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Should I leave? - Undergraduate research


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I would like people's opinions regarding the current predicament I have with the lab I have been working in since last summer.


I'm a sophomore undergraduate student studying chemistry, interested in eventually pursuing a PhD or MD/PhD. I'm working in a chemistry lab (pchem), and I really used to enjoy it, but now my research mentor is very busy and doesn't have anything for me to do any more. It's been this way starting at the end of last semester, but I was so busy at the end of the semester with finals and other things, that I didn't really mind when I would come in and she wouldn't have anything for me to do.


I feel like I'm wasting my time in this lab; I'm not working on anything. I feel like when I do get to do something, it's something very insubstantial and I don't know how to improve at anything if I have no opportunity to do so. I have expressed my concerns to my mentor but very lightly and it did not fully reflect how upset and miserable I am. For what I want to do, I need to show that I've been heavily involved in a project, maybe even published, but the way things seem to be going, I don't know if that will ever happen if I stay. My research mentor is very, very kind and I do not blame her at all, and she is a large part of why I would rather not leave.


However, after I voiced my concerns, she gave me something to do that is totally unrelated to what she's doing and isn't anything important - it is literally to keep me busy. Maybe I should be more grateful, but when I talk to my friends in other labs, even the other, newer undergrads in the lab, they seem like they have more to do and it's something that could be published. Even the lab's high school student has more to do than me.


Most people I've talked to think I should talk to the PI and leave. I really am pretty frustrated and I feel like I shouldn't be trying this hard when other people I know literally have projects handed to them after a semester of work. I don't even want my own project - I just want something to do that's actually useful.


TL;DR - I'm an undergrad research assistant with little to no guidance. Should I leave and find a lab that will help me grow as a researcher?



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Did you come in intending to do an undergraduate thesis with this lab? If so, and your mentor isn't giving you an individual project, then something's not right here (or maybe you are just not ready yet). That said, if you just come in wanting to get your hands wet with research, it is possible that you aren't given anything substantial to work on other than helping someone else out. It's good to have a thesis to show to your prospective grad programs, maybe you can talk to your mentor about that?

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I can't answer the concerns about other people getting more experience than you, but part is field dependent.

You're working in a PChem lab as a sophomore. Before you've had significant coursework in that area.

How capable are you of handling a significant project?

People working in organic or inorganic groups will have more related work by the same time.

One of the biggest frustrations I hear from peers about the undergrads working with them is the always want to do "important things" before they're ready or able.

That said, if you want an MD/PhD, I'm guessing you want to work in Biochem. So why are you working in a PChem lab now?

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To echo what' Eigen brought up, it is true that undergrads sometimes want to move on to something "important" before they are ready. Speaking from my own experience as an undergrad researcher, after six months in lab I grew tired of doing grunt work for my grad student mentor. It wasn't until I got my own projects then I realized all the grunt work was there to build my bench skill foundation.  

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Talk to the other graduate students in the lab group and see if they have any work that they need help with. You can piggyback off of that to do some more substantial work of your own design. Or talk to them about designing a project and proposing that to your advisor. 


It sounds like your advisor is too busy to come up with something for you, so you're going to have to come up with something and get a grad student to help out.

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Thank you for the feedback; I joined the lab because it does a lot of work in biophysical chemistry. Without wanting to give too much away they study viruses and the physical chemistry part is mostly development of new ways to monitor virus assembly and disassembly. I thought it sounded pretty cool, but there is definitely more of a learning curve than if I was in an organic lab now that I've had two semesters of organic and won't be taking pchem until next fall. I had a heavy math and physics background (from high school and my freshman classes, nothing extreme) before joining the lab, but it's not like I was/am completely up to speed. 


After reading what everyone has been saying, I think maybe I will ask the other grad students if there's anything I can do for them and give what my mentor told me to do a chance. I don't think I come off as ungrateful or overeager (at least I hope not); I really do respect the grad students a lot and the last thing I want to do is annoy them.


I do have a question now, going off of what Eigen said... I am extremely interested in doing an MD/PhD. This is probably a dumb question, but is that all biochem or is there a place for other kinds of chemistry too? I'm in a biochemistry class right now and I like it a lot; would it be more prudent to have experience in a biochemistry lab? I'd like to stick with my lab if possible, but if it's absolutely necessary that I have research experience in biochem or organic chemistry, I would leave.

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It depends where you go. 


The limitation for most MD/PhD programs will be that you'll need to do one of the "in house" PhD programs- and those are usually more limited to directly medically related fields. 


For Chemistry, that leaves BioChem, Medicinal Chem, and maybe Pharmacology, although that's really not a Chem PhD. If you're at a school where the medical school and other academic programs share a campus, your options open up, a little, but you'll need to have a program that you can complete relatively quickly due to the constraints of the dual degree. 


Biophysical is a growing area, but you might have more trouble finding somewhere you can do a PhD in biophysical chemistry alongside an MD. 


As to whether you need to switch, a lot depends on what you're doing now. From the description of your lab research, it might be well possible that you'll get the exposure you need, but you also might not. Personally, I'd ask the grad students in your lab- they might have some good ideas whether your work will translate or not, or even how to make your work as applicable as possible. 


That said, have you discussed your future goals with your advisor? Does she know you want to go on for an MD/PhD?


If you want to discuss more specific details about what you're working on, feel free to PM me. 

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For MD/PhD, you can also look into Cell Bio/Molecular Biology disciplines. These areas may be very different from your major, so I don't know if those will interest you. The MD/PhD students from my program tend to have their research component based in human health-related fields. A girl in the lab next door, who's a third year MD/PhD student, does research on leukemia cells. Another girl in my year (an MD/PhDer as well) does research in immunology. 


To answer your question, I think having diverse research experience is good, though I would not necessarily think that one absolutely needs to have research experience in a certain area. You do need to have extensive research experience overall to show that you are serious about research, and you know what research entails. We all change our minds anyway after a couple lab rotations, so whatever experience you have now does not always equal to what your dissertation will be on. Strengthen your bio area will help. 


Just my 2 cents. 

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