“What we find, changes who we become” – Peter Morville
According to the Council on Undergraduate Research (CUR), undergraduate research entails “An inquiry or investigation conducted by an undergraduate student that makes an original intellectual or creative contribution to the discipline.” Undergraduate students passionate about enhancing their knowledge of a particular discipline can choose to volunteer as a student research assistant under a faculty member or senior graduate student. Sure, such experiences help to highlight your domain knowledge and practical research experience in your resume, but the bigger question is, how does your assistantship experience build your skill set and your overall career prospects?
Following are some of the compelling reasons for undertaking research assistantship:
1. Helps To Broaden Your Knowledge Base
Undergrad research is an ideal pathway to develop in-depth academic and practical experience in a particular field. It is especially beneficial for someone looking to pursue higher levels of education, a PhD or Masters, because it helps you explore various topics and make a more informed choice about your subjects and thesis. Research can help you amass hands-on knowledge of a subject in a more authentic setting as you get to experiment, analyse and interpret data. In the process you gain deep expertise of a subject through self learning and trial and error. For instance, if you are a math student and you discover something that raises your curiosity, you get to design a research project and conduct your own exercises and experimental sessions to reach a suitable conclusion.
2. Opportunity To Create Social Impact
Adham Mushtak, a trainee physician at Weill Cornell Medicine – Qatar (WCM-Q), working with an associate professor from WCM-Q, Dr. Leopolod Streletz, presented a breakthrough research paper on stroke prediction. Adham pioneered the use of non-invasive, ultrasound technology to measure the velocity of blood flow in the vessels of the brain. According to his mentor, the research could be a significant development in the medical field – “it could become a quick, simple and non-invasive method to determine a patient’s susceptibility to strokes for emergency physicians across the world.” Like Adham, your research could lead to an opportunity to create prototypes of high risk ideas that could have a major impact on the industry or society in the future. Even as a student, you feel empowered, and are able to do meaningful work that can extend beyond the theoretical.
3. Developing Job-ready Skills
As a research assistant, you are not only expected to bring in-depth subject knowledge but you are also expected to learn on-the-job skills and operate software and sophisticated equipment as necessary to meet project requirements. Your job as an assistant gives you the opportunity to test your findings empirically and present your results in academic circles or conferences. Intensive research and data handling skills acquired through an assistantship experience can be a major asset for your job application. Most recruiters seek candidates who can conduct data-backed research, provide analysis and handle sensitive data with integrity. Such experiences and professional exposure prepare you for your professional goals and help you stand out amidst tough competition.
4. Networking With Academic And Industry Experts
A research assistantship is a great opportunity for one-on-one mentorship from a senior researcher or faculty member. You can establish a deep and lasting relationship with your mentor, one that is difficult to cultivate in a classroom regardless of how small the student-teacher ratio is. You are not only learning from but actually learning with your professor or mentor. It exposes you to a more holistic learning experience- you don’t just study the final products or theories but are also exposed to the creative side of how professionals and academics use theoretical ideas to create new approaches or solutions to existing problems. Interactions with mentors can guide you through seemingly challenging tasks ranging from advanced research, case presentations to publishing the research itself- “my mentor is my strongest advocate and goes to bat for me when my program throws roadblocks in my path,” says a student from University of Michigan. You also get the opportunity to interact and collaborate with other students and volunteers who share similar academic interests which helps to widen your perspective.
5. Pathway To A Successful Career
Doing research as a volunteer or for course credit counts as much as ‘work experience’ as any other job. And it can grant more perks than a regular job as you get to continue your research during the academic term and sometimes, transfer course credit towards your education as well. Research however does require heavy time commitment so you should ensure that you balance your work and study to maintain your grades. A recommendation from a mentor’s point of view is very different from (and much more personal) than a teacher’s and can vastly strengthen your job applications. Sometimes, if the contribution and expertise is significant, your mentor might also credit you as a co-author on a published research paper.