If you’re an undergrad interested in vet school, or a vet student interested in post-graduate education, research may be an important part of your educational experience. Sadly, I would say about 50% of students with whom I talk indicate they had a terrible experience with research. Not just a not-positive experience, an actively bad experience. How did this happen? I believe a large chunk of responsibility rests on the mentors, who didn’t create clear expectations, or who were a bad fit for the student. But it is also because these students didn’t figure out if they were a good fit for research, or didn’t know how to find out if they are a good fit.
The first step is to understand what research will do for you as an undergrad or as a vet student. In the ideal situation, you discover that it is fun and may form a part of your future career. You may also bolster your application by demonstrating your grit, ability to work with others, and willingness to develop a relationship with a faculty member. Once you understand the WHY to do research, you can focus on how to get a good fit.
The most important determinant is the faculty mentor. The type of project and other people involved factor in, but are distant seconds in deciding if research will be a good fit for you. It’s not about research at all; it’s about a human connection. I believe the two most important variables are communication style and level of direction.
Communication style. Do you understand what this person says and do you like how they communicate? If they insist on email, does that work for you, or is anything other than text messaging difficult for you? Do they make you feel comfortable when you meet or do you leave confused, frustrated, or weirded-out? Ideally, you will find a faculty member with whom you communicate well.
Level of direction. How much supervision do you need or want? Do you want to be micromanaged or given vague directions and left alone? Try to establish this before deciding to work with a faculty member. Of course, you have to know yourself and be honest with yourself first. One of my greatest frustrations is when I tell students how I work (I give them some direction and then answer questions as they come up and expect them to be self-motivated), but then they turn out to not be self-motivated and require me to crack the whip to get things done. I don’t like being a whip-cracker. Some faculty members do, and that’s fine. There’s not a right way to do things, just good and bad fits.
Once you have decided you will get along with the faculty member, then you can consider the project. If the project isn’t interesting to you, will you be able to stick with it and demonstrate your enthusiasm and get a good letter of recommendation? Is the project relevant to your future professional path? This doesn’t mean you can’t do something fun in social sciences (and I would argue this may be a better research skill to acquire than pipetting things in a lab), but you should be honest with yourself and your motivations for doing research.
Finally, with whom will you be working? You want to be working primarily with the faculty member. If you will be dumped off onto a post-doc or a grad student, that is less than ideal and may not suit your needs. Will there be other students in the research group and do you get to work with them? Collaborating with peers can be fun and a way to improve your internal motivation. If you’d rather work by yourself, know that and identify projects and research groups where that is the case.
Most people think they either “like research” or “don’t like research.” I would argue that research work can be just like any other work- extremely fun and engaging or horribly tedious and soul-crushing. I believe this is not due to the nature of the work itself, but rather the three elements of internal motivation: do you have autonomy, are you getting an interesting skill, and how does it affect your relationship with others?
Making sure you enjoy working with the faculty member (autonomy, relationships), the project (skill acquisition), and co-researchers (relationships) is the best way to decide if doing research will be a good fit for you. What concerns do you have about doing research as a student?