Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Public Service Announcement: If you're a summer student and you're not getting anything done, it's not the end of the world

Dear undergraduate summer students/REU participants:

This Reddit thread is a great reminder of the hidden truth of REUs - while, yes, it's nice and desirable for you to have presentable science and impressive results at the end of a summer, it's just as much about you learning what it's like to be in a working academic research laboratory.

So, relax, do your best and wear your PPE.

Love, CJ

15 comments:

  1. When you are an undergraduate and every piece of glassware you touch breaks (been there), just stop. It's not going to get any better until you sit down and get your head on straight. Find someone more experienced to talk to, and then don't just talk about your project; ask them how to get over the hump. Read.

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  2. I wonder sometimes how much breakage there would be if undergraduates had to blow their own glass, like they used to. Also, I suspect this would alleviate some of the unemployment issues faced by chemists (e.g. they just go work for Chihuly instead, or open their own head shop).

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  3. "When I was a summer student, I got two JACS papers out of it. While you are here to learn, you are inadequate and taking someone else's space if you don't produce publishable results."

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    1. Poison Ivy LeagueJuly 14, 2015 at 2:40 PM

      Undergraduate publications are a lot of luck with a little bit of competence on top. Honestly, 3-4 months is not enough time to do much substantial unless you join a working project that is technically forgiving (especially as a junior researcher still learning the ropes). I got two high-profile publications from my undergrad research while many of my contemporaries got zilch. Was I reasonably competent? For an undergrad, probably yes. Was I lucky to join a lab whose program had just taken off? Undoubtedly.

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    2. The Iron ChemistJuly 15, 2015 at 9:26 AM

      Right time, right place, right project.

      That quote reminds me of the saying about how people who were born on third base often come to believe that they hit a triple.

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    3. In an ideal world, all undergrads would get to do a "fill in the table with results on an existing project" and a more independent one. In my experience, the ones who do the more independent or challenging projects tend to do better in grad school and are more resilient.

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    4. Well, when *I* was a summer student, the walkway to the Psych building was uphill both ways, and lined with phalanxes of monkeys flinging poo at me.

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  4. Hey CJ, do you have any entertaining anecdotes about your undergraduate research experiences?

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    1. If by "entertaining" you mean "mortally humiliating for me at the time", yes, definitely.

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    2. You must have different memories of your experience than I do; I'm sure there are a few good stories to share from your undergranduate adventures and I don't remember you doing anything that would be humiliating to yourself at the time or in retrospect :-).

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  5. I was lucky in my REU to have great grad student mentors. Most of my work was on a project that was a good idea, but didn't really pan out in the 3 months I was there. However, they were awesome and made sure I ran an experiment or two on a different project so I could get my name on the eventual paper. Definitly an experience that reinforced my desire to go to grad school in organic chemistry.

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  6. Thank you! I needed that right now. First internship at a different institution/country, five weeks in, and all I feel is lost..

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  7. I've done several internships ranging from 3-12 months (in industry & academia). Personally, I think it takes me at least 6 months to feel fully confident/productive in a new research environment. With practice it gets shorter, but for most undergrads doing summer research I think it'll be hard get properly settled in to your project.

    For one short internship I just couldn't get my reactions to work. I ended up analysing the reactions in a lot of detail: I characterised all the byproducts, conducted a careful screening and came up with several hypotheses about WHY it wasn't working. At least that way I could talk about my project after the fact, and it was clear that I'd done some good, methodical science.

    Knowing what failure tastes like is really important if you're considering grad school. A lot of your stuff will fail (through no fault of your own) and we could be talking about months (or years) before you get some proper successes. It can be really demoralising to start grad school and have 6 months without any progress, while the more senior PhD students in your group seem to be churning out publications. Just remember that those senior scientists will have struggled just as much as you when they began - *everyone* does.

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