How to Make the Least of a Volunteer Research Position
My last post was about some of the ways undergraduate students can get useful experience before applying to grad school. There are different kinds of experience, of course, and some kinds are more useful than others. Moreover, the relevance of certain kinds of experience depends on a person’s field of study. That said, the most widely useful kind of experience is research experience, and the easiest way to get a lot of it is by volunteering to help a professor with his or her research or other scholarly work.
Another way to get research experience is to do an undergraduate ‘Honors’ thesis (or equivalent), which comes with the extra benefit of credits earned towards completion of a degree program. But, almost everyone who applies to a thesis-based graduate program will have done an undergrad research thesis, or something equivalent, so no one gains an advantage in the graduate-school admissions process by virtue of having done an undergraduate thesis. In order to stand apart from the crowd in terms of relevant experience, students who are serious about graduate school in any of the social sciences or natural sciences need to do more than the minimum.
More is better when it comes to research experience
There are at least two general reasons why undergraduate research experience is so effective in paving a path to graduate school. For one, many master’s programs and virtually all Ph.D. programs require students to undertake original research and write a scholarly thesis based on their findings. So, the undergraduate research experience provides first-hand exposure to the major enterprise that occupies much of a student’s life in graduate school (i.e., research). A person can try it out before making the major commitment of applying to a research-thesis based graduate program. A person might even learn or develop a few skills that will come in handy if they do end up in grad school and have to conduct their own major research project.
The second reason why undergraduate research experience is so important is because in the process of acquiring it, students place themselves in situations that allow professors to discover those aspects of their character, work habits, and abilities that determine how well-suited they are for graduate school. As I have mentioned many times before on this blog, that type of exposure is key to setting up effective letters of recommendation for a grad-school application. In fact, I believe this exposure is usually more consequential for the future prospects of a student than any of the new skills he or she acquires from the experience. One must get moving on getting this exposure long before it’s time to apply to graduate school, because if there aren’t two or three professors who know you quite well by then, you probably won’t be able to get the letters of recommendation you need to get in. At least one or more of the letters will be ineffective, which will undermine your applications and make rejection much more likely.
Most volunteer research assistants waste their time and accomplish little or nothing
Over the past 20 years, I have gotten to know well over a hundred undergrad students who spent time as volunteers, helping my graduate students and me with our research. I have seen a wide range of performances, from feeble to truly outstanding, and everything in between. Hopefully, they all got something worthwhile from the experience, even if it wasn’t always what they came for. My graduate students and I have greatly benefited from the efforts of undergraduate volunteer research assistants. The greatest overall benefit to me personally has been getting to know so many wonderful individuals over the years, but there have also been certain student volunteers whose contributions had a significant positive impact on my research productivity. Invariably, each of the latter individuals managed to strongly impress not only me, but also a few other professors who got to know them — and each of them was successful at getting into graduate school, largely because of their outstanding letters of recommendation.
It doesn’t always turn out so well for students who put in a mediocre performance as a volunteer assistant. I suspect that a great majority of the students who spent time volunteering in my lab initially decided to get involved because they either knew or suspected it would be important when applying to grad school. Sadly, most of them failed to get any such benefit. The main reason is simple: Most of them ended up demonstrating that they weren’t very well suited for graduate school, despite their hopes of showing the opposite. Of course, some of them have been very good, excellent, or even outstanding, and some have gone on to have great success in graduate school, and beyond, but this group is considerably smaller than the group of former undergrad volunteers who failed to impress.
So, here’s the thing… you need to get out there and let your professors discover who you are and what you can do, because getting into grad school is difficult or unlikely without doing so. But, helping a professor with his or her research will seriously undermine your prospects of getting into grad school if you don’t do it properly!
Some students I’ve met seemed to think they had to spend time as a professor’s volunteer assistant simply to be able to claim that they had done so. Other students seem to have the mistaken impression that skills and knowledge acquired in the course of serving as a volunteer assistant are the main reason why getting this experience is so important. This error causes them to give only secondary consideration, if any at all, to how their performance influences the attitudes and opinions the professor has about them. But, the professor’s impression of the student is what matters most.
One of the most common mistakes I’ve seen students make when volunteering to help professors with their research is failing to commit enough of time over a sufficiently long period to make themselves useful to any of the professors they aim to help. For some, it seems as though it never really occurred to them that a professor would expect something in return for helping them out with a chance to get involved in this important extracurricular activity. Simply put, if professors do not feel like they gained from having you around, they are not likely to write a letter of recommendation that will help your chances of getting into grad school. Many professors will still agree to write a letter for a student with whom they are less-than-impressed, but their letters will usually be quite ineffective, and the students who use them unwittingly sabotage their own applications.
There are other reasons why a volunteer research assistant may fail to set up a useful letter of recommendation. For example, some professors don’t spend very much time with undergraduate research volunteers. Instead of providing any useful mentoring or supervision, these professors may pass the entire responsibility of dealing with undergraduate students on to their graduate students. I see this happen often to students who volunteer in the laboratories of certain professors I know (luckily, a very small proportion of my colleauges). Typically, the volunteers end up helping with tasks or duties the grad student doesn’t enjoy, such as data entry or other tedious clerical work. The volunteer does not get to participate in any of the interesting aspects of the research enterprise, like discussing the different theories with the learned professor, or the interpretation of new data, or helping to design and conduct the next study. After several months, the professor doesn’t even know the student volunteer, other than to recognize that person’s name and face. It is easy to see how this professor will be unable to provide an effective letter of recommendation. Importantly, this doesn’t mean she or he won’t agree to provide a letter if the student asks for one.
