volunteer positions

Guest Post: How to get summer research experience while keeping a roof over your head

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In this second guest post by Sophie Duranceau, a recent graduate from Concordia University (B.A. Psychology, Honours), she explains the financial benefits and other perks of working as a summer research assistant. 

In another post, I highly suggested that undergraduate students take advantage of the summer to get some research experience. However, I am fully aware that this can be hard to do while you are juggling to make ends meet financially.  Having been an undergraduate student not too long ago, I have decided to put together a list of suggestions to help you get summer research experience while keeping a roof over your head. Some options will definitely make your life much easier but they are all feasible if it’s really what you want to do – I have even tried some of them!

1- The best and easiest way to work on research and make money is to get an undergraduate summer research grant – which can later be listed in the Awards section of your CV. These grants are typically made available by various government bodies. How they work is that the government will provide you with X amount of money and the supervisor who sponsors you will have to contribute an additional Y%. This tends to be beneficial to the student – who makes a decent salary – and the professor – who gets a worker for about 25% of the price. The major research grants typically require that you work 35hrs/week for 16 weeks and provide you with 2 weeks off at the end of the summer. In other words, that would be your summer employment. You most certainly would not be making as much money as if you were working in a popular restaurant but you would still be making more or less a couple of hundreds of dollars per week. Alternatively, certain summer research grants may allow you to work part-time for less money. That would be an option that would leave time for you to get a higher income outside of school. All these government funded grants are competitive and usually have an application deadline around January. This means that you must plan ahead to find a professor that is willing to sponsor you and have a strong academic record.

2- The government funded research grants are not the only way that you could get paid to do research. Professors often do not advertise it but would be interested in taking on an undergraduate research assistant for the summer months. In an ideal world you may be able to find a professor who would be willing to take you on full-time but, more often than not, a professor will offer you a part-time position. You shouldn’t think less of it though. If you plan your weeks carefully, you can easily get involved on projects, get to know your professors, set yourself up for good reference letters, and get an authorship on a poster with a 15hrs/week position. You just need to make those 15hrs time efficient. Try to assess what the research needs are. For example, you could go into the laboratory 2hrs/day to run rodents in a maze for a 1 month period. In a different lab setting, it may be more beneficial to be in for a day and a half every week to run participants all day. Different types of research have different types of needs and this is what you need to assess. Some professors might also be willing to give you intensive short-term contracts to work full-time on a project. The only way to find out about these positions is to ask around.

3- If you are unable to succeed at finding a paid position, there are still a few options available to you. Most schools offer an undergraduate directed research course during the summer. Courses such as this one typically do not require you to sit in on a lecture and will provide you with 3 credits towards your degree if you complete a research project under the supervision of a professor. This might not provide you with money but it will free up your schedule for the following semester – which means you will have more time to work.

4- If you hold a job that allows you to work any day of the week and/or at night, you could try to free up 10-15hrs/week during weekdays to work on research. Ideally, you would want to get involved with a specific project rather than volunteer for random hours throughout the week. This will ensure that your time is spent efficiently and that your sacrifices will pay off.

5- You can auto-finance yourself to do research by applying for awards throughout the school year and saving them up for the summer – aside from the financial benefit, you will also be able to list those awards on your CV. It does not cost anything to apply for awards, yet most people don’t apply thinking they will never get one. Don’t be one of those people. Apply for as many awards as you can and you might just get a surprise in the mail!  If you know ahead of time that you want to do research in the summer, you can save up that money and allow yourself to spend X amount a week during the summer months – as if your professor was giving you a salary for a part-time research assistant position. If your financial situation allows it, you could also save up some of your income during the academic year and use it as a salary for research in the summer. I know it might be tempting to spend all that money on a vacation to Mexico but the summer research experience is a much better investment in the long-term!

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Not all experience is created equal: What kinds of experience counts as relevant when applying to graduate or professional school

Students often fail to realize the variety of ways there are to get the experience they need for graduate  or professional school, and there can be confusion about what types of experience are seen as relevant. Academic advisors are helpful sources of advice and direction, and anyone interested in applying to graduate school should speak to an academic advisor before getting into the application process. They should be able to explain how students in your field obtain relevant experience. They should also be able to tell you if there are classes you could take that require students to work on a research project for course credit, or whether there is an opportunity to do an independent study. Academic advisors might also be able to tell you what kinds of off-campus employment or volunteer opportunities exist in your locale, or they might be able to direct you to someone who can provide you with this type of information. Check out this article on what you can expect from your college career center.

Some professors hire students to work as research assistants and pay them from a research grant, but opportunities to work as a volunteer are far more abundant. An academic advisor might be able to tell you which faculty members in your department provide such opportunities. You can check departmental bulletin boards for help-wanted ads, but the best opportunities are seldom advertised, so you need to be proactive and ask professors directly whether they have an opportunity for you. Some professors never solicit students to help them with their research, but instead wait until volunteers come knocking at their door.

