In Theory, it’s All in Your Head; In Practice, it’s Seriously True
Don’t worry so much about what you do and don’t know that you get stuck inside your own head. If you spend too much time in there, you’ll end up only being able to see your own gaps; to be honest, not even postdocs and professors know exactly which direction to go in when performing research. Everyone starts out with that Swiss Cheese Syndrome, so there’s no need to be insecure about your limitations. On the first day, you may feel like a wobbly wildebeest calf in a den of watchful lions, desperate to prove you belong (and more importantly, not break anything), but in lab, everyone’s learning together. We’re all in love with science and engineering because we want to fill in those holes. So if they exist? Well, that’s perfectly normal. Don’t let it drag you down.
I can only tell you this because of what happened to me. Man, that was a rough first month. One week to get acclimated, and then – boom! – my mentor needed to visit China for some time. Almost simultaneously, the professor (PI) in charge of my lab was going to Italy, which meant that I suddenly felt alone, reading scientific literature and working on a research project I had barely wrapped my mind around.
Naturally, I got very wrapped up in my project. Oof. Mistake number one, honestly. As a research intern, you shouldn’t forget to explore your surroundings. Whether that’s something as simple as interacting with the other graduate students in your lab and asking about their projects and nascent careers in science (nothing says you can’t have more than one mentor!) or attending one of the seminars out and about on campus, there’s so much you can do to help yourself and find out what you want to do. It can be tempting to just hone in on the material your mentor has provided for you, but you shouldn’t let it consume you. My work has been completely theoretical, which means I’ve spent a lot of time sitting, thinking, and programming. That’s natural, and I’m happy with that, but I always make sure to spend some time outside so I don’t feel like I’m drowning.
Frankly, you’ll never really know what research field will capture your interest. This summer, I’ve been working in a lab in the mechanical engineering department. I’m a math major. When people think of engineering labs, they envision robots being built, or new materials being manufactured. In my case, I was working on testing and developing algorithms. It’s been much more theoretical than anything I’ve ever associated with engineering, but I’ve come to really enjoy it. And that is so much more important than you could imagine. You’re going to be working with people who’ve already dedicated themselves to a sector of science. Most likely, they’ve already discovered their passion. In that environment, it can feel awkward and discouraging if you realize that you don’t have the same connection to the work. In your head, you may even feel that something is wrong with you. Don’t let yourself feel that way. If you feel frustrated, talk to your mentor and PI. They’re here to guide you, you’re not here to serve them. They can open the world to research. You just have to find out where you want to go.
Unfortunately, if you’re looking or preparing to work in a lab in the Computer Science or Electrical Engineering department, or another department with close ties to the technology sector, it can be fairly common for the lab to be fairly empty during the summer, as professors leave for international conferences or meetings and graduate students take off on internships of their own. Make sure to talk with your mentor and devise a plan beforehand!