To all the research skeptics

Research can help you gain a lot of new insights.
Research can help you gain a lot of new insights.

When I entered Princeton as a freshman, I was skeptical that research could do anything for me. I considered myself an applied person who cared little for theory, and I hadn’t planned on continuing on to graduate school. The tides turned when I stumbled upon an optics Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program when I was looking for summer programs freshman year. At the time I felt I had few marketable technical skills in my major, so I figured it would be a good chance to build up some useful skills and decided to give it a try. And I’m really glad I did — the experience made me realize how wrong I had been about my prior assumptions regarding research.

Are you a research skeptic, too? Let me tell you a bit about my story and why I would recommend giving research a try.

Research opened up a different part of my mind. Engaging in research taught me a lot about thinking divergently — that there isn’t only one solution, which is the pigeonholed type of thinking we’re encouraged to adopt from the beginning of our schooling days. In fact, there are almost always multiple approaches without any one of them being the “right” way of doing something. It usually depends on the context and the type of problem you’re looking at. In that way, research can be quite self-directed instead of following a set of very specific instructions, and it emulates the post-graduation work force much more closely than a class.

Research forced me to really understand what’s going on. It’s not like a class where you can skim by asking friends for notes. If your goal is to learn, and really learn, you can’t do better than getting your hands dirty. It’s easy for the goal of learning to get muddled in the endless deluge of problem sets and tests and be supplanted by the simple need to pass rather than to actually digest the material. How often do you hear people complain that they “forgot everything I learned in that class”? That certainly wouldn’t happen if they had actually been doing research that required knowledge of those topics.

Research forced me to develop a set of very useful communication skills. I can’t count the number of times I’ve had to make presentations at this point. I’ve never been good at presentations, but through some painful trial and error I’ve had to learn to present my methods and findings succinctly. I’ve cut down on the stutters and “um”s I insert in my talks. And of course, it did wonders for helping with stage fright.

And of course, research is awesome. You get to interact with world-class faculty, take part in advancing cutting-edge technology, and finally meet those mythical graduate students. You might even get your name on a paper. (BSE students — often it’ll count as course credit as well!) You have one more solid (hopefully!) reference if you need to apply to a post-graduation fellowship or program. And if you end up not liking it, you still walk away with many more tools in your skillset, and of course, one more experience on your resume.

Last note: Research can encompass a wide variety of things, not only lab research! Any hands-on project that involves extensive problem-solving: from taking a design class or engaging in policy work in Washington DC, to participating in a startup or engaging in social entrepreneurship in disadvantaged areas at home or abroad are all great ways to start cultivating your sense of thinking outside the box.

So go out there and start researching! Not sure where to start? Attend one of the ReMatch Meet and Greet events on Wednesday and Friday this week (and get free cupcakes!) to meet the ReMatch Graduate Mentors and learn about exciting research opportunities; or check out the OUR summer research programs database for research internship ideas next summer. 

-Stacey Huang, Engineering Correspondent