My cousin decided to study Biology just like I did (same university, hence same program). While she wants to go on a different research subject, so far she also wants to follow an academic pathway, and so she has asked me a lot of questions to subjects I wished I knew more about when I was starting. These will be a series of posts based on that premise. Please keep in mind all these posts will be based on personal experiences.
How soon should I join a research group as an undergraduate student?
The answer as always is: it depends. If you want to go in research, I would advise that you join a research group close to you interests as soon as possible, for several reason. First of all, it can be a great experience, not only for your CV but as a personal one. Is research for you? And more importantly, is THIS type of research really for you?
What do I mean by that? Well, you might think that you want to work in biochemistry (as I did) and join a biochemistry group (which I did) and in the process discover that what you actually like of biochemistry is interactions, and end up working in protein interactions…which I did. I do not regret for one second joining that group. First of all, it introduced me to lab meetings (at 7am on a Monday, but never mind that), to lab work (racking tips and all the other not so fun parts of working on a lab) to actually doing experiments. All of these makes part of research in a lab, and while there are things that I didn’t enjoy that much, the parts that I did enjoy more than compensated for the former, which made me feel I was in the right track.
If you want to work on a branch of research that involves more field work, it might be a good thing that field work agrees with you. You might think you do, because you love camping, but as you may suspect is not the same. So for that instance joining a research team sooner than later, it’s a great way to test yourself.
Also, if your undergraduate program allows/requires you to have a thesis (like mine did) entering a group early might give you the opportunity to start working in your thesis project much earlier or at least to refine the skills you will need for it. For example, when I first joined the Biochemistry group, in early 2007 (I think) I started working with the parasite that causes malaria. As it turns out, for several reasons, including an academic exchange I did, my final project was on a different subject, but the experience I acquired with the first project was 100% transferable and by then I was much more comfortable doing what I was doing.
However, you have to keep in mind that joining a group will be demanding. You will need to invest time and energy to it. Because of this, you shouldn’t forget the rest of your undergrad classes and you should discuss this with the head of the group as well. My Biology program had a lot of classes that required field work, with some times us being in the field for up to two weeks. Normally the research groups at your university will be aware of this, but they will also expect you to find the time to work with them. So ask yourself if you do have the time and energy to not neglect either one. Keep in mind that this might be your first research reference that involves you actually working on a project. Neglecting your grades or your research would only be counterproductive to everyone.
You can also consider baby steps; ask to start coming to the group meetings for example. This would show you a bit of the interactions between the group, see the discussions and the topics that are being studied at the moment. You could do that for a trimester/semester and maybe next one start actively to work with them. There is a chance that they will just ask you to wait for next term, and that’s perfectly ok.
In all, joining a research group as soon as the rest of your obligations allow you too, is a great idea. If time permits is and you are undecided on to what field you want to go, this can be also a great way to test the waters, but I will talk more about that next time.
How Soon is Now--The Smiths