The main point here is simple: It’s not enough to volunteer. In doing so, you also have to make yourself useful and memorable in positive ways. The professors you are volunteering to help must learn several good things about you, or else they won’t be able to provide good letters of recommendation. It’s just as easy – in fact, easier – to set up a lousy letter of recommendation from a professor whom you volunteer to help. And remember, you’re not just trying to get letters that say positive things about you. They have to be positive and they have to be relevant and they have to be convincing. A letter that says only complementary things about a student, without providing any convincing anecdotal evidence to back up the positive claims, may not only fall flat in the eyes of a graduate admissions committee or a potential graduate supervisor – it has the potential to torpedo the student’s entire application. This is why it is such a big mistake to ask for a letter of recommendation from a professor who only knows you from the classroom and coursework.
If you can’t do it right, don’t do it
Some students realize in retrospect that a particular professor was unimpressed by their performance as a volunteer, so they can avoid the mistake of asking that professor for a letter of recommendation. But, even if they are determined enough to try again with a different professor, and they are capable of actually showing they’re suited for graduate school, those who start off by making a poor impression can still be affected by follow-on effects over which they have little or no control.
Professors spend a lot of time talking to each other, and believe it or not, some of that time is spent talking about students. Sure, some of that talk might be gossip, but much of it is also informal evaluation of students they know from outside the classroom. It is not unusual for professors to share stories about undergrad students they have encountered who are standouts, and this can be a major boost to establishing a student’s reputation as an outperformer. Although most professors don’t talk as much about the less-impressive students they know, such discussions do happen, and they contribute to some students’ reputations as mediocre performers.
Here is an example of how I’ve seen it play out unfavorably for a student who puts in a mediocre performance on the first attempt: One professor mentions to another professor that this particular student recently began helping out in his lab. The second professor says something like, “Oh, I know her — she was a volunteer assistant in my lab, last semester.” The first professor asks the second for his/her opinion about the student’s potential, and hears one of many possible versions of how or why the student made a mediocre or poor impression. This puts the student in a hole from the start in terms of how the first professor perceives her character and abilities. He or she will not be getting the benefit of doubt, and will now have to work even harder to make a strong impression on that professor.
The message is clear — don’t offer your time and effort to help out a professor if you aren’t prepared to do it properly. And if you’re not ready to make significant sacrifices in terms of your time and perhaps some of the other activities you value, don’t set yourself up for making a bad impression as a volunteer assistant.
Spread yourself around, but not too thinly
If you are invited to join a professor’s research team, don’t expect to be able to simply come around to help for just one or two hours, once a week, or when you feel like it, or when you have nothing better to do. You won’t be helpful that way, and such non-scheduled availability seldom fits with the way research is done, anyway. If you want to be helpful and make a noteworthy contribution to a professor’s research, it’s more likely you’ll need to give 10 hours or more of your time each week, and over a period of at least a few months. You may be expected to be available a few times each week, and at regular times, according to a schedule that suits the particular requirements of the research. There are no standard rules for determining just how much time and effort is needed, and it can be either considerably more or much less with some professors and certain types of research than with others. But, it’s easy to do too little. I would say that, in general, if you don’t feel like you’re making significant sacrifices in terms of time and effort, then you won’t be perceived that way, either.
Sometimes, students who are actually very capable and who possess many strong personal characteristics fail to make a good impression as volunteer research assistants. This can happen for a variety of reasons (such as, by volunteering with a professor who hardly ever interacts with them), but too often, it happens because the student fails to give enough priority to this volunteer work. I sometimes see this happen with students who are academically very strong, and who spend a tremendous amount of time on such worthwhile activities as studying, working at a part-time job, participating in organized sports or athletics, or volunteering in the community. Because they are so busy, they don’t have much time left to spend with their volunteer research work, and they just don’t give this commitment high enough priority to justify giving up any of their other commitments. This is a tricky situation because it’s all about trade-offs. The student may be gaining significant benefits from all of those other activities. However, that doesn’t matter to the professor whom the student is purportedly trying to help. The professor may only notice that the student isn’t around much. And it doesn’t usually help a student to point out to a professor that they have many other commitments. This just gives the impression of a student who is not as deeply dedicated to research and inquiry as one should be in order to succeed in a doctorate program. In contrast, some ambitious students choose to give up hobbies or part-time jobs so they can spend more time with their research-volunteer activities. Students who make such sacrifices tend to come across as being highly dedicated. This should be given serious consideration before one volunteers to help a professor with his or her research.
If after reading this, you still feel that you are committed to taking on a volunteer research position, then you might also want to read another article I wrote about finding a volunteer research position: Right and Wrong Ways to Find a Research Volunteer Position.
Well, as usual, there are still more things that I could write about on this general topic of mistakes to avoid when getting involved with professors and their research. But, I should take a break for now, and post what I have. If you made it to the end of this rather longish post, I thank you for your time and attention. If you have any comments or unresolved questions that came up along the way, please feel free to share them in the comments section below. Readers’ input is highly valued, here!