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How to Make the Least of a Volunteer Research Position

October 25, 2012

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!

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13 Comments leave one →
  1. Nowrin Ahmed permalink
    May 31, 2013 9:57 PM

    Thank you for your comment. My GPA is right at the cut off. I appreciate your insight very much.
    Ahmed

  2. Nowrin Ahmed permalink
    May 25, 2013 11:18 AM

    Hello Dr. Mumby,

    I have been reading your blog since last year, and it has been an invaluable resource for me. I have been working in a Neuro developmental lab since last summer, and within the span of a summer and two semesters I have learnt various behavioral techniques, and applied for a research grant as well.
    I have done a poster presentation of my project at my home institution, and will be presenting it at the Society for Neuroscience annual conference this year. Also, my professor has agreed to let me write the project up for publishing in a journal ( not an undergraduate journal).
    So this summer I am working on the writing process. Also, I will be working on the project for which I applied for a research grant even though I didn’t get the grant money. My professor has decided to fund the project.
    My question to you is whether this is considered a meaningful enough research experience? What more can I do to make sure that I am prepared for Graduate school in terms of research experience ? My GPA suffered last year because I had a lot of problems, now I just have my research experience to provide sufficient evidence that I am serious about grad school.

    Thank you for reading,and taking the time out to help us students out.

    Sincerely,

    Nowrin Ahmed

    • May 31, 2013 9:18 AM

      I think those accomplishments will indeed be viewed as a demonstration of significant research experience and potential. Whether or not it will compensate for a poor GPA depends on just on how good or bad the GPA actually is. What will make the biggest difference in how your past experience comes across in your grad-school application is how your professor describes you in any letter of recommendation they write on your behalf. Those letters of recommendation provide much better insight into a student’s promise as a researcher than any other element of the application. – Dave Mumby

  3. March 21, 2013 5:30 PM

    Hi Dave,

    This post of yours provided me with a lot of insight and I thank you for that! There are a lot of articles online about searching for research volunteer positions but not enough for “what to do once you get it” which is why I find this article very relevant. :)

    I recently got a volunteer RA position and I just want to ask for some advice on How To Be the Best Volunteer RA I Can Be

    Yes I care about the projects and I think they are a gift to humanity truly! I don’t think 10-15hr a week is more than what I want to give and I’m excited to start working.

    So any tips on how to make a good impression around the lab?? Thank you!

    • March 22, 2013 1:37 PM

      Emerald, I suspect you will probably make a very good impression through this enthusiasm you have for the research projects, and your willingness to give a significant amount of your time.
      When a volunteer RA makes a bad impression, it’s usually because he or she fails to display any real commitment.
      You can further impress by being proactive in finding ways to help the graduate students in the lab with their work. Don’t always wait for someone to ask you to help with something — as soon as you know a new phase of a project is nigh, ask if there is a way you can help. But, be careful not to take any new commitments that will interfere with your ability to carry-out any other duties or responsibilities you have already undertaken.

      Ask all the graduate students in the lab about their research. Try to get a sense of how each of the different projects fit in with a bigger picture of the current state of knowledge. Be careful not to be overly effusive or pestering. The professor and grad students you are helping will appreciate your interest and enthusiasm, but most people get a bit turned off when a student seems overly excited, as it comes across as not being very serious, or perhaps even insincere. So, be cool, but never appear disinterested.

      Most professors with more than two or three students working in their lab will tend to have some kind of regular meetings where everyone on the research team gets together to discuss lab-relevant topics. If the lab you are in has regular meetings, and if you are not explicitly invited to attend, you should just assume that is an oversight, and that you will be welcome to attend. Just ask the professor if you can come, if not already invited.

      I hope this helps. Thanks for the question.

      – Dave

      • March 26, 2013 8:24 AM

        I think it’s terrific that you are so enthusiastic about taking on this RA position and if you take Dr. Mumby’s advice, you will likely benefit from what it has to offer.

        I would however consider not diving into this commitment with such whole-hearted dedication and offer so much of your time as a volunteer right from the beginning. Assuming you are also a full-time student, perhaps you even have a part-time job, 10 to 15 hours a week is a huge commitment that could have repercussions on your other already-existing demands. There’s more about this in an article I wrote for the MyGraduateSchool.com website, http://mygraduateschool.com/researchassistantsandgradschool.html
        how much of a workload can you realistically handle?

        If you have not done so already, you may want to email the professor to ask how many hours is he or she is expecting you to commit per week. Perhaps he/she will say that there is really only 5 to 10 hours a week of work for you anyway. You can use that time to do other things that are as important to your eventual application to grad school.

