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5 Tips for Finding and Landing a Research Project

Written by: Alaina G Levine
Published on: Sep 23, 2016

Many students, undergraduate and graduate, have diverse, preconceived notions of what it means to be a scientist. I know I did! As an undergraduate, I assumed that I would become a professor and romanticized what that would entail. I envisioned a career where I would spend my days surrounded by nerds, thinking about black holes and the twin paradox, conversing in formulae and equations, and solving the riddles of the universe. But when I actually started doing research, I came to the realization that my proposed career path was basically a fantasy. There is so much more to conducting research than just thinking about science in a dreamy fashion.

Just like any profession, there are multiple ways of crafting a research career. The researcher does much more than just research, like teaching, writing proposals, raising money, serving on committees, mentoring young scientists, and leading functioning teams. Yes, they get to do research, but there is a great deal more that needs to be done before they actually spend their days researching and lost in philosophical thought.

In a recent AGU Career Center webinar, I discussed the importance and relevance of pursuing a research project early in one’s career. There are many benefits associated with conducting research: developing new skills, gaining knowledge about your field, how research is conducted, understanding the culture your discipline, expanding your network, and becoming a stronger leader and team-member. But one of the most vital reasons to do research is see first-hand what it is like to be a researcher.

Now, it is one thing to say, “hooray, I will do a research project”, and it is another to actually land that project. If you have never done research before, it can seem daunting to get started. I can imagine you might be asking yourself: What project should I pursue? What disciplines and subdisciplines exist? With whom do I speak and how do I broach the topic of conducting research? Fear not! Finding and pursuing a research project is not as scary nor as far-reaching as it might seem. If you are unsure of where, when and how to begin, here are a few tips to help you get started.

Begin with what and who you know. You love science. You love geology. Take note what your professor discusses in class, if they focus on seismology one day and this piques your curiosity, go to her office hours and ask about the subject. Inquire what the leading field topics are and where you can find more information. She will most likely be thrilled that you took a shine to the field and have the initiative to learn more.

Take advantage of your professional association. AGU is the organization for geoscientists. They are a fantastic resource for up-and-coming researchers. Peruse the website, and read their publications, like Eos a monthly magazine devoted to communicating critical issues in the community. You’ll get great insight of research being done across the world and generate ideas as to what topics you could pursue for a project. You can also look into what topics are being presented at AGU Fall Meeting (an annual conference) by perusing the online program, and even take a look at the Section/Focus Groups and what is being presented during those special sessions. Just by examining the many subdisciplines of geoscience represented by AGU members and during the Fall Meeting, you can get a better sense of what type of research is being conducted and begin to explore different subfields. Professional associations provide other resources, including special funding opportunities, fellowships, access to the membership directory, and professional development, such as those offered by the AGU Career Center.

Read popular science magazines about cutting edge research. Popular science magazines, are written for the scientific enthusiast audience. The articles are designed for readers who love science but don’t necessarily have a PhD in the subject. Take note that I am not advising you to read scientific journals early in your career because these papers are meant for a specialist audience. Learning to read a scientific paper is a learned skill and one you can hone by conducting research.  As a student, you should be able to grasp the concepts in these publications. As you learn about different subtopics, major contributors in the field and current research that sound exciting, you can always contact the writer of the article or people quoted in the piece for more information. I would also suggest asking your professor or advisor about fascinating articles too, they might have connections with whom they can give you.

Look for on-campus resources. Many universities have a goal of engaging students in research and related experiences. Right on your campus, there are probably formal programs to which you could apply and conduct research with access to resources such as advisors, centers, and websites that list mentors, projects and funding opportunities. There are also specialized research programs some of which match students interested in a specific science with corresponding professors in labs across multiple departments. Additionally, national programs, like the NASA Space Grant Internship, which many geosciences majors pursue. Seek out these existing and exciting opportunities then apply for them.   

Don’t be afraid to ask for opportunities. Even if you don’t know exactly what you want to do, you can always ask a faculty member if there is an opportunity to work in their lab or group. As a student, you are not expected to be an expert. Professors know that you are in an early stage of your career progression, one where an exceptional amount of learning is required. They will more often than not train and teach you the ways of the research field and enterprise. By asking for the opportunity, you are demonstrating your boldness, passion, enthusiasm, and can-do attitude. A positive outlook is an important trait of a successful researcher, and the earlier you adopt and showcase it, the more opportunities you will find and land.

If you even think you might want to be a researcher or pursue a career that involves conducting research, then I highly recommend a research project! It is vital to comprehend the elements, tasks, and responsibilities of being a research scientist, especially as you plan out your professional future. When you pursue a research project, you get a sense of what it is like to have a researcher career. You learn what it is like to conduct research and to develop a sharp eye for finding the smallest clues to nature’s mysteries. You also learn a great deal about yourself- what you like and don’t like to do, and what skills you look forward to using. This information is absolutely invaluable to you as you determine what careers you would like to explore.