How do I succeed in research?

Getting a research position is just the first step in having a meaningful research experience. Undergraduate research is a great way to network and build skills. More importantly, experience is the best way to figure out if you like doing a given type of research (or doing research at all!).


Research is a great way to get to know people in science. Each lab is a little different in culture, but try to get to know the graduate students, postdocs, and PI in your lab. If you're interested in pursuing research further (e.g. graduate school), these people have a lot of perspective and may end up being friends and colleagues someday. Either way, they've all been through undergrad and probably have some advice. See if you can go to lab meetings, attend social events, or just talk to people if you're physically in lab together. Graduate students are also glad to talk about their scientific journey thus far. Ask them for a coffee chat or short meeting and ask them about how their experiences led up to this point; most will be happy to oblige.

Building scientific skills

Working in a lab is a valuable opportunity to build scientific skills. At the outset, you may be asked by your mentor to read some scientific papers. The structure, content, and writing style of these papers are very different from the more expositional form covered in college writing classes. Try to read scientific publications when you have the opportunity and think critically about the evidence-based assertions put forth in the papers. Do the authors' conclusions follow from the data shown in the paper? Are there alternative conclusions that could be drawn? Discuss these thoughts and questions that arise with your mentor. Being able to think critically about others' work will allow you to become a better scientist by turning that critical eye towards your own science.

Learn from the people around you and work on building very solid foundations and good habits - for example, appropriate PPE, ergonomic working practices, basic techniques like pipetting and labeling, using equipment without damaging it, or writing efficient/well-commented code. It's also a good time to become familiar with research tools (e.g. lab instruments, algorithms) - not just how to use them, but also how they work and what their limitations are. If you get the chance to write about or present your work, learn how to write clearly and accurately, how to edit scientific writing, and how to give a concise, yet informative scientific presentation. These are the types of skills that will be transferable after you leave your current position, or if you pursue research after your undergraduate degree.

Building other skills

Research also lets you build good habits in many other areas like professionalism, work ethic, and communicating with mentors.

Some things you can practice to build successful habits:

  • Try, try, and try again. Research is interesting because you are pushing the boundaries of knowledge. This means that more often than not, things aren't going to work out and your experiments may fail! Do not take these failures personally.

  • Be on time for meetings and replying to emails/messages in a timely fashion

  • Be honest, even/especially when you mess up or don't understand something - it will often be worse if you try to hide it

  • Don't be afraid to ask for help

  • Put time and effort into your work - your experience will not be meaningful if you do not put any time/effort into it.

    • It often helps to be consistent about your work schedule, and to have concrete and achievable tasks that you know how to work towards

  • Communicate with your mentors, even/especially if you're struggling - they can't help you if you don't talk to them, and they want to help you do good work

Do I even like this research?

After working in a laboratory for a while, reflect on your experiences. The answers to the following questions will help you fill out your CV, explain to others what you've accomplished, and most importantly, learn about your own preferences to know what to look for in the future. They will also change over time, and that's totally normal.

  • Do you enjoy the day-to-day tasks you're doing?

  • Do you (still) find the topic interesting?

  • What are your favorite parts of your experience? Least favorite?

  • How much structure do you have (e.g. being given daily to-do lists vs. your own project with no guidance)? Do you like that level of structure?

  • What skills have you learned?

  • Are there people you've met who you admire, and what do you admire about them?

  • Are there things you'd like to try that you can't in your current position?

After reflecting, you can ask yourself: is there anything I can change about my work that could make it a better experience? For example, you might realize that you want more structure, and ask for more frequent meetings with the person you work for. Or you might realize you could really enjoy your work if you just prioritized time to do it every week, and actually followed through.

It's also okay to come to the conclusion that you want to try to find a different research position - or to realize that you just don't like doing research. If that's the case, be professional when deciding to leave a lab: give an appropriate amount of notice, and make sure your responsibilities can be handed off so they won't cause problems for others.

Realizing that you really like your work, or that you don't, or that you like some parts of it but not others - all of these are perfectly normal! However, you will probably be happier with your experiences if you give the above questions some thought. And remember that even if you don't like an experience, it can still be valuable - now that you know what you don't like, you can make more informed choices in the future.