Undergraduate Research: What Wasn’t Taught in Class
By Erin Batta ’23 and Christina Orzabal ’23
When you think of the term “researcher,” you may be imagining someone in a lab coat and safety glasses carefully mixing chemicals that could explode at any second. Fortunately for those around us, this is not the kind of research we do. Research is a far broader area than most people think about, as it can include much more than just the natural sciences.
We are two research assistants working in public policy. Despite having very different majors (statistics and public health), we have been able to work together throughout our time here and combine our skills to contribute to the same projects, mostly relating to criminal justice and program evaluation.
It’s easy to find horror stories of research or internships that turn students away from the field, but this is not how it always goes, and we hope to demonstrate what a positive experience this can be. Through this work, we have learned about the research process, gained confidence in applying our class lessons, and asked questions to higher-level researchers. Because of these benefits, we would like to share some of our experiences and advice for student researchers.
What we learned:
Undergraduate research can feel like an overwhelming challenge when it comes to wanting to gain more knowledge and experience within your field, but there are many benefits that students can gain through pursuing this option. Research, while a student is an undergraduate, will help them learn important skills that can be applied throughout their time as a researcher and beyond. For us, there are three important skills that can be learned from doing research. First, participating in research allows students to think critically by applying topics learned from class in order to answer real-world research questions which will allow a deeper understanding of these concepts. Secondly, students learn to effectively communicate their research findings to other researchers and also the general public. Last, students learn how to collaborate with a team of researchers. Because most research is done as a team this might be one of the most important skills an undergraduate learns if they want to pursue a career in research.
What skills were helpful:
Participating in research has provided helpful insight into what skills are important for success in our future careers. As many people know, it is always advisable to be as comfortable with different types of technology as possible. An important lesson we’ve learned first-hand is that in research, data is not always provided in the convenient, readable format we would like it to be in. For this reason, tools such as Python, R, and Excel can be extremely useful in cleaning data, as well as the process of actually analyzing it. On top of that, knowledge of Excel can help provide huge amounts of information about complex data, as well as speed up the process of cleaning and finding errors within it. This is just the tip of the iceberg, though, and any technology you can become familiar with is useful.
However, technical skills alone do not make a good researcher (or worker in any industry,) and it is quite possibly even more important to develop the right attitude and soft skills. Students aren’t expected to know everything, but they are expected to control what they can: their own attitude, work ethic, and actions. With this in mind, it is vital to communicate often. This means being honest about what you do and don’t know, speaking often with your supervisor about what is expected of you, and providing regular updates on your progress and questions. It’s also essential to be dependable and motivated to learn new things. Again: you can’t control what you’re good at, but you can control how you act.
How real-life experience corresponds to what we learned in class:
As a college student (especially early on,) it’s easy to get overwhelmed with classwork and wonder how it could relate to a future career. For this reason, there is a temptation to put off research or internships until we feel we have solved this mystery, but the truth is if we do this, we may be waiting a long time. The best way to actually find out how seemingly abstract information from class corresponds to tasks you will be assigned in a career is to just jump in and do it. Starting with a research position can be enormously helpful in providing an understanding of why we learned what we learned. Real work is rarely a perfect replication of classwork, but it is related, and this actually provides you with opportunities to learn far more.
Overall, we have found that there is a mix of content from class and content we haven’t seen before. For example, we may be introduced to a project where the context is something we know nothing about, but we can still use the methods and concepts from our coursework to solve the research questions. In our experience, we often work on criminal justice studies, which is not a field either of us is familiar with, but we are able to use skills we practiced in class, such as data analysis, to study this more effectively. Even more importantly, research has offered a way for us to turn theory into application. Often, we are asked to do something we have heard of in our classes but haven’t performed in practice yet. This may require extra research and online tutorials, but we come out of it with a far better understanding of how to use that topic in the future.
How it will help with networking/making connections:
Not only can you gain experience and learn important skills by doing research, but students will also have the opportunity to network with professionals from their field. For some, it can be hard to begin in research, so it can be integral to have someone who is established in research on your side. Additionally, networking can provide opportunities for further career advancement in research. Research mentors can guide students in the right direction when exploring career options and more educational opportunities by providing students with advice and feedback. Students can learn from their mentor and mentors can often provide a more straightforward approach for their students. Many students do not know their options until they speak with someone who has more experience, and by doing so, more options may present themselves.
Ultimately, this experience has been incredibly beneficial to us, both from an academic standpoint and by helping us prepare for future careers. Perhaps the most important thing we’ve learned is that research is something almost anyone can do. Regardless of your major or background, there are opportunities available that will enhance your college experience and allow you to do a real service to the world.
Erin Batta and Christina Orzabal, Student Research Assistants, Public Policy Research Institute, Texas A&M University
This article is republished from our Medium account. Read the original article.