This continues our series of student reflections and analysis authored by our research team.
The Realities of Research Work: A semester reflection
When I pictured my first time participating on a research team, I pictured something grandiose: Beautiful Mind-styled webs of ideas pasted around on the walls, philosophical discussion about the social consequences of our results, and a glamorous story to tell my friends and family at home. I ended up with something different.
Grunt work. Lots and lots of grunt work.
At least, that’s how it felt originally. Coming onto this project, the first few days were mostly just filled with confusion over the newness of everything. Combine this with the feeling of combing through source files for the very first time and the tedious feeling of trying to navigate the team’s drive. After week one, I was kicking myself for not taking ice skating instead.
There’s a difference between the research that you conduct in class and the research that is conducted by projects like this one. In class, the data collection process is quick and usually painless, and after a few weeks you’ve got a ten page paper to prove you did the work. I loved the feeling of accomplishment, and after three years in school, I began to dream about the actual impact I could have one day.
But the issue with projects of this size is that the work doesn’t last a few weeks. Long after I have graduated, this project will finally see its database completed. The odds of me being there to see the fruits of all of our labor is very small. What I am here for is the day in and day out of the project: coding and recoding, searching the internet for any source I can find more credible than a random local newspaper, and talking out the nitty gritty details. As a big picture thinker, this was a huge change of pace for me.
I know that the job of coding the cases is obviously essential to the project. But especially as someone who expected to waltz into the room and become the star of the research world, there’s a little something to be desired. However, as a senior, I know that this won’t be the last time I feel this way. As I move into my first job (which is hopefully in research as well) I know that I’ll be starting at the bottom of the totem pole. There’s a good chance that I’ll be in a supporting role for a long time before I see myself becoming the professional that I want to be one day.
You’ve got to start at the bottom to make it to the top. So here are a few pieces of advice from someone who just finished their first semester on a research project:
- Get used to having 20 tabs open at once. Find a case, check it with the spreadsheet, check it with another spreadsheet, file the case files, have I enticed you yet?
- Know that the way you see things isn’t always going to be the right way to see things. In my case, it rarely was. Take advantage of the bright minds around you and learn how to look at things from different angles.
- Don’t take offense at someone pointing out your mistakes. Especially at the beginning, being the best you can be means taking criticism. When you give criticism, you don’t make it personal, so don’t take it personal when you’re on the other side.
- ASK QUESTIONS. Being the person who think they’ve got it all down when they don’t is far more embarrassing than having the humility to admit that you need help. All of your teammates will also be grateful that they don’t have to go back and fix your mistakes.
- Make yourself useful. There will be days where, in the course of your normal work, you find mistakes. Don’t be the one who turns a blind eye, be the one who goes in and fixes it.
Now I’m obviously not speaking as an expert. My one semester is basically a minute in comparison to years that real professionals spend. But as the college equivalent of a grandfather in rocking chair, know that starting at the bottom is okay and it will eventually help you as you move up. I think that this experience has made me a better teammate, a better learner, and an overall better worker. Research isn’t always the drama associated with changing the world, sometimes it really is just the drama of disagreeing with your coding partner.