        Five to 10 hours per week is a good start anyway, with the option to increase it as you become more familiar with the people and projects in the lab. It has been my experience, and understandably so, that new RAs have limited skills and are often assigned simple tasks, at least at first. Spending 10 to 15 hours a week scoring data or answering phones, may not really be necessary or that beneficial to your long-term goals.

        • March 27, 2013 1:21 PM

          You raise a couple of good points, Sarah. I’ve seen a lot of students start off quite enthusiastic about a volunteer research assistant position, but become quickly disenchanted when they are only asked to do tedious duties that are disconnected from the particular research projects going on around them. Or, they come prepared to spend 10 hours per week, or more, but there simply isn’t enough for them to do to put in that much time. Mary, you might be fortunate enough to be helping a professor who wants to make it interesting and educational for you by giving you important roles to play in the research. If so, then it shouldn’t be too hard to remain enthusiastic, because direct involvement in the research is what you came for. I hope you aren’t volunteering with a professor who doesn’t want to coach or teach you, but instead wants you to help the graduate students in the lab. Be careful that you don’t end up “working” for a grad student, unless there is also substantial contact with the professor. If the professor doesn’t want to get to know you, and if the grad students just use your help without involving you in the research, then you’re better off in a different volunteer position. – Dave

  4. Elizabeth permalink
    March 8, 2013 7:39 AM

    Hello Dr. Mumby,
    Thanks for this post! It is very informative and insightful.
    I am planning to apply for clinical psychology programs in the future and I have a question regarding the value of research experience on an application

    !) I have volunteered as an RA in a child psychology lab where I interacted with participants and families and was involved in running the experiments with fellow RA’s. I got to know the graduate student fairly well and unfortunately, I missed out on getting to know the professor in charge of the lab and didn’t get involved in the other aspects of the research design.
    However, I was wondering if this RA experience will still look good on an application and convey that I have significant research experience, despite the fact that I probably won’t get a letter of recommendation from this particular professor?

    I have other RA experience in 2 other labs and will most likely be getting letters from those profs, but I’m hoping that my first RA experience won’t go to waste.

    Thanks!

    -Elizabeth

    • March 8, 2013 8:52 AM

      Dear Elizabeth,
      Yes, that first RA position should still help show the breadth of your undergrad research experience. If you didn’t have the two other letters from professors you worked with, then it would be a bit of a problem that you aren’t getting one from the first prof. It could raise the question of why you didn’t have a letter from her/him, and some people might reach a rather negative conclusion (such as, the professor was not impressed with you, and that’s why you don’t have a letter from him or her). In your case, however, if the other two professors write strong letters that are consistent with each other, the lack of a letter from the first professor probably won’t be given much consideration. Thank-you for the question, and good luck with your applications! – Dave

  5. December 1, 2012 12:25 AM

    I made it to the end of the post, and if I didn’t know any better, I’d say you almost described me.

    I made the mistake (and I have no qualms about saying this) of volunteering too few hours in a particular prof’s lab during my undergrad years. It was a combination of having a lot on my plate, being a little uncertain about what field of research I really wanted to dig into, and also being a little uncomfortable in that said professor’s lab.

    Funnily enough, the prof seemed to expect me to ask him for a ref letter because he would ask me all kinds of questions and when I looked at him quizzically, he would actually say things like “this kind of info would help me when I write you a letter.”

    I was lucky my “rep” as an inefficient volunteer didn’t spread (and YES, faculty talk among themselves…sometimes too much–info the said prof didn’t get from me because I remained tight-lipped, he got from my other supervisors). In fact, I actually had other profs asking if I could help out.

    I learned invaluable lessons and had great insight in the said prof’s lab, but I wasn’t of the greatest help, I’d say. If I could do things differently, I’d definitely put serious thought into putting more hours in. That would have been more fair to myself and to the prof.

    I think I’m going to write that prof and apologize for not being a better volunteer. Darn it with the self-realizations from your post.

  6. Yuwei Liu permalink
    October 28, 2012 1:13 AM

    Greetings Dr. Mumby!

    It was a great pleasure to meet you in person today in Concorida University! I had been following your blog on a weekly basis starting from the beginning of this semester, and it was a huge honour for me to meet you and have a chat with you about graduate school earlier today.

    Please keep up the good work, it’s not everyday that we students can find insights about graduate school application process from a professor’s perspective (after all, it is helpful for us students to understand how a professor feels about picking graduate students), as well as clearing out myths and facts about entrance to graduate school.

    I feel very lucky that I found your blog during my U2 year, so I still have an entire year before me to plan out my future pathway, and the advices that you posted on this blog were extremely valuable (and I will make sure to share your advices among my friends who plan on applying to graduate school as well).

    I do have a few questions though;

    1) If the teacher spends very little time with undergraduate research volunteers, is there any benefits, however small it could be, for the student volunteering? I do understand that the benefits for the student would be quite small and not enough to guarantee entrance to graduate school, but is there actually any?

    2) You did mention that “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”. If you’re one of those volunteers who are stuck with those tasks, is there still a way to make you standout? If there are a few ways, then what are they?

    I also have one final question that I forgot to ask you today (which I only thought about it once I left Concordia), but it is “Concordia Psychology Departement-specific”; so if you don’t mind, I will email my question to you (I will only send the email to you once you replied to my post and said it’s okay for me to email you about it)

    Thank you so for your time Professor Mumby!

    – Yuwei

    • October 29, 2012 12:09 PM

      I enjoyed meeting and chatting with you the other day, Yuwei. Thank-you very much for your nice comments about the blog, and for sharing some great questions! Please feel free to send me that other “Concordia-specific” question via email.

      I’ll do my best here to answer your other two questions:

      1) If the teacher spends very little time with undergraduate research volunteers, is there any benefits, however small it could be, for the student volunteering? I do understand that the benefits for the student would be quite small and not enough to guarantee entrance to graduate school, but is there actually any?

      There might be small unexpected benefits. Sometimes a student in this situation makes one or more new friends or acquaintances, and such relationships might have lasting benefits. At the very least, students who are in a situation like the one you described should gain some insight that help them avoid it happening again if they get involved with a different professor.

      2) You did mention that “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”. If you’re one of those volunteers who are stuck with those tasks, is there still a way to make you standout? If there are a few ways, then what are they?

      I don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask a volunteer assistant to help with the boring and monotonous tasks, whether it be data entry or other routine duties that involve no significant skills, and from which the student gains neither inspiration or new knowledge. The problems arise when a volunteer is only asked to help with such tasks, and is never invited to participate in the more simulating aspects of the research enterprise. The problems are compounded if the volunteer doesn’t have opportunities to interact with the professor. When there are closer and more frequent encounters between professors and their students, including volunteer assistants….

      Students who find themselves in this situation may actually be able to turn it to their advantage, if they are willing to use their initiative to directly contact the professor, arrange for a brief meeting to “discuss questions and potential concerns” the student has about his or her roles on the research team. Make the right contact, in the right way, is likely to get the attention of the most ostensibly aloof professors.

      I realize that for many people, this will not seem like an appealling thing to have to do — it all depends on the professor, and how approachable that person is. Don’t listen to other students who tell you how busy the professor is and how he or she really is never around and won’t want to meet with you. Some professors may indeed seem very busy, and most actually are, whether they seem that way, or not. And we all know that some professors have an intimidating character. But, even the most crankiest and self-centred ones sometimes turn sincere attention to undergrad students who show the courage to stand up for their interests in a way that the majority of them never do.

      Hopefully, the student begins to stand out from the moment he or she starts doing things that most people would be too timid to do; that often includes something as simple as knocking on the office door or sending a brief and easy-to-respond-to request for an opportunity to meet sometime for 15 or 20 minutes. Of course, a lot depends on using appropriate tact, with due respect to the professor and his or her availability. The goal is not to demand anything, because as a student volunteer, you are not in a position to do so. You are not demanding that they take time to meet with you, and when you do eventually meet, you will not demand anything. Hopefully, instead you you simply use the opportunity, if its offered, to put bring important aspects of yourself to the attention of this professor. You want them to know that you are serious and dedicated to not only the research project, but to continuing in the same or a similar kind of research area. They need to know that you’re determined to get into graduate school, and how this fits into your long-term career plan. You should be able to explain why you volunteered to help with their research in the first place. Tell them what you were expecting to get out of it, and contrast that with what you have actually been getting from it. Explain these things with sensitivity, and without sounding like you’re whining or blaming anyone for your failed expectations.

      There is no way to guarantee how this attempt to get more out of the professor will play out in any specific case. It depends on the details of the situation and the character of the professor, as well as that of the student. On the other hand, it’s easy to predict how much an student who remains ‘invisible’ will get out of the volunteer research experience: Nada.

      – Dave Mumby

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