The biggest piece of advice I would give to anyone about to get into research is to be prepared to work independently. This was a personal takeaway from the graduate student panel that spoke to interns a few weeks ago. Panelists said a difficult part of transitioning to graduate school was learning to operate with minimal levels of supervision and direct instruction. There’s more expectation to create your own research ideas and experiments, while being able to figure out how to make them all come to fruition. Interns aren’t necessarily expected to operate at this level of independence, but I would say that an undergraduate research experience is the best time to prepare.
This past week has given me a taste of what it’s like to work independently. My mentor was at a conference on the other side of the country to present his research. At first, I was concerned, unsure of what I would do if I faced a major road block. Although I was already accustomed to spending most of my time working alone, not being able to meet face to face at all seemed like it would be a major limitation. This prompted me to plan out the week meticulously, so I could still be as productive as possible.
I started off my week by beginning to write a report on my project in journal format. To begin such a task, I read up on relevant theory through a photonics textbook and other contemporary journal articles. This extra reading allowed me to generate informative figures and summarize the background behind my project. Being able to explain something through writing greatly enhanced my understanding of the topic. I then spent the next few days in the laboratory, both taking measurements, and watching others to see how they handled problems. Finally, when my mentor returned on Friday, we had perhaps our most insightful meeting so far. The extensive preparation I had done on my own, such as reading theory, writing the journal, and troubleshooting problems in the lab helped me make the most of the meeting. We discussed everything I learned, the problems I encountered, and what the remaining weeks of the internship would look like. I now feel that I’ve fine tuned my research work flow and I’m ready to finish the internship strong.