Undergraduate research experience

I read an interesting blog last week in which two undergraduate students shared their perspectives after completing a research placement, and it prompted me to reflect upon my own research training, and how much of what we researchers – while it sometimes feels as if it is innate – is actually learned skills and abilities (oft by trial and error) that need to be shared with our up-and-coming researchers. Today I want to share a recent experience with an undergraduate student from another Queensland university.

I was approached by Sehana last month regarding the potential to gain some experience in research during her summer semester studies. I invited her to accompany myself and my University of the Sunshine Coast (USC) Research Assistant Ms Jamie Caldwell as we collected data during week four of the the first wave of an 18-month longitudinal study. Today Sehana shares her story:

When speaking to the placement officer at USC regarding a work experience in research, Bridie Scott-Parker was the first name she mentioned.  She thought the placement would be perfect for me especially because of Bridie’s extensive knowledge in research and having recently being awarded the Tall Poppy Science award for her research contributions. 
 
From reading about her extensive research online, reading a couple of her published papers, and speaking to her about her work, I am now a full convert to “the dark side of research” – as she calls it.
 
Throughout my degree I have done numerous research assignments, doing certain sections of a report for various courses.  You are always given data, or parts of the report are completed for you and you do the rest.  I have never been involved in any research related activities out in the real world. 
 
We visited a school, collecting and distributing surveys and sleep diaries to adolescent school children.  From the beginning there were issues that as a novice researcher caught me off guard.  The students came in drips and drabs, many did not have their sleep diaries, others had multiple from previous weeks, some students did not attend at all. 
 
I stood there the entire time panicking with “missing data” running through my head, while Bridie and Jamie casually took it all in their stride.  It wasn’t until I reflected on it at the end that my theoretical learning and practical experience actually fit together.  And it was exactly that – experience – which they had and I didn’t that made the difference. 
 
I could see that Bridie and Jamie both had enough experience to know the little things such as bringing spare pens and surveys.  It was when I heard them speaking about participant codes for the research that I realised my degree may have taught me how to do ANOVAs and correlations, but experience like this, out in the real world, surrounded by real participants (and real missing data) is invaluable. 
 
The first day of any job is nerve wrecking, but I feel this experience has taken away much of the anxiety associated with being a graduate fresh in the research field.  I would highly recommend to anyone who is leaning towards a research career to spend time with real researchers, speak to them, help collect data and just see how it all works in the real world. 

Ms Sehana Naz