Robert Dalka: The importance of research as an undergrad

Tuesday, March 27, 2018 - 4:51pm

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I walked into the lab, finished with my classes for the day and ready to get some data. I had been wrestling with the lab equipment for weeks. The computer kept crashing, turning entire days into wasted time. Luckily, it was put down to its final resting place. We now had a brand-new computer and I was ready to finally get some results. As I was setting up, I realized that the laser was not lasing at all. To fix this kind of problem, you have to adjust small mirrors and align the inside of the laser cavity. I had done this before, but I had help. This time, I was on my own. After an hour of moving the beam up, down, left, right, a laser came out the other side. I had fixed it. I felt better about myself than I have ever felt finishing a homework problem set, and now I was ready to take data.

This type of experience was not a one-time thing for me, and not an experience only I have had. I have talked with many other undergraduates at the University of Michigan doing research, not just in physics, and a ton of them have had to work through issues on their own. Figuring out how to solve one of these issues is an invaluable experience. You not only learn a new skill, but you learn how to solve problems on your own and are able to gain confidence in your own abilities.

A lot of people stress the importance of doing research as an undergraduate, but I feel that they don’t always talk about the most important reasons for it. A reason commonly cited is to gain experience in your field to prepare you for graduate school. This is usually directed to convince students in the hard sciences — physics, biology, chemistry — to get into research early. It is true; it does help students prepare for what they will be expecting in graduate school, and as Sarah Webb pointed out in an article for Science, many graduate schools "have come to expect it."

Though this reasoning is drilled into students’ heads from the moment they step on campus, it has a small scope and is often restricted to a specific group of students focused on STEM research. It raises the question: What about those in the social sciences?

I have a friend who had to participate in research for the Psychology Department for her marketing major. I think that this experience sets a great example of what many people should do. Just because she is not majoring in psychology does not mean she couldn’t participate in research in the field, especially since many of the skills she learned were directly applicable to her future marketing profession.

You could ask me, “But why would I do research in a field that might only be tangentially related to the field that I am in, when instead I could get an internship that directly relates to what I want to do?” I would respond, “Go for it! Do what’s best for you,” but I would follow that comment with an attempt to convince you that what’s best for you would be at least a semester of research.

An internship will look pretty good on your résumé. However, think about all the other people doing the same internship you are — maybe not exactly the same, but similar and standard. Employers have seen that résumé before; it’s not necessarily anything new. Nowadays, you have to stand out and do something different. The thing that could set you apart could be research.

However, the reason for doing research should not be so you can just stamp it on your résumé as another checkbox checked. The true value of research is what it teaches you. A study by John Petrella and Alan Jung concluded that doing research as an undergraduate can help in creating more tolerance for obstacles, learning to work independently and boosting self-confidence, among other things. I have seen this while participating in my own research. In the example I opened with, I was able to deal with a problem that came up, figure it out on my own and felt better about my abilities afterward.

According to data from the United States Department of Labor, in 2017, over 60 percent of those between 16 and 19 years of age worked in either the service occupation or sales. Now, I am not disparaging anyone in these industries, but some of the jobs in these sectors, which most 16-19 year olds take part in,  do not offer much opportunity for ingenuity or discovery. I have worked both as a barista in a coffee shop and as a busboy in a restaurant, and in each one, I had to stick to the rules and steps that I was told when I started the jobs. There was not much room for creativity, and I pretty much just followed instructions and went through the motions. Undergraduate research offers a break from these types of jobs. You are able to work on projects in which you need to think critically and develop new ways of doing things.

According to the National Science Foundation, as of 2016, the University of Michigan spends the second most money on research and development of any U.S. university. It spends the most out of any public school and is only beat by a private university, Johns Hopkins University. In my opinion, it would be a crime not to at least explore the option of doing research while attending this university. There are a ton of ways to start, from applying to the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program to just emailing professors as I did.

Mirroring the slightly self-righteous motto of our university, you might not immediately be the best at research, but you will get to work with the best and will be given a real chance to help lead a project. Research will be a new experience for many, but no matter what your major is or what your career ambitions are, it will be helpful in one way or another. So in preparation for next fall, or even this summer, look into doing some research.

Robert Dalka can be reached at rpdalka@umich.edu