Summer Research Experiences
How to Use the Scientific Method to
Choose Your Path After Graduation
BY SHANNEN CRAVENS
Your undergraduate years will fly by — and before you know it, you’ll be facing the decision to either enter the workforce or seek a graduate degree. The decision can be daunting, especially since there is no right or wrong answer.
Your post-graduation plan is a personal choice, based on your
interests, desired career, and perceived strengths — but there is
always an element of uncertainty. Does undergraduate success
mean you’re prepared to excel in an industry position, graduate
school, or professional school? How can you be confident that
you will flourish in the environment you choose to enter next?
This is where your training as a scientist can help you: apply
the scientific method to hypothesize, experiment, and conclude!
The impending end of your undergraduate career means you
need to develop a hypothesis about your next step, which can
be as simple as saying, “I am ready to go into industry/graduate/
medical school.” How do you decide if your hypothesis is correct
before you start the application process? You need to conduct an
experiment! That experiment is called “gathering experience”.
Experience outside of the classroom is an essential component of your résumé, regardless of your post-graduation plans.
Internships are a great way to collect data on what it’s like to
work as a professional scientist or in graduate-level education
before committing to that career path. Completing a research
internship will give you insight into what it’s like to pursue
graduate-level studies in chemistry. It’s also a fantastic way to
build your laboratory skills for an industrial position and could
be a unique experience to showcase on your professional school
You might be questioning how you’ll ever find the time to
squeeze in more work between classes, clubs, and all of the other
hallmarks of a stressful and jam-packed undergraduate education. I have two words for you: summer vacation. You should
view the weeks of free time given to you at the end of the academic year as opportunities to begin preparing yourself for the
next step. While that might sound tiring, it’s worth the effort.
Some of the most valuable opportunities for career experimentation are available during the summer months.
On-campus research: gain experience locally
Experimenting with a research career might be easier than you
realize. Many institutions provide a stipend for students per-
forming summer research with faculty members on campus;
residential campuses often provide housing as well. At these col-
leges and universities, summer research is a common way to gain
research experience as an undergraduate.
What’s the best way to find research opportunities on campus?
Talk to your professors. Most faculty members have websites that
describe their research, and virtually all professors will be happy
to discuss their projects with you. Once you’ve found professors
whose research interests you, set up appointments to discuss
potential research opportunities. They might be able to provide
you with a research opportunity, or they might know of other professors who are in the market for a research assistant with your
interests and skills.
Procedures vary by institution, but expect to submit some type
of grant proposal to your chemistry department. Expect, too, to
wait a few months to find out if you are funded for the summer.
Your professor can give you an idea of how long to wait and how
likely it is that you’ll get funded.
Assuming you are funded, you can expect to spend 8–12 weeks
engaged in research. If you are at a primarily undergraduate institution (PUI) or two-year college, you can expect to work closely
with your professor and other undergraduate students. If you are
at a research university (or a two-year college that partners with a
research university for research), you may still see your professor,
but you will work more closely with graduate students, postdocs,
and other undergraduate students.
Most professors will accept undergraduates into research
programs after their second year, but some will accept promising
students after their first year of chemistry. Summer research is a
great way to confirm — or disprove — your hypothesis of a career
at your type of academic institution. Obtaining actual research
experience can help you make an informed decision about
whether to apply to graduate school.
Off-campus research: learning
in a different environment
After searching around campus, you might find that there aren’t
opportunities for you to do the kind of research that interests you.