Research Opportunities

Research assistantships can clarify post-graduation plans

By Cynthia Liu

It’s the time of the year that fourth-years dread: application season. Whether you are applying to graduate school or planning on taking a gap year, it’s time to put away your summer and think about the future.

It’s too late for many of us now. Well, at least regarding this application cycle. You still have time to apply (get those recommendation requests out fast!), but unless you’re waiting for Fall 2012, your accomplishments thus far are locked down. There is no time to start a charity, become president of a service organization, or join a lab and have your last-ditch efforts save you from your wasted undergraduate years.

But for all the rest of you who aren’t applying yet—there’s hope: Research.

Now, research is normally only associated with science, but it’s also important in economics, the social sciences, and even the humanities. If you have ever had an inkling that graduate school might be your future, or considered your future at all, now is the time to get your feet wet.

One of the most compelling reasons to do research is to find out what drives you. After all, you shouldn’t start assembling letters of recommendation and writing personal statements if you don’t truly know what you want to do. Research provides you with an opportunity to figure out whether or not grad school is actually right for you. Biology might seem exciting on paper, but daily Westerns and minipreps might not be your bag. You might love sociology, but not sifting through statistics. Or maybe your passions soar above all tedious tasks of everyday graduate work.

In 2007, The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that only 57 percent of doctoral students end up with their degrees within ten years. And even if the programs are shorter, students in the sciences should consider that mathematics and the physical science graduate programs have the highest drop-out rates among academic fields. Although there will always be extenuating circumstances, I’m sure that much of the other 43 percent could have benefited from early experience. Getting a research position in your field will give you a taste of academia and also surround you with grad students, post-docs, and professors whose experiences will augment your knowledge.

Even if you already have plans for post-graduation, research experience will help you figure out the details. I knew that I wanted to be a chemist, but classes did little to help me decide on the field. Organic? Physical? Spending time in a lab helped me decide on a specific program. Not only that, but talking to my principal investigators has helped me compile a list of graduate schools based on more than a copy of U.S. News & World Report.

Once you discover your passion, research will then help you to learn more about it. That seems really obvious, but it isn’t when you’ve been learning from textbooks for most of your student life. Your parents aren’t paying $50,000 just for classes, but to provide you with an academic community that supports exploration and learning outside of the classroom. Organic chemistry class might teach you that alkyl lithiums are reactive, but a small explosion really teaches you that alkyl lithiums are reactive. And it’s only by talking to people in the field that you can learn more about it. Current professors and students can tell you about the field now, while many classes focus on old news.

The last thing is that research experience sets you apart. Every graduate application that I’ve come across has a section solely dedicated to your research experience. And if your experience amounts to poking at fruit flies for a total of three days for some required lab, you won’t be at the head of the constantly expanding pack of prospective students. A fantastic recommendation letter written by your research supervisor will ameliorate (but not rescue) sub-optimal grades or middling GRE scores. Basically, research experience and the connections you make during it are extremely important.

Besides résumé padding, research helps you actually accomplish something. Whether that something is an honors BA or a publication, your heart will beam as your nerd flag flutters proudly in the wind. Sure, nobody else might care, but if the work you do helps you in figuring out your future path, you will.

So talk to professors who have taught classes you’ve loved. Comb through FROGS and search through abstracts and papers. Talk to advisors and classmates. Correspond with professors by e-mail and phone, even those who aren’t in Chicago. And maybe, at this time in 2011, 2012, or 2013, when you are applying for grad school, you’ll be full of excitement instead of dread.

Cynthia Liu is a fourth-year in the College majoring in Chemistry.