As a wide-eyed freshman just learning the ropes, I had no idea how research worked or even where to start. However, once I learned the basics, things started to fall into place, and I embarked on one of the most impactful experiences of my undergrad career.
Undergrad research is the best first step if you’re considering grad school. In grad school, marine bio will demand hours of diligent research and lab work. Having a couple years of research under your belt will help with applications and establishing credibility early on. Even if you’re not considering grad school, undergrad research will give you a strategic advantage in any lab classes you take and will be an impressive experience to include on your resume.
It’s never too late to get into research. Below are some lessons I learned during my years of undergrad research.
1. Your school might have online research portals for you to find opportunities.
So, where do you start? This will depend a bit on your school, but for many of the big universities out there, there will be online research portals where faculty post open positions. When I was looking for research opportunities, I used a research portal and ended up finding my first research position.
If your university has no online resources like this, one of the best ways is to approach a professor whose research interests you, and ask them about any available opportunities. Perhaps ask them to join you for coffee on campus, so you can discuss the research more thoroughly. Most professors will gladly speak with you about their work and may even take you on as extra help.
2. Your resume doesn’t have to be perfect to apply.
Don’t stress over having the ultimate resume. If you’re in college, chances are you’re just starting out and looking for ways to broaden your horizon. These supervisors are not looking for someone with 30+ years of research experience. They’re looking for someone who is dependable and curious.
If you have concerns about your resume or cover letter, reach out to your school’s career center for assistance or turn to online resources, such as Indeed’s “Career Guide.”
3. Ask your supervisor all your questions, so you have a clear understanding of the research.
Make sure to clarify any questions you have about the research, so you can avoid any awkward misunderstandings. It’s important to always know what you’re doing, plus it’s far more fulfilling to understand exactly what’s going on because you’ll be investing countless hours into this research.
4. It’s okay to ask for help if you’re not sure how something works in the lab.
Lab equipment is expensive, so please use caution and reach out to your supervisor if you’re not confident in your technique. It’s better to ask questions ahead of time than have to explain why something broke. Your supervisor wants to see you succeed, so make sure to maintain solid communication.
5. Keep detailed notes.
Everyone gets tired at the end of the day, and whole portions of the day may even turn into a blur. That’s why note-taking is so important. Make sure you keep notes that you and your colleagues can understand. These notes should be complete and detailed enough that you don’t have to look back and act like you’re trying to decipher Latin.
6. Establish steady communication with your coworkers and supervisors.
Sometimes you may have to share keys or computers, so keeping a line of communication open is the best way to keep things moving smoothly. Making sure to plan out schedules with everyone in mind is imperative.
7. If you’re not interested in the research, it’s absolutely okay to switch labs.
Change can be a great thing. If the research never quite interested you or your career goals have changed, applying for a different lab and pivoting to something new can be an excellent next step. One of the best parts of research is getting to see what you like and dislike.
8. Even if your position is a volunteer position, it might soon turn into a paid position if you play your cards right.
Many undergrad research positions go unpaid unfortunately, but if you make it clear that you’re in it for the long run, and you happen to be in a lab with a great deal of funding, your supervisors may be able to compensate you. After about 6 months in my research position, I was able to start getting paid. If you need your position to be paid, make sure to speak with your supervisor early on and see if that is an option.
9. There may be opportunities available for you even after graduation.
If you’re approaching the end of your undergrad career and are contemplating what comes next, make sure to ask your supervisor what opportunities might still be available to you. Luckily after I graduated, I was able to turn my student position into a limited term, full-time paid position. Even though this post-graduation position was only for 5 months, I earned a pay raise and had a steady stream of income while I prepared for life outside of college.
10. It’s okay if research isn’t for you.
Never feel pressured to do research. If you’re not passionate about research, that is perfectly fine. For some people, research is a dream come true. For others, it simply isn’t. I suggest everyone try out research to evaluate whether it’s a possible career option. If it isn’t, there are endless, fulfilling ways to use your marine bio degree.
Research is one of several ways to advance your career. Having spent a couple years in research, I gained practical experience that helped me expand my skills beyond the classroom and gain confidence in my field. For more ways to gain confidence in the marine biology major, read this article.
Have fun with research. You may find that one special topic you’ll want to study for years to come.