, grow and advance.
- Ask questions – This is how you learn, but keep the number of questions within reason. Limit your questions to those of substance and relevance. Don’t ask questions about concepts you can quickly learn about by consulting your textbooks or doing some basic research on your own. Focus on questions that build upon your body of knowledge and help you understand process, procedure and protocol.
- Maintain a positive attitude – Smile and say hello! This goes a long ways towards improving your likeability, as everyone appreciates a friendly face and positive attitude. Depending on the experience, the projects you’re given in the early days of your research experience may not be the most exciting or intellectually stimulating. Regardless, it’s important to complete every task with promptness and enthusiasm. This is how you build trust and credibility, and that will grow into increased responsibility. All tasks, no matter how small, contribute to the success of the team, and demonstrating your willingness to help out as needed will go a long way.
- Be responsible and reliable – Arrive on-time (or even a little early!) to your scheduled shifts and to meetings, and don’t miss work. Learning time management skills, such as balancing academic and research commitments, is part of the experience. If something comes up that prevents you from meeting your obligations or working your scheduled shift, such as illness, inform your supervisor as soon as possible – and don’t make a habit of calling out sick, as this may negatively impact how reliable your supervisor feels you are, and puts added burden on the rest of the team to pick up your responsibilities.
- Be honest and acknowledge difficulties – In research, as in life, things will go wrong. A piece of equipment might break, a data collection device might not function properly, or the script you wrote to analyze the data might not run (no matter how many tweaks you try). Obstacles and setbacks are to be expected; what is most important is the way you react to them. Being honest about the difficulties you encounter and the errors you make builds a foundation of trust with your research colleagues and will allow them to help you troubleshoot the situation. Honesty is key to the responsible and ethical conduct of research.
- Avoid distractions – Turn off your phone and stay off social media while at work. Facebook can wait, as can texts from friends. Don’t assume that no one will notice that you’re checking your phone and sending texts throughout your scheduled shift.
- Keep it clean – Avoid informal language and inappropriate conversations – though your mentor may seem casual and laid back, swearing and talking about the raging party you went to last night isn’t appropriate. Remember, you want your mentor to take you seriously and view you as a future colleague, not a hard-partying student.