10 top tips for undergraduate science researchers

I had a unique experience during my undergraduate science degree. It was broad, flexible, and in retrospect, more applicable even now as a third year Doctor of Medicine and Surgery Student. The ability to slip into research projects was the key highlight.

Research is the bedrock skill in many academic prospects, and a valuable experience when you reach the (daunting) job application seasons. Ideally, a research project should give you a real taste in the field, understanding how your research fits into the bigger picture, and most importantly, being able to critically think.

But research projects! Where do you start? Hopefully, with this blog, you’ll have a better idea about starting a research project, key programs to use (*cough cough* Endnote), what I learned about writing and giving a presentation, and choosing a supervisor. That way, hopefully you can fumble around a little less than I did.

Tip 1: Contacting a supervisor

You found a particular lecturer insightful, or heard some cool things about another from your tutor: could you do some research under them? Of course! This is how I tend to categorise them:

  1. Asking someone to contact them on your behalf or advice about how to reach them: This is usually the degree coordinator, discipline coordinator or even first year convenors (such as Mark Ellison, Paul Francis, Andras Keszei etc). Almost all of these discipline coordinators taught me when I was in first year, so they know all the lecturers very well and are there to help you. I remember awkwardly asking my degree coordinator Ulricke Mathesius for my first research project, and I ended up with an amazing experience at the Fenner School! Or when I asked Mark Ellison, he took me upstairs and introduced me to half the chemists!

  1. I do things slightly differently if it’s a researcher the academic coordinators do not have a connection with. In this case I read their most recent literature to confirm that it’s something I would be interested in – it’s worked well for me because it showed that I made that extra effort to read their research (they may hope you’ll be reading a lot more. than that when you start!). Don’t email them for the sake of networking because they’re a leader in the field, it’s easy to see through.

This may sound daunting, but I tend to follow a template to ease my nerves – keep everything as concise as you can to increase your chances of success:

  • Briefly introduce yourself, including your name, what you’re studying, and how far along you are in your degree. Add another sentence that describes how you found out about them – if another ANU academic suggested you get in touch, include their name and CC them into your email.
  • Next, tell them why you’re interested in their research area. Mention the most recent paper of theirs that you have read and anything specific that sparked your interest.
  • If you have previous research experience or have studied relevant courses, list them briefly.
  • Ask if they are available for a chat about any potential research projects that they may offer.
  • Then thank them for their time, sign off, and hit ‘send’!

Tip 2: The supervisor is more important that the topic

Especially for an undergraduate project, it is worth finding someone who will teach you the foundations to be a researcher. Usually, it will be obvious, because they’ll take the time to help you out. If your heart is set on working with Professor Dr (sometimes extra Dr) So-and-so, then you can do it as a potential second research project – at least now you would have the basics!

Even if the supervisor is busy, I’d set the expectation that you still regularly see your supervisor once per week/fortnight. In hindsight, I realized that I could have done less of this, but I am thankful I did it then because now I don’t have that luxury.

It’s always a good idea in research (or any job) to have progress to show to your supervisor, even if you weren’t able to complete the task completely (the task was too challenging, too long in the given timeframe etc). I remember one meeting with a supervisor where I didn’t have anything to show and it ended up with both of us twiddling our thumbs for a few minutes before I left. Awkward!

Tip 3: Organize your literature

If there’s one thing to get out of this blog then it should be this: if you know a referencing program like Endnote, Zotero or Mendeley, you’ll be a massive legend to those in your team and for the next person who will take your research baton.

Endnote is amazing because it centralises all my papers and Adobe reader does not struggle with my 17 opened PubMed articles. I do all my highlights and edits of any papers I find via Endnote. I put all my PDF downloads in a separate research folder and label them numerically as I go. Then I go to Endnote and “attach” that PDF. If you want to know more, the Science Society runs amazing workshops on how to use Endnote, as well as ANU Library, and ANU Academic Skills and Learning Centre.

But the sea of ​​literature! Most ideas we think of can be answered in the 1.8 million articles published every year across tens of thousands of journals. How and where do I dive into this?

One of the best pieces of advice I received before scanning the literature is to find the “holy grail” of your research. These are a few key papers that define your research project, and include:

  • The most recent literature review of the topic

  • The most relevant paper to your research

  • A methodology paper that you can use as a template for doing your research project

I tend to “star” these in my folders so that they do not get lost in the citations abyss.

Image caption: This was taken during my honors! I was working on freeze drying a product that could work as a PCR amplification tool. It was pretty satisfying moment when I came into the lab in the morning to see that it had successfully freeze dried. Not so satisfying that one of them didn’t work, hence the sad face.

Tip 4: Know your research question

Have this in front of your wall, or the first page in your folder, or stapled to your forehead (please don’t staple it to your forehead). Simply put, a good research question means that there’s always key terms that you are looking for when you are reading the literature. This active reading helped me immensely and stopped me from sinking into hours of mindless reading on SCOPUS or PUBMED.

I did not really start formulating research questions until I started the Advanced Research Project Pathway in Medical School. Usually in undergraduate research the supervisor gives you the research question, and that’s OK. However it’s a boss move if you can manage or attempt to formulate this as an undergraduate. Know of research frameworks, such as PICO or SPIDER frameworks, to go that extra mile. University library websites in general are a great starting point for this.

Tip 5: Write up

Writing up a paper is a struggle. Keeping it concise is a struggle. As hinted at before, there’s no harm in looking for previous templates in the literature that give structure to your proposed report paper. For example, in one of my projects, I found a paper that listed a 12 step formula to publish a successful paper in that field, so when I was doing my write-up I followed these 12 steps and cited it appropriately. Lucky!

The first draft is rough. I did not formally label the tables or graphs until the end, because graphs get moved around throughout the editing process and relabelling adds extra time. I just write “Figure/Table XX” while writing in my draft and formalise them at one of my final revisions. If there’s a lot of graphs or tables, I want to not crash my Word doc, so I tend to have them on PowerPoint first (and/or link that data from an Excel spreadsheet), then paste into Word as an enhanced image. It may sound tedious, but I followed this during my honors research and it was less stressful when I had dozens of tables and graphs to refine.

Remember to start writing early! I keep a “Research Diary” which is a Word doc file where I write all my thoughts and critiques on the literature I read or questions that were raised for the day. It was much easier deciphering my thoughts from weeks ago rather than revisiting that research two weeks before submission date (I learned the hard way). If the supervisor is known for delayed feedback then consider asking a PhD student or Postdoc in your group for a read. I do this alongside the formal Lab Books that one typically keeps in lab-based research.

I have also used the ANU Academic Skills and Learning Centre, particularly in 1st and 2nd year, to help me with the structure of my write-up. You can book an appointment here.

Less is more: I have found that writing short sharp sentences are better than longer ones a good amount of the time. There are “readability” programs and applications that assist with this, such as the Hemingway Editor. I have used these programs, especially towards my later drafts, and wish I used them more regularly in my earlier projects.

This advice from another ANU Student Ambassador may also be helpful for you during writing process.

Tip 6: Receiving Feedback

It is hard receiving drafts where there are red markings all over despite the amount of time you put in. I used to (and kinda still do) take it to heart because I like to put lots of effort in. Before debriefing work or reading comments , I tend to take a few deep breaths and reiterate that the work is not a reflection on me. The feedback will ultimately make you sharper and more attuned to your research.

Tip 7: Preparing for a presentation

The scary part! Presenting the findings to your peers and other researchers.

If you are using laser pointers, focus the point on the specific mechanism, graph, or word that you want your audience to see – holding it there for longer than a brief second. I’ve seen lectures where the laser pointer wiggles or circles aimlessly and it becomes confusing from the audience’s perspective.

Using ANU slides gives a much more professional look. The templates are available here.

Image caption: As a wet-lab researcher in a field within biology/medical sciences there’s a chance you’ll be using the pipettes for basically…everything.

Tip 8: You’re allowed to (and should) be young and enthusiastic.

You’re fresh and it will be apparent that you’re the baby in the group. My advice is to really embrace that and show your enthusiasm. Starting off in a wet lab or officially getting a research pass into the building is a genuinely cool experience! In my experience across different science disciplines, a supervisor would prefer you have lots of questions than having no questions.

Tip 9: Consider a gift for the supervisor.

I love spending the time making gifts for supervisors that went the extra mile for my development. There’s no expectation of course (especially about the price – we are students). Obviously, nothing really beats a personal card. Another one of my personal favorite ideas is using the ANU Makerspace to make a 3D printed gift – simply go to Thingiverse, type in the research field, and viola, simple thoughtful gift.

Tip 10: Communicating your research!

We would love to hear more about you! If you had a great time in your research, be it with quirky moments, interesting experiments or cool pictures (especially cool pictures), ANU Science is happy to share a blog. This is good for at least two reasons. Firstly, it is a science communication exercise for you, where you have to link your niche area to an audience outside your research group (and the five others in the world who fully understand your research). Secondly, if your name is in a published paper, then it is also good exposure to how Altmetrics algorithms and the like work.

And that’s it! 10 tips for having a successful research project. This is not comprehensive, but following these general tips (especially learning how to use EndNote) helped my research projects go more seamlessly until you hit the final ‘submit’ button. Best of luck!

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