PSA: It’s OK to be Confused
The number one piece of advice I could give to anyone planning on getting into research is don’t be discouraged if you feel like you don’t have enough experience or background knowledge. Going into my second year as a Biology major, this fall will be my first time since junior year of high school taking a biology course, so one could only imagine how nervous I was when I found out I got a research position in a biology lab this summer since I had such little experience. After interviewing with my PI and lab mentor and then attending my first lab group meeting I started to realize how much of what they were saying was going completely over my head, but over time I also learned great ways to fill theses gaps and I thought that maybe it would be helpful to the methods that I used.
Tip 1: It’s okay to smile and nod even if you don’t understand a particular discussion, but NEVER stop paying attention or let yourself “zone out”. As I learned more, little tid bits of information from past conversations would come back to me and I made new connections in my project or whatever I had been reading that I didn’t see before. The seemingly complicated information that can be easily blown off and forgotten about can later become the missing piece of whatever puzzle you’re working on.
Tip 2: Write down the things you don’t understand, ALWAYS. At the end of the day I would go home and look up whatever terms I didn’t know or whatever project or paper someone referenced that I wasn’t familiar with. If I still couldn’t find the answer I was looking for I would ask my lab mentor, which leads me into my next tips. Don’t just hope the topic you didn’t understand won’t be brought up again because I guarantee it will come back to haunt you.
Tip 3: DON’T be afraid to ask your lab mentor or even other people working in your lab for help. Lab mentors are there to mentor you, they don’t except you to know everything and they are willing and ready to teach you. Chances are that they and everyone else in your lab was in your situation at one point and they understand the difficulty of learning the ropes of research. Trust me, no one will think you’re any less intelligent and asking questions can save you from safety hazards and other costly mistakes. Plus, a lot of the times you’ll get funny anecdotes from the graduate students or faculty about times they made mistakes too.
Tip 4: READ. All the time. As much as you can. A lot. Research papers can look so daunting at first with pages and pages of text and complicated graphs but once you get through your first one, you will feel like you can take over the world. After you finish reading a couple more, there’s a chance you might even ENJOY it. I know it sounds crazy, but it’s possible. Whenever you start a new project it’s crucial to know as much background as possible and what kinds of similar projects have been done before and their previous outcomes. This can be used as reference so you can check if your results are consistent and if you might have made any procedural errors, sometimes you’ll totally unexpected results and from there can check if maybe previous conclusions were incorrect.
Everything obstacle or task that you come across, not just in the research field, but life in general, is completely doable if you have enough drive and passion to devote your time and learn. It’s like starting to exercise and go for runs again after taking a break. The hardest part is getting yourself up and moving, but once you get through the first mile you realize it isn’t as bad as you thought and you feel a lot better after. Once you have a better grip on what you’re researching, your confidence in your lab work will sky rocket and you’ll be able to explore more areas of your interest and tackle your problems head on instead of being stuck fumbling through the fundamentals. And hey, maybe after giving it your best effort, you may realize that research just might not be your thing, that’s OK too.