Undergraduate student research has been one of the absolute greatest things I have done during my time at Ohio State. When I was a wee little freshman just a few short years ago, you wouldn’t have been able to convince me that I would be full-time student research assistant and getting published in REAL medical journals by age 20. There are many things I didn’t know about research when I walked on campus and blindly started applying for jobs. Now I have completed a full year researching long noncoding RNAs for Acute Myeloid Leukemia.
First there are a lot of realities that I didn’t realize when I first started my job as a part of the Comprehensive Cancer Center. Here’s what you should expect:
You will get paid very little and, most of the times, nothing at all. A very very VERY small amount of undergraduate research assistants get paid. This is simply because the work that you start out with isn’t difficult. I know that this can sometimes be frustrating but there are so many incentives to working in a lab including getting hands on experiences, meeting knowledgeable scholars in the science field and becoming more knowledgeable about the world we live in. There are usually other options, however, instead of getting paid such as work-study credit, volunteer hours, and more. It is important to keep in mind that getting paid isn’t an expectation, but more of a privilege. If making money is a make or break for you, be sure to pay attention when applying for jobs. You can’t be too choosy however as all undergraduate research jobs are very competitive.
There is a large, long-term time commitment. During the school year your PI (principal investigator… aka your boss) will have various expectations for the amount of time you should be working each week and when you will get time off. My PI is kind enough to give me extra time off a couple day before my midterms, and during school breaks. Other PIs won’t offer the same things. Sometimes I have to come in on weekends. Sometimes I work 40 hours in a week. Sometimes I work five. It all really depends on what experiments are going on and what other jobs need to be done. Another thing about the time commitment for research is that it is not a “I want to leave at four today” job. If you have class, your dost-doc or PI will obviously let you leave but usually you have a job to do and when it is finished is when you get to go home. A lot of times your PI will also ask you to stay the summer and work. This is a great opportunity because working full time in a lab is when the magic really starts to happen. For many labs this also includes working up to 12 hours a day and still working weekends. It still is the greatest experience I have had during college.
There is dirty work that will become 100% your responsibility. Some labs work with mice, rabbits, or other animals for testing. One of my primary jobs is to handle and care for these mice as well has harvest organs, bone marrow, etc. when they die. Lets just say its best to do with an empty stomach. Quite a few labs don’t use animals but there is a handful of cleaning, labeling, organizing, sanitizing, restocking and more that no one wants to do so it quickly becomes your job. You need to be prepared to do things that involve not learning anything. I like to refer to this as “intern work.” Just keep in mind every time that you autoclave another set of epenndorf tubes, that you are part of helping the lab run smoothly. Its not glamorous but you will move up in the lab world and they will hire someone a year after you that gets these jobs when you become too busy running real lab experiments.
You need to work really hard, especially outside of work. But there will be rewards. Often my post-doc asks me to research topics such as techniques of how to perform lab experiments or he asks me to read up on current happenings in the hematology field. I then print out articles that are relevant and begin to read. There is a good chance that you will have to google every seventh word and reread sentences again and again until you begin to understand what the article is talking about. It is all about persistence. Soon articles will get easier and easier to read and understand especially if you stick within the realms of the same field. It does take a lot of time though and you must be willing to put in your homework hours to excel in research. Once you are truly understanding the material and what you are trying to prove with each experiment, you can begin presenting at lab meetings, seminars, and sometimes, even getting published.
For more info on how to get a research job, check out my post
Student Research: How To Get The Job or contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org for more questions!
Best of luck on your search!
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