By Dominika Durovcikova
During my penultimate year of high school, I was tasked with finding a topic for an extended school project. Despite knowing that my project was going to be within physics, I was desperate to find a topic that would be feasible for a high-schooler as well as interesting enough to spend a couple of months on.
One day, my mum suggested in passing that I go and speak with someone at the observatory in my hometown. “They must be doing some research, and you might be able to join them.”
In the following week, she drove me to the observatory to attend one of their public lectures. And after the lecture came my moment. I walked up to the lecturer, a complete stranger to me. I told him I enjoyed hearing about his research, and that I was wondering if I could join him at the observatory to complete my school project.
Fast-forward to 8 months later. We started up a new branch of research at the observatory and completed several nights observing planets beyond our Solar System. I learnt how to operate a large telescope, how to analyse the data and even how to calculate how large the planet we had observed was. I also completed my assignment, for which I later got an A.
It sounds like a smooth experience. However, none of it was easy and smooth at all, especially at the very beginning.
I was absolutely stressed to walk up and introduce myself to this stranger after the lecture.
I was incredibly embarrassed to witness the condescending look he gave me when I told him I wanted to join his research as a high school student.
And I was extremely overwhelmed when I discovered how much knowledge about the subject matter I lacked.
However, only thanks to these difficulties was I able to learn a very important lesson:
Challenging experience makes you grow, and so the best place to keep learning is beyond your comfort zone.
Over the years, this belief paved my way to the most diverse and valuable research experience, ranging from studying the early Universe, designing new medical imaging technologies to attending invite-only conferences at Caltech and in Brazil. Thanks to all these opportunities, I was able to get to know myself better and have now made an informed decision about my post-undergraduate endeavours.
Here, I’d like to share my tips on how to embark on this exciting ride yourself.
As Carol Dweck explains, there are two types of beliefs we hold about our own abilities. Either you believe that all your “talents” and skills are set in stone (fixed mindset), or you believe that you can develop and improve them by conscious effort (growth mindset).
When it comes to undergraduate research, many students get put off because they think no one would take them if they have no prior research experience, or if they didn’t study the subject matter at school. Fixed mindset. Others see it as an opportunity to learn about a new area and to gain exciting experience. Growth mindset.
The truth is, you will never be qualified enough before you go ahead and actually do a project. There will always be people who can code better, or have a more in-depth understanding of the theory. But you need to remember that no one was born this way. If you have the enthusiasm and grit, you’re only a step away from learning everything you need to know on the go.
Research opportunities – apply or create
Research can be very hard to get into as an undergraduate student. At least it is arguably less common in Europe than in the US. Research opportunities for undergraduates are rarely advertised, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t exist - or that you cannot create them!
If you want to get research experience, you should first ask yourself:
What do I want to gain from it?
Is there some specific skill you want to learn, such as a particular programming language, or a specific lab technique?
Is there a particular topic you want to learn more about, or a particular subfield you want to get insights into?
Or is there a particular professor you would like to work with, or a wider team of people you would like to network with?
Think beyond just putting the experience on your CV – think in what ways you as a person or as a scientist-to-be want to grow from it. This is supposed to be the main motivation that gets you out of the bed every morning, no matter if things are going well or not!
The next step is to research the (relatively small) landscape of existing opportunities. Some institutions offer summer schools, whereby you do a research project while also attending lectures and classes to help you build a better understanding of your topic. Other institutions have research placement schemes where they recruit students for a set of pre-set research projects.
However, existing opportunities are not the only way to get research experience. Over the 4 years of my undergrad, I completed 6 different, unrelated research projects, none of which involved an official application process. Instead, I simply reached out to the person I was looking to work with. Of course, there was an implicit, unofficial selection process where my supervisor-to-be was deciding whether to take me or not, and it should be noted that on all occasions, I had to put a lot of effort and time into understanding the group’s research interests before actually reaching out.
I argue that it is much more beneficial to create your own opportunity this way, rather than applying for a pre-set placement, for the following reasons:
It is much easier to find a good fit between you and your supervisor/group if you have the chance to have a (online) meeting with them. This is an opportunity for you to find out more about their ongoing or planned research, and thus get a more realistic sense of what the research project might be like.
Having a direct conversation is also a great opportunity to voice your expectations of the placement, i.e. what you would like to work on and what you would like to learn as a result, and thus possibly tailor the project to your interests.
You get a chance to network with interesting professors or researchers, and even if the placement doesn’t work out in the end, the connections remain. Some of these people might become the most valuable mentors you meet in your life.
It is a great way to practice your proactivity and develop the “just ask” attitude!
Breaking the virtual ice
The bottom line is: if you want to work with someone, you have to reach out to them and ask. But first of all, you have to do your homework: read about their research interests, study their publications, establish what kind of experience you are searching for. This is a long, exhausting and, quite frankly, an intimidating process. So let me share some top tips I have learnt over the years:
Always attach a CV.
Make sure you address them correctly.
Keep your email as short as possible. You don’t want to waste their time reading your whole life story (they would probably stop after a few sentences anyway). The key points to get across are:
o Who are you?
o How did you learn about this person/this group’s research?
o What are you asking for?
o Why are you asking for it? What is your main motivation?
o Ask for a call/meeting to discuss the possibilities.
If you can show that you know their research beyond what’s written on their website, then make sure you do it. This shows that you’re not just sending out 100 generic emails to different professors at once (which by the way you should never do).
If you know about potential funding sources for your placement, e.g. from your university, government or grants, do mention it. If you don’t know about any funding options at all, then ask for advice.
If you do not have any prior experience in the field, that’s totally fine! In fact, emphasizing your enthusiasm often works better than an endless list of achievements. Make sure you set realistic expectations about your current state of knowledge, but show that you are contacting them because you want to learn a lot and contribute to their research efforts (i.e. you can for example ask for reading recommendations).
Follow up with them a couple of times before you give up (but avoid spamming them).
While sending one short email won’t do the full job, it is a very valuable way of getting your foot in the door, make new connections and shed light onto many hidden opportunities. Remember that all professors and scientists are humans after all. In the midst of this stressful and uncomfortable process, do try to enjoy the interaction with these super interesting, knowledgeable and approachable people!
I’ve set this blog in the context of gaining undergraduate research experience, since I have witnessed many people struggling with this issue. However, I strongly believe that the ideas of leaving one’s comfort zone and creating opportunities can be transferred to many different areas and settings, such as industry, business, or even relationships.
So try to catch yourself the next time you stop yourself from asking for something, just because you are too afraid to hear someone say “no”.
Try to push yourself a little further the next time you feel like you’re not qualified to do something.
Try to be a little more patient and persistent the next time you feel like something is beyond your capabilities.
Try to actively seek networking and be on the lookout for new opportunities which arise from interacting with new people.
And most importantly: try not to be scared of discomfort and enjoy the endless learning experience that life provides!
About the author: Dominika Durovcikova is a Master of Physics candidate at the University of Oxford and a Co-Founder of Encouraging Women Across All Borders. Over her undergraduate years, she completed 6 research projects in 6 different areas of physics and is now on the way to begin her PhD in Physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in fall 2020.