Breaking into Research as an Undergrad


The topic of research can be daunting for an undergrad. You know you’re supposed to be doing it to build your resume, but you’re not sure how or where to find a research position, or what exactly research even entails. Luckily for Berkeley Connect Physics students, a panel of Physics majors recently came together to share their undergraduate research experiences with the group. The panel consisted of undergraduate Berkeley students, as well as one graduate student who attended Berkeley as an undergrad.

Arielle Little, a Berkeley Connect Physics mentor, kick-started the discussion by asking the panel, “How did you get involved with your first research project?” One panel member answered, “The first thing that stops people from finding a research position is uncertainty about what they’re interested in.” He continued, “But most people won’t know until they’re in the moment.” He explained how he was conflicted over what he wanted to research, but just got to know people in a lab and then asked them for a research position. He wasn’t sure if he was going to enjoy the particular type of research there, but came to enjoy it by diving in head first. “You may not like your first lab experience, but you’ll at least have a better grasp on what you like. Just throw yourself in there,” he advised.  

Another undergraduate panel member also emphasized the importance of personal connections for getting research positions. He had a friend doing research at the Lawrence Berkeley Lab, so he used that connection and emailed the lab, which promptly offered him a position.

A student then asked the panel about their best and worst research experiences. “The day-to-day might not be super interesting, but if the end result is interesting then it’s all worth it,” offered a panelist. None of the speakers had terrible lab experiences to share, but one explained, “There’s a lot of labs you can get into where you get projects with little oversight or guidance, so you’ll make more mistakes and it will take longer.” While this approach might teach an undergraduate researcher to be more self-sufficient, it can also be very frustrating. Little shared a similar experience she had, commenting, “My working style didn’t mesh with the working style of the lab.” However, all of the Physics panelists agreed that their research experiences had been overwhelming positive, even if they were stressful at times.

“How do you balance research and class?” inquired a student. “I don’t,” answered one panelist frankly. “There’s periods where coursework overwhelms my ability to do research, and vice versa.” He explained how it can be difficult to juggle both academics and research, so it’s important to stay on top of both. Another panelist talked about how his lab supervisor is usually understanding if he can’t do as much research a particular week due to coursework.

From hearing about the panelists’ individual work in research to the more general advice about getting a research position and fitting it into one’s schedule, Berkeley Connect Physics students gained a lot of valuable insight from the panel. Perhaps, for these undergraduates, research might not sound so daunting after all.

Posted by Madeline Wells, Berkeley Connect Communications Assistant