One key to success for undergraduate researchers in the lab (or the field) is having a good project. Listed below are some general characteristics of good undergraduate research projects. Obviously, each lab will have to develop projects that reflect the nature of their own research focus.
1. The project should be related the student’s post-doc or graduate student mentor’s research – or be in an area in which the mentor has some experience or background - so that they are comfortable teaching the scientific material and techniques to students.
2. While students may initially gain technical expertise by working closely with their mentor on some aspect of the mentor’s long-term research project, the expectation is that eventually the student will pursue an independent project. The student researcher should not be viewed as a research assistant for the post-doc or graduate student mentor. This is especially true for students who are working in the lab over the summer or are working for academic credit during the term. The exception to this guideline is if the lab views the undergraduate position as a paid lab assistant position and has posted a job description that clearly states that the student will not be working on an independent project. Students are sometimes unclear about this distinction so it is crucial that the position be described as clearly as possible in the posted job description.
3. The project should be relatively “low-risk”; that is, have a high probability that the student will be able to obtain a result or make a contribution to the overall project in a relatively short time – over the summer for example. Students who are doing independent research for credit or a senior thesis will be able to spend many more hours per week in the laboratory during the academic year than freshmen and sophomores who are just getting started; and therefore will be expected to work on more ambitious projects. A student may begin work on a thesis project part time as early as their sophomore year although most begin thesis work in their junior year.
4. For freshmen and sophomores who are just getting started in the lab, it is very important to consider the number of hours per week that they will be able to work during the term. Many of these students will be taking very lab intensive courses and have limited time to engage in independent lab work. We recommend that these students plan to work no more than 6 to 10 hours/week during the term. Ideally their projects should have logical stopping points that can extend for days or even weeks during exam and vacation times. For these students, starting with a small project that may lead to a larger thesis project is most appropriate.
5. Ideally the project should utilize techniques, equipment and reagents that have been proven to work in the lab. In some cases exceptionally talented and ambitious students will be capable of developing new techniques and undertaking more sophisticated projects, but this should be carefully evaluated only after the student has worked in the lab for some time. Other students may lack confidence and be discouraged by expectations that are set too high.
6. Students are expected to do as much background reading about the project as is necessary to gain some understanding of the science behind the research question. Again the goal is to encourage them, with the guidance of their lab mentor, to gain some level of research independence, to learn how to think about experimental design and to have some ownership of the project.
7. Finally, the student should be expected to present their research results to the lab group and encouraged to participate in one of the undergraduate research symposia or poster sessions offered by the Harvard College Undergraduate Research Association (HCURA). Some summer research programs such as PRISE or Herchel Smith require students to present their work at a poster session or symposium at the conclusion of the program.