Undergraduate research - should I invest myself or not?

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Undergraduate research - should I invest myself or not?

Postby Promilla » Tue Jan 24, 2017 1:28 pm

Hello everyone!

So I will try to be as brief as possible.

I have just started an undergraduate final project (which is supposed to last 3.5 months but I thought I would stay for longer, like 6-7 months if it was good). Due to regulations at my university I was not able to continue in the lab that I've done a ~4 months research project as I would have an "unfair advantage". In general I have done, until now, mostly short research projects which lasted mostly 2-4 months. I love science and at this moment I am 100% sure this is what I want to do, so I applied for PhDs and got some interviews.

Anyway, so I started this project and - in short - I am really disappointed. It seems that I will assist with what a current PhD is doing - basically just repeat her PCRs and flow cytometry. Moreover, the PI (who came to UK recently and has very little funding as for now) is not very interested in me doing anything independent. The PhD that I am supposed to work with is of a kind "do-as-little-work-as-possible" and just follows whatever she is told. She doesn't know the answer to any question I am asking about what she is doing (to be fair I do ask a lot of questions but they are questions that if you are carrying out experiments you should know the answer to). Overall, it seems that I will learn not much in this project.

My question is a) if anyone has any advice for such situations, b) should I invest myself or not?

I could, potentially, dig super deep into the topic and try to come up with some stuff and propose it to the PI but a) they have little money so they most likely will not be happy to do it, b) the preliminary data I've been shown are not very persuasive. I could try and get involve and research the topic super thoroughly - but the PI doesn't seem to be interested at all.

The other option is to invest as little time and effort as possible and focus on learning. Reading literature, going to as many seminars as possible, perhaps trying to play around with bioinformatics/computational biology. Finish as quickly as possible and then (before starting the PhD, if I get accepted) go back to my previous lab or another lab and try to pick up some useful techniques.

The question is basically what strategy would be the best? I really don't want this 3-4 months to be a complete waste of time. I love learning and it is just unfortunate that I ended up in such situation.

Hopefully, I didn't come as egotistic or anything. I know this is their opinion how it should be, but it just troubles me.


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Re: Undergraduate research - should I invest myself or not?

Postby Ana » Wed Jan 25, 2017 2:43 am

Hi Promilla,

I think your post comes across as complicated because you are focusing on the emotions involved.

If I got them right the facts are that you are doing an undergrad research project and don’t think it is the right project and PI, and because you have already been exposed to research and liked it then you are sure it is this place and PI, not “research” in general that you don’t like.

A poorly funded lab where students are just given instructions to follow is indeed not an ideal place to make a PhD, but we are talking about a 3.5 month undergrad project. As you already suggest, not trying to push that PI outside where s/he likes to work during those months and instead getting the most out of the university experience those months seems the best plan.

And of course don’t choose that lab as your PhD lab. This is just a short thing, and you will find some ways to not make it a complete waste of time.

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Re: Undergraduate research - should I invest myself or not?

Postby Craig B. » Wed Jan 25, 2017 12:13 pm

If you're going to gain something from or are required to complete your undergraduate final project, I would stay with the lab you're in and get as much out of the experience as possible. If you don't have anything to lose by not doing the final project, go back to the lab you were happy in and get the most meaningful experience for yourself.

It is challenging to come up with good, short term research projects. Your PI probably barely knows you, and doesn't fully appreciate what background you do or don't have. It can take years of learning as an undergraduate or graduate student to be ready for independent research, and your PI has limited resources right now.

As Ana suggested, finding a perfect fit with a PI as a PhD student is much more important than as an undergraduate. For now, focus on getting as much as you can from the opportunities you're presented.
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Re: Undergraduate research - should I invest myself or not?

Postby Promilla » Wed Jan 25, 2017 1:57 pm

Thank you Craig and Ana! Yeah, I will probably do that! It's mostly the thing that I wanted to gain as much experience as possible before starting a PhD but it seems that this is not what going to happen. Which seems like a waste of valuable time. I will try to propose some experiments that I could do and see what happens. If the PI is not interested and the PhD student is also unable to provide me with any "learning experience" I will just do as little as possible and spend the time reading papers and going to seminars.

I really appreciate your advice!
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