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Why a research project might be for you

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Being a Chemistry student rapidly approaching the end of my degree (as of now I’m about to enter my fourth year), gaining experience in my field was a high priority for me. Having spent the summer of my first year enjoying months of freedom, I came into the second year wanting to use that time more productively, in a way that could bulk out my CV and aid my future decisions. Enter the Undergraduate Research Support Scheme (or URSS). I already knew about the scheme through my department and ChemSoc; a friend’s experience with it the previous summer was also very encouraging. I happened to attend an RSC lecture by a computational chemist in the department and was fascinated by his work, which is how I came to spend six weeks over summer using MATLAB to model energy transport through a photosynthetic complex.

Although I enjoyed the work I did for my URSS, it made me realise that I was more satisfied when I could see a direct and near-future application for my work; pure and somewhat theoretical academia was not for me. With this in mind, I decided to apply for the WMG summer internship programme that I am currently undertaking, which involves doing a research project on very current industrial issues. For me, this means modelling (again in MATLAB) the degradation mechanisms in the silicon anodes of Li-ion batteries.

It made me realise that I was more satisfied when I could see a direct and near-future application for my work…

Despite being yet another research project, this work has been very different and beneficial in new ways. Being outside my home department, and with a lot of the theory coming from engineering, I’ve had the challenge of learning new concepts from an entirely different subject. It’s been very interesting to see the interplay between Chemistry and other subjects, as well as seeing it in new settings, which I believe could even change the way I view the subject as I go into my final year. The work itself and the general setup has been more demanding, for example needing to produce a poster and a full report rather than just a poster (as was the case for the URSS). However, these are challenges that are likely to be encountered time and again, both at university and beyond, so I feel the earlier you can get exposure the better.

Whether you have planned out the next five years of your life or don’t even know what you’re going to be doing tomorrow, I would absolutely recommend doing some form of project. If you’re the former, it is a good and low-risk way to test your future ambitions; you can check whether academia or your area of interest suits you in practice, or make sure that research isn’t something you have an untapped talent for. In the case of the latter, it is of course a really good way to explore your potential interests and, like me, try to get a better sense of what career to follow. Whatever conclusions your project helps you reach, the experience and skills you develop mean that it is unlikely to be time wasted- as always, think of how it looks on your CV!

Whatever conclusions your project helps you reach, the experience and skills you develop mean that it is unlikely to be time wasted…

In terms of finding a project, keep an eye out on any information put out by your department, your academic society and any random emails that get sent to you. Attend talks as well, as hearing a researcher talk about their work can spark more of an interest than trawling their publication lists, and may also expose you to something you wouldn’t naturally be interested in (as was the case for my URSS). There are even options on how far you choose to take your project: you could present it at the ICUR (as I will be this September with my URSS), potentially submit it to a journal of undergraduate research or go on to base your postgraduate work on it- it doesn’t have to end when your official weeks are up.

Like many people, I was unsure of how far to continue my studies; whether to stay in academia or leave it for the world of industry or something else entirely. These are still questions I don’t quite have answers for, but these projects have been hugely helpful in narrowing down my options and getting a better sense of where I see myself in the future.

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