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Why you should do a summer research project

As a maths student, writing this article is one of the few times in the last couple of years I have ventured into complete sentences. I am returning to my rusty GCSE English skills because I feel so strongly that more people should apply to do a URSS project that I am prepared to tackle the now seemingly insurmountable task of an entire article. One of the main advantages of going to university is contact with researchers and academics. The University of Warwick is one of a scarce collection of universities reputed for both the international strength of its faculty and the range of innovative ways that this is converted into opportunities for students. This manifests particularly strongly in the Undergraduate Research Support Scheme. In this programme, students are given the opportunity to go beyond the typical university experience of studying for exams and conduct their own research project on a topic of their choice. 

Research projects involve exploring an active area of research in order to produce some original research in your topic. They usually take place over the summer holiday between academic years and are open to all Warwick University students currently studying for an undergraduate degree. Students can receive a bursary that covers the costs of completing the project or travelling if that is involved. One of the most exciting opportunities that research can provide is the option to travel to complete the project. This can present an excellent opportunity to experience other cultures and participants can receive cultural awareness training as part of the experience. The process typically ends with a large showcase of all of the projects, taking place during the first term of the next academic year. Unfortunately, a physical showcase was cancelled this year due to Covid-19, but an online alternative is on the cards! During this, you will present your projects to a wide audience and get the opportunity to talk to others about their research as well. Overall, the experience centres around introducing undergraduate students to the process of planning and delivering a research project before communicating it to a non-specialist audience – an excellent opportunity. 

Research differs from the typical academic process as the work is more self-directed, allowing a more creative and personal perspective of your subject. In addition, it can serve as an opportunity to delve into an area of your subject that you have not yet explored. Lauren Devine, who explored how Russian institutions shape the activities and freedoms of Russian women, said “I have had little opportunity during my degree to propose and conduct independent research that is applicable to contemporary Russian politics; the URSS offered me just this” and has been “inspired to focus on this topic for [her] dissertation.” Your project will be supervised by a faculty member which gives a level of interaction with the university faculty that goes well beyond what you can get from the process of studying for a degree. You gain first-hand experience in the research process and learn how to engage with literature that surrounds your area of interest. From an employability perspective, embarking upon the process of conducting a study and bringing it to completion displays that you have the creativity and initiative to produce original work coupled with the organisation to do so consistently. This all contributes to an experience that allows you to develop skills and gain experiences that lead to a lasting increase in your confidence in pursuing whatever your ambitions may be.

Research differs from the typical academic process as the work is more self-directed, allowing a more creative and personal perspective of your subject

First you need to familiarise yourself with a topic for the research, not necessarily an exact set of papers and results to explore, but a case of wider reading around the area in general. Next, you need to find a supervisor. You can do this by checking the staff list on your faculty website and seeing if there are some staff whose interests align with yours. Whilst some faculty members supervise projects every year, others may not be planning to, so it is worth asking around. When you find a supervisor, they may have some suggestions for projects that you could do that are closer to their interests. This will help your supervisor to support you more in your project. Curtis Leung, who is carrying out his research in the History Department, says that “my project itself was an opportunity that one of the department’s academics had already come up with, he was just looking for students with the relevant modules to apply to help him on the project.” In my case, I planned to complete my project in the area of graph colouring, but my supervisor sent me some papers in another area of graph theory and, once reading them, I decided to do my project on one of them instead. Every year, staff members at Warwick build up an expanding knowledge of projects suitable for undergraduates that you can work on. Although research opportunities like this are not usually actively advertised to students, it may be worth checking with your department if there are any projects like this going on. 

This all contributes to an experience that allows you to develop skills and gain experiences

If you agree on a project with one of the researchers you contact, you can finalise your idea for your project with your supervisor and produce a rough plan which does not have to be step-by-step. After all, research is not like an exam where you know that the problem is solvable cleanly with techniques described in lectures or even, especially in the case of STEM projects, whether it is solvable at all. Marvellous Arabambi, who investigated small molecule candidates for novel antiviral drugs, says “The most important thing I took away from the experience was that it was okay to not know perfectly what direction the project was supposed to go in.” And that “these were the moments a lot of learning could be gained.” It is also important to state that 6-8 weeks is not a long time to work on a research project overall. Make sure that you do not overcomplicate the project as even relatively simple-looking objectives can rapidly expand to fill a lot of your time as challenges with your project emerge. Will Barber-Taylor, who completed their project in the History Department, says “I had originally started with a more complex and broader project and, after speaking to people involved with the URSS, realised that it would make the project better and easier to do if I made the project simpler.” Once you have a plan you can then describe this in the URSS application form and complete it with your supervisor. Your supervisor can help you to convey what the objective of the project is and how to convey that the application should be successful. Finding a supervisor and planning the project is perhaps more time-consuming than most internship application processes but it has the advantage that you are applying with more precedent; you can more directly demonstrate that you are capable of doing the job than in your answer to the dreaded task: “tell be about yourself.”

After completing the project, there are a multitude of opportunities that open up. Not only does the experience give you transferable skills that assist you in a career in industry, it is also excellent preparation for postgraduate study should you be inclined towards that. In some cases, the project can further your career in a literal sense. Curtis Leung told me that “What’s really amazing about that though is that, as we are expanding the project, I’m still working on it and am now an undergraduate research assistant in the history department. It’s a paid role which acts as sort of a “part-time job””. In terms of preparation for postgraduate study, a lot of students use this opportunity as a springboard for a master’s project. For example, Lauren Devine says, “I have … gained invaluable research and oral history skills which will aid me in my hopes of completing a master’s degree.”

The URSS is an excellent option for the summer between an undergraduate degree and a master’s. Research work is increasing in prominence in the emergence of new technologies such as machine learning and the revolutions that they create. Every industry from healthcare to quantitative finance is looking for people who have a researcher’s skill set to tackle problems that their industry faces and come up with novel solutions. I would highly endorse this opportunity and encourage anyone with an interest in research to apply.

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