Finding your footing in research
Solidifying your role in a research project is not an easy task. I have been involved in five different research projects since my junior year of high school and I can honestly say that the first few weeks after joining a project can be incredibly intimidating. Sometimes this period can be shorter or longer, but I have always found that there is a phase during which you might feel lost, unhelpful, or even uninterested to the point of doubting your decision to jump onto a new research project. Throughout my experience in these five projects, including my most recent involvement as a PRYDE Scholar, I have been able to find my footing and enthusiastically contribute to each project. I’ve noted a few strategies along that way that can truly help a new researcher feel comfortable and capable in their research environment.
The first thing that can help a new researcher is to fully immerse yourself in the literature of your research. Start by a simple web search to familiarize yourself with the basics and then dive deeper into scholarly articles to learn more about the intricacies of your field and project. If you are having trouble coming up with search terms, ask people on your research team for articles that they think are integral to the project. I’ve found that project leaders are always willing to send over articles that they think might be of use to new researchers on their project. They’ll be impressed with your level of involvement from the get-go! Which brings me to my second point…
Ask questions! The early stages of your involvement in a research project is the perfect time to ask questions. This has been the most important strategy for me to be able to better contribute to a research project. This summer, I began working with professor Gary Evans on a project titled “Strengthening Planning Skills.” Our study’s aim was to investigate the differences in planning skills and delay discounting in children from different socioeconomic backgrounds. While I was familiar with parts of the research context, there was (and still is!) a lot for me to learn. I reached out to members of my research team and asked them the questions that I was holding onto. By asking questions, I was also able to get to know my research team, which ultimately benefits the ways in which we work together.
One final strategy I’ve used to feel comfortable and useful in a research setting has been to speak up about the parts of the project that interest me and the parts of the project that I might not be the most enthusiastic about. This may not be possible in certain lab settings where there is a predetermined structure and workload, but I have not found that to be the case for me thus far. I have had extremely positive experiences where my mentors and project leaders want me to be doing work that I find interesting. Whenever you find a task that you thrive in, let your project leader know that you’d like to be more involved in that component of the research. If working on another aspect of the project is not using your skillset to its fullest, then politely suggest that you would like to be exposed to other parts of the project. Research is a learning experience and you should advocate for yourself in order to enjoy the experience and contribute effectively to the project.
It might be intimidating at first being the newcomer in a lab, but you’re in the best position to learn and determine your role. By implementing these strategies, you can set yourself up for success in your new research project!