How to Navigate a Research Lab

Since being an undergraduate at UC San Diego, I have learned some very difficult lessons about getting involved in research. The undergraduate research I currently do with Sysnet has made the journey beyond worth the effort. You can find information about the work I do with Sysnet in a previous blog post. However, a few of those difficult lessons did slow my progress to getting the type of lab experience I really wanted. If I had known how to ask for what I want and how to work with the lab hierarchy, I would have figured out my growing pains in half the time.

Not only did I learn to ask for what I wanted, I had to learn how to ask for what I wanted. Relationships need to be built over time. Walking into a professor’s open office doorway and bluntly asking if they are taking undergraduate researchers is not a way to build a lasting impression. Instead, in the case of Sysnet, a graduate student who I previously knew, who worked in the lab, was aware that the professor I am currently working with was interested in working with an undergraduate, and she introduced us. Over time, with consistent efforts, I have been starting to build upon some ideas that are beginning to look like projects. It takes time and diligence.

I am still learning about the slow, deliberate efforts needed to earn respect as an undergraduate, especially because I am considered at the bottom of the hierarchy. The ‘pecking order’ starts at the top with the PI (Principal Investigator), and trickles down to post docs, PhD students, masters students, and then undergraduates. I don’t feel disrespected, but I do have to take the time to prove myself and share my curiosities. In particular it has taken a while for me to get to know everyone in Sysnet because the lab is large. Being invited to Sysnet’s seminar style lunches has helped me get integrated better. Showing up, being friendly and open, and asking questions gets me positive attention and acknowledgement. It doesn’t take much, but it does take effort and time.

My goal for next quarter is to start refining the exploratory work I have been doing into some sort of specific project, and maybe even turn it into a paper. It would also be amazing to start getting paid for my work. Turns out that work ethic needs to be focused as well. This is another lesson I am working on. Being able to arrive at meetings with my professor having made a good amount of progress is the key to being able to refine the work into a potential paper or paid position. The progress I make needs to follow his guidelines for me as well. Getting side tracked into a realm of discovery is normal, especially when I am still learning what research is all about, but it does slow progress.

Sysnet is the third lab I have worked for as and undergraduate. All of these tidbits that I have shared seem simple, but for someone who has no prior experience with research, this all took time to figure out. I hope some of these ideas can help speed up research navigation for you.


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