If you do get hired as a volunteer assistant to one of your professors, be willing to make a commitment and put in sufficient time and effort so that you will actually be of benefit to them and to their work. A mistake that some students make is to volunteer to help out for only a few hours each week, and in some such cases, once the time and effort required to train them is taken into account, the arrangement proves not to be beneficial to the person whom they were intending to help.

Summer can be an excellent time to find employment or volunteer opportunities as a professor’s assistant. For many professors, being free from having to deliver lectures and grade papers during the summer means they can spend more time on their research. This is when they are most in need of a student assistant to help get things done.

Work-study and co-op programs

Find out if your school runs a work-study program. These are usually government-sponsored programs designed to share the cost of employing students in relevant work, often with faculty members in certain departments who can provide such opportunities. Many work-study programs are intended only for financially needy students, so not everyone is eligible.

Most of the larger universities in the U.S. and Canada have co-operative education programs that integrate classroom studies with paid, real-life work experience in a degree-related field. Co-op students take regular classes on a reduced schedule while they work at a real job and earn a wage. Co-op program are primarily created as a way to get students the hands-on experience that will make them more employable once they graduate. Employers also like to use these programs as a way to recruit new young talent.

A prospective graduate advisor might also view positively the co-op experience of a graduate-school applicant. Compared to applicants who have only classroom experience in their field of interest, the co-op student may be assumed to have a better understanding of how things work in the “real world”, and better personal insight into whether or not this is the right career path for them. This can make them seem “less risky” from the point of view of graduate-school faculty members.

Start early

Most students who are serious about graduate school eventually realize the importance of getting some experience, the majority of them fail to take measures to get any until it is too late to take full advantage of the best opportunities. A good time to begin trying to find relevant work experience in your field is in the second semester of your sophomore year or during your junior year. One reason for looking for these opportunities as early as possible is that you might not end up with something immediately. Perhaps you wish to work as a volunteer research assistant in the laboratory of one of your professors, but when you ask her about it she regretfully tells you that her lab is already full and she really doesn’t have anything for you to do. She may suggest, however, that you come by and ask again at the end of the semester, or perhaps next year.

If you are already in your senior year and you realize that you still do not have any work experience or other practical experience in your field, you might still have time, but it is important that you immediately move this objective to the top of your priority list before it really does become too late. If you are determined to get into a good graduate program but you are a senior and lacking some of the kinds of experience discussed in this article, your best strategy may be to delay applying to graduate school until a year after you finish your undergraduate degree, and use the intervening time to get some of that experience needed.

Undergraduate Research Experience: Not Only Valuable for Students Thinking of Graduate School

I was compelled to write today’s blog because I was discussing academic matters with a student this morning, and an issue came up that I just had to write about.

The student I was talking with is in a Psychology Honors program, but she wants to get out. She still wants to get her baccalaureate in Psychology, but she does not plan to go on to grad school, so she has decided that there is no point in doing the research thesis that is part of the Honors program. She just wants to graduate as a Psychology major, then go out and get some kind of job. She has no illusion about the unlikely chances of ever having a job in a psychology-related field — she knows you have to go on to grad school and get a Ph.D. to become a psychologist. She feels that she has been in school long enough, and its time to join the “real world.”

I certainly understand her position. Grad school is not for everyone; in fact, it really only makes sense for a small minority of people, whereas most college-educated folks are better off just entering the workforce (or trying to) after they get a bachelor’s degree. I have no doubt that the student I was speaking with this morning is making the right decision about not pursuing grad school after she finishes her undergraduate program.

But, she is dead wrong about one thing, at least. She’s wrong about the notion that undergraduate research experience is valuable only for those who are planning to go on to graduate school. In fact, I would argue that the benefits of a substantial undergraduate research experience (like that which comes from doing an Honors project and writing a thesis) are just as significant for those students who simply want to find a good job after college.

Why? Because most employers are not only interested in finding job applicants with a college education, they are most keenly interested in hiring applicants with certain abilities or talents, a good work ethic, and strong interpersonal skills. There is no better way for students to demonstrate that they have these qualities than by getting involved in the research being conducted by their professors. When a student carries out an undergraduate research project and writes a paper or report, it usually provides at least one professor a chance to evaluate the student’s work ethic, ability to work with others, ability to work independently, emotional stability and maturity, integrity, intelligence, personality, and other good qualities that employers are looking for in job applicants. Without significant undergraduate research experience, on the other hand, most students who graduate with their baccalaureate will finish college and begin looking for employment with no advantages over their peers. And one definitely needs advantages in the job market these days.