The senior research thesis is an experience shared by almost all undergraduate science students. These days, an undergraduate thesis is a requirement for obtaining an honours degree in the sciences and something that is highly recommended, if not required outright, for post-graduate professional programs such as medicine or dentistry.
For some, the senior thesis is a culmination of several summers of work in a single lab. For the majority, the thesis is the first time they have stepped foot in a lab. Having completed my own senior thesis this past year, I thought I would share some tips for incoming undergraduate thesis students, both novice scientists and seasoned research veterans alike, on how to have a great thesis experience (and maybe even be productive!).
Become Familiar With The Lab Before You Start
This is a big one. Although it is entirely possible to complete a fantastic thesis in the space of a single academic year, starting in September and finishing in April, you will almost certainly be more productive during your thesis if you take a bit a time to become familiarized with the lab before you start. Some people are lucky enough to secure a position in their thesis labs the summer before 4th year to get a head start, but even for those who can’t be in the lab in the summer taking a bit of time to do some volunteer work in the lab in the previous school year will help.
By having spent some time in the lab beforehand, you will have a much better sense of how things works: where you can find everything you need, who to go to when you need help with a certain piece of equipment, where they put the leftover pizza from the weekly seminars, the list goes on and on. Come September, you’ll be busy with class, clubs and everything else that suddenly seems to happen at the beginning of a new school year and you’ll be glad to be able to hit the floor running on your thesis.
Have A Plan Of What You’ll Be Doing
It might seem to go without saying, but you’d be surprised how many people go into their thesis project without knowing what they’re trying to accomplish in the long run. Without a plan to follow, it’s all too easy to get caught in the trap of putting things off until it’s too late. Don’t be the person who realizes in January that they haven’t done a single experiment.
A stalled project is usually caused by a lack of forethought or a lack of initiative. Both these things can be avoided if you have a concrete plan of what you want to accomplish along with deadlines on when each task should be done. At the start of your project, make sure to sit down with your PI (Prinicipal Investigator – the prof in charge of the lab and your boss) and work out a research plan. Don’t accept vague platitudes like: “We’ll figure it out as we go along” or “Just start working and see what happens from there”. Your PI is responsible for having an appropriate project for you to work on or at least for helping you design a feasible project – but it can be up to you to hold them to that responsibility. Having a concrete plan in place also helps prevent you from procrastinating too much on your project. If you have specific deadline in place, it’ll be harder to put things off for too long.
Don’t Spend Too Much Time Reading
This one is a bit counter-intuitive. After all, if you’re expected to contribute new knowledge to a field of work, shouldn’t you know everything about that field first? The key here is to realize that there’s a difference between doing reading and doing too much reading.
It comes down to a matter of time. You do need to spend some time reading and gaining an appreciation for the key papers in your field, but depending on your area of interest there could be hundreds of papers that could be relevant and just not enough time to go through all of them in the short time frame that you are given. Students, even those at the graduate level, fall into the trap of reading paper after paper, constantly refining and reworking their projects but never getting started doing anything in that project. While a good researcher is one who has a profound knowledge of his or her field, a better researcher is one who is able to produce novel knowledge within that field.
In my experience, the best thing to do is to start doing experiments once you’ve read a dozen or so key papers and to keep on doing reading while you are working through experiments. Not only will this strategy help keep you productive during lulls in your experiments, it becomes easier to distinguish between papers that are relevant to your project that those that are not once you’ve actually started to do some hands-on work. In the long run, this will be key to keep the number of papers you need to read at a manageable level.
So, that’s three of my best tips on how to have a productive undergraduate thesis experience. An undergraduate thesis is often an undergraduate science student’s first chance to work through a complete research project on their own, with the real potential to contribute some novel knowledge to their field. It should be an exciting experience – so get to it!
Got your own tips on how to make the most of an undergraduate thesis? Think I’m horribly wrong or misinformed? Let me know in the comment below!