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Gearing Up for Summer Research

Reagan Walker

Got plans for doing undergraduate research this summer? Conducting summer research as an undergrad has numerous benefits, including potentially discovering a passion for research, building transferable skills like data analysis and writing ability, and contributing knowledge that could impact the world. However, it can also be intimidating. If you’re struggling to figure out how to use the summer as effectively as possible for your research, here are five tips (plus a bonus tip!) that can help you have a productive summer research experience.

1.  Create a schedule for your research.
Think about where you want your research to be by the end of the summer and create your schedule by working backwards from that goal. For example, if your goal is to read the background literature for your research, you should give yourself enough time to discover new reading materials, digest what you’ve read, and take notes. If you need to conduct an experiment, you should factor in time to plan the experiment, implement it, and troubleshoot it if things don’t go as planned. If your research involves other people (like doing interviews), you’ll want to reach out to those people early on to find out when you need to meet with them. If you’re not sure how long a task will take, ask an advisor or someone who has been through the summer research process already. It’s always worth it to err on the side of caution and overestimate how long a given task will take you.

2.  Dedicate time to your research each week.
Split up each of your major goals into smaller tasks that can be accomplished throughout the week. Doing this will make sure you’re making good use of the time you have over the summer and that you’re not left with a huge backlog of tasks once summer is over. For example, if your goal is to read all the background literature you need by the end of the summer, you can set a smaller goal of finding three books and five articles related to your research to add to your reading list. Once you find this reading material, you can set the goal of reading two of the articles and taking notes on them by the end of the week. When you’ve decided which tasks to tackle for the week, choose a workspace that will allow you to focus on accomplishing your goals. If you don’t have a workspace provided for you, you can go to the library, a coffee shop, or other study space to avoid distractions.

3.  Communicate with your advisor.
Don’t be afraid to reach out to your advisor for help! Your advisor has agreed to be a resource for you, so feel free to ask them about the direction you should be going, what primary or secondary sources could be useful in exploring your topic, and what summer goals are feasible if you’re struggling to find the answers on your own. You should also schedule regular meetings (once or twice a month) either in person or virtually with your advisor. This provides a regular opportunity for you to update them on your progress and helps keep you accountable to the goals you set for yourself.

4.  Organize your data.
The sooner you set up a system of taking great notes and storing them, the sooner you’ll save yourself from a massive headache. You may think that you’ll remember what you meant when you took notes on your readings in the beginning of July, but come September, you’ll have already forgotten what it was you were referring to. You should take notes that will jog your memory when you reference them weeks or even months later. Think about what you choose to write down and why. Notes should be meaningful to you and they should help you answer questions related to your research. Once you’ve taken notes and gathered data, be sure to develop a way to store them. Some people keep electronic files while others use index cards or a dedicated journal. Whatever method you choose, stay consistent so that data isn’t lost or misplaced.

5.  Don’t forget to have fun!
It’s okay to take time off from the research. It can be beneficial to get up and go for a brisk walk after working for a long period or to take a weekend off after a long week of doing research tasks. Taking breaks from research can help you avoid burning out, and you often return to the research with a fresh perspective. As