Author: Adam Sychla
Every year, thousands of undergraduates undertake summer research. Pursuing research during summer vacation allows students to experience full time research, get more work done on their projects, gain experience in new types of research, and make new friends. It can be hectic, but these summers make for an amazing time. As the school year comes to an end and undergraduates start their summer positions, I wanted to share some of my experiences and advice on how to make the most of your time this summer.
I was lucky enough to have had two wonderful summer research fellowships. First, at my home institution, the Ohio State University, I received a grant in order to work on my project during the summer after my sophomore year. Even though the grant was focused on a project that I had proposed, I came out of the fellowship knowing so much more. During the summer, I had the opportunity to learn new techniques outside of my own project that others in the lab were working on. I got to push my project much farther than I could during the school year. Working at home, so to speak, let me work on a bigger project. It acted as a part of a whole and it really felt that I was building up to something greater. That is why I loved the experience.
During the summer after my junior year, I was a fellow at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. Moving for the summer was a very different experience. I didn’t know anyone coming in. In fact, I spent the first night in a completely empty room, since my roommate hadn’t moved in yet. By working in a different area than I do at university, I actually was able to narrow down the kind of work that I want to do in graduate school. I met incredible people, setting up strong professional relationships, and ended up meeting some of my closest friends. While working at home allowed me build to a greater goal, my time in Rochester let me work on a project that I was able to finish and reach out to new fields.
Whether you are going to a new institution or staying to continue your work at school, start by hitting the ground running. The first few weeks of work often determine how the project goes or whether it gets completed that the summer. And there is something to be said about first impressions. The fact of the matter is that no matter how far away autumn semester feels right now, your summer is short. Putting in the extra effort in the first few weeks sets you up to succeed. An additional bonus is that there is a bit more room for rest at the end. I remember getting an extended lunch and coffee with some friends while a few others were scrambling to finish their projects. The advice of starting strong carries over to meeting new people too. Over the first few weeks, step out of your room and just knock on your neighbor’s door. Stop by, ask to play cards or a watch a movie or just brew some coffee. Those early days are a bit awkward for everyone. It is hard to meet new people and get used to living in a new city. So, by stepping out of your comfort zone you help everyone feel a little better and you get to meet new friends.
My next piece of advice is simple: eat the free lunches. There are going to be seminars to grab lunch at. Or you may have a chance to attend a conference or a poster session. These events are generally pretty accessible to everyone so you get to test the waters in areas that you never looked at before. By listening in, you can come up with new ideas and questions. Plus, even if you don’t end up using the talk in your research, you get to learn about something cool. And, of course, free food is not something to complain about.
As your summer progresses, planning ahead helps you make the most of your time. It allows you to balance breaks, work, and free time in advance. But while preparation is great, lab work has a tendency to mess with plans and requires being ready to take on unexpected changes. This leads to the simple fact that research does not always line up with the nine to five schedule. Sometimes you come in early, stay late, or work on the weekend. Often these are not required by your program, but choosing to do so one day can save you several days in the future and help your project succeed. By being flexible in your schedule you are able to achieve more with less work.
Despite this, it is also important to remember to not overwork yourself. Sure, there may be a few times that you work a twelve hour day, but it definitely should not be the standard. You are a student and are there to learn. You are not a pack mule or cheap labor. The key here is having a balance between the lab and resting up. Those lunch breaks are important to your health and to making the most of your time. And the time you spend outside of lab can be just as significant as the time in lab.
If you feel that you are not given enough independence or are overworked or have a complaint, be sure to voice your concerns. If you have certain goals that you are aiming for, share them at the beginning of the summer. You are allowed to have opinions and concerns. Make sure that they are addressed. Often the worry is that by speaking up you are putting your letter of recommendation at risk. But rest assured, most programs have some safety in place in case an issue like that comes up. Communicating your concerns usually just makes your summer better by allowing your opinions to be addressed. And if your concerns are ignored, it is perfectly okay and encouraged for you to go to the program director.
Finally and most importantly, take advantage of the extra things. Explore the city you live in and take advantage of the events. Travel a bit on the weekends. Spend time with friends. Take photos. Your summer will not last forever so make some memories. You might meet your new best friend or find the coolest place to go hiking or discover a new hobby. When you come back from work you might be tired but go grab ice cream or see a film. It is these little things that add up to making the summer amazing and memorable.