So you want to get an A in Undergraduate Research

What do you need to do?

You are starting your undergraduate research and you want to get an A. More importantly, you want to ensure that you get the most benefit out of the experience as you can. Each lab and each PI (Principle Investigator- a term that refers to your advisor) has their own unique character, each lab addresses different questions, and each PI will have different expectations from you. No one can set out a list of concepts or content that you need to master and that you will be tested on to earn your grade. However, there are some common characteristics that each PI is looking for in their students. Here are some:

ImageEngagement. This is your project. Take ownership. Demonstrate to your PI that you are involved. You should be doing more than going through the motions just to get data or doing only what your PI explicitly tells you to do. Do a thorough literature search and READ the papers. This means you have to learn how to use the library and SciFinder. Please don’t tell your PI that you found the information on Google or Wikipedia! Suggest some experiments based on your readings.

Effort. Getting results in the lab takes time. Put in the hours that are needed. Most PIs will expect you to be in the lab WORKING (chatting with your lab mates does not count) a certain number of hours per week. Of course faculty understand that some weeks you may have one or more big exams and most PIs will be flexible with the hours under certain circumstances, but you will be expected to make up time missed.

Understanding. When you present your experimental plan or your results, if you don’t understand the experiments that you have planned or executed, it becomes pretty apparent pretty quickly. Demonstrate that you have taken the time do the background research to really understand what you are talking about. Be able to answer questions from your audience. ANYTHING you present is fair game. It is ok if you don’t always know the answer, and it is ok to speculate based on your knowledge, your readings or some other precedent, but don’t try to BS your way through a question when you have no idea. BE READY!

Initiative. Again, this is your project, take ownership. Do some reading of the literature above and beyond what your PI may have assigned you. Curiosity. Ask questions: especially during your group meetings. This is the time when the students have their advisors attention. Use that time to your benefit. When you have no questions, your advisor will conclude that you have not attempted to learn. Ask questions about other student’s projects, not just your own.

Persistence. You are doing research. You are not repeating experiments that have been done thousands of times and tweaked to perfection over a period of decades (like the experiments you do in your laboratory classes). The majority of experiments you attempt will fail. Get used to it. If you can’t get used to it, then get out of research. What this means is that to get results you need to do many, many experiments, to troubleshoot and to adapt. This means you have to think about WHY an experiment failed. Pay attention, because every failed experiment can tell you something.

Responsibility. You are responsible both to your PI and you lab mates. Be present during the times you have committed. If you cannot be present, then let someone know. Your PI or immediate supervisor (who may be a post doc or grad student) may have arranged to do an experiment with you, or may have an important task for you so let them know if you can’t come in. Take care of the equipment and don’t waste supplies. If you use up a critical reagent TELL SOMEONE. CLEAN UP AFTER YOURSELF!! Most people are surprised at how much of a mess they can make in the lab. If you see something that needs to be cleaned, organized or put away just do it. Don’t whine about whose job it is or who left it out. Basically, act like a grown-up.

Cooperation. Get along with your lab mates. You will likely have to share equipment. Don’t hog equipment time, share your lab space, be a good co-worker. Your PI will probably ask the graduate students that you work with about your attitude and ability. Don’t piss them off.

Organization. If your PI asks you for some data or to see an NMR spectra or to see your notebook, be able to put your hands on your experimental records and data quickly. This means that it needs to be well documented and organized. There is nothing worse than waiting while a student shuffles through their NMR data for that one critical spectra. Even worse for you if you cannot find it.

All of these characteristics take time to develop. You PI will not expect you to dive in and demonstrate all of these characteristics at once. But he/she will most definitely be assessing your development in all of the above. Do you want an exemplary letter for graduate or medical school? Then earn it.

So what does a student need to do to get an A? This really depends on the laboratory and your advisor. In all labs it is possible to get an A. In some labs, it is rarer than others. It is the exceptional student who earns the top grade. A good grade is definitely attainable.

The importance of research is not in the grade you receive; it is in the experience you gain. A lot of learning occurs when undergraduate students do research; learning that is different from that obtained via normal coursework. Research will give you a better understanding for the discipline of chemistry or biochemistry. Many students learn how they want to focus their efforts after their first research experience. The more the student is challenged the more accomplished they will feel at the completion of their experience. Like anything else, the more effort you put into the experience, the more benefit you will receive.