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Navigating the research landscape as a student: Choosing what you want to research

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by Abhinand Thaivalappil

If you ask around, you will find that young students are often unsure and even overwhelmed of what they want to pursue after high school. A study showed that students felt they were likely to complete high school and go on to attend university or college (1). However, post-secondary education is often the first time in their lives when individuals are forced to make big decisions and narrow down their academic and career interests. These choices are difficult and will have to be made time and time again as a young professional.

Women, minorities, and other marginalized groups can face challenges when pursuing STEM careers. The same study posed questions on pre-set career choices to students and found a discrepancy between the interests of male and female students (1). The questions were presented in a Likert scale where students would choose their attitudes and interests on a 1-5 scale, and results showed that male students had a stronger interest in information technology (IT) and engineering-related careers (mean scores of 3.4 vs. 2.5 for boys and girls respectively), while female students wanted to pursue a profession in art and health (1). There is evidence that parents’ influence, conflict within gender role stereotypes, and peer influence impact girls and women underrepresentation in these careers (2). Additionally, some barriers have also been identified such as (a) insufficient same-sex role models and mentors; (b) feeling out of place; (c) being outnumbered by male peers; and (d) gender bias (2). The good news is that programs and policies are now being proposed and implemented to remove these obstacles and promote girls and women to pursue work in STEM fields (2). Building your support system and finding resources in your community (e.g. local Women in Leadership groups) can help overcome some of those challenges to pursue male-dominated streams.

The IT, engineering, and health sectors are quite vast with many careers to choose from, yet students in high school, college, and university are likely unaware of the diversity within these careers because they have not been exposed to these jobs. It is never too early to seek out opportunities, both paid and unpaid, by contacting teachers, professors, and local organizations that interest you. These can allow you to network, form relationships with like-minded individuals, immerse yourself in new roles, and gain awareness about careers that you were previously uninformed about. Sometimes, people are even looking to mentor students because of how fulfilling that activity is to them — so don’t be afraid of being a bother.

Research is similar. If you are interested in research, then it is best to start exploring as early as possible. Students should explore what research is being done in the university they attend or hope to attend, specifically in their department of interest, and contact those lab groups. Exploration can also be accomplished through attending seminars, speaking to teaching assistants and getting an idea of what is out there, or even requesting to complete a research project as part of a course credit. There are many online resources (e.g. University of Toronto, Stanford University) on how to reach out to faculty and maximize the chance of  receiving a reply. Graduate students are also important contacts because they are usually happy to answer questions, provide advice, and share their experiences because they likely went through similar struggles not long ago. Sometimes this is a trial and error process where students can best learn what they not interested by immersing themselves in that activity or study. These are valuable experiences because understanding what you are not interested in can sometimes help reveal your interests and talents.

Typically, opportunities do not fall on your lap in universities unless you are a top performer. It is not uncommon for professors to not respond because they are busy and receive many emails daily — so the key is contact many and to follow up. After all, researchers are taking a chance on the student because they must spend many hours and resources training them. The best case for them is it will result in the student committing a certain number of hours in return or seeing a project to completion. There is also a possibility that you may not work under your favourite professor or be involved in your most desired research project. However, there are many skills to be gained regardless of the project and supervisor, can help strengthen your résumé, and lead into what you eventually want to pursue. It is perfectly normal to begin working in a lab and not find it interesting, and it is best to communicate that to your principal investigator (PI) if that is the case. Most PIs will understand that students are searching for fields they can see themselves working in.  

It can be difficult taking that first step toward this process because of various reasons, whether it is feelings of inadequacy, stress, rejection, or social influence, but these are all part of the journey with the potential for large rewards at the end.

Toward the end of my undergraduate degree, I had zero research experience. I contacted well over fifty faculty members at various universities until one invited me in for a meeting, which resulted in an offer to work in their laboratory for one summer. That one experience led to many networking opportunities which snowballed into more connections, and consequently helped shine a light the field of epidemiology, which is what I was truly interested in. My colleagues and I all agree that sometimes students should try working in a research setting to determine whether it is a good fit. Often, the answer is not going to be clear cut and interests can change over time. So even if a student has a small interest in a topic or sector, it is encouraged that they explore it (e.g. reading literature, contacting relevant professionals, seeking out opportunities) to see if it something they can see themselves doing long-term.

On a final note, it can be difficult taking that first step toward this process because of various reasons, whether it is feelings of inadequacy, stress, rejection, or social influence, but these are all part of the journey with the potential for large rewards at the end. They should be perceived as opportunities to gain new skills which will ultimately help students grow into confident and successful adults.

Abhinand is a second year Master’s student in epidemiology at the University of Guelph.

References

  1. Lupart* JL, Cannon E, Telfer JA. Gender differences in adolescent academic achievement, interests, values and life‐role expectations. High Ability Studies. 2004 Sep 1;15(1):25-42.
  2. Dasgupta N, Stout JG. Girls and women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics: STEMing the tide and broadening participation in STEM careers. Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences. 2014 Oct;1(1):21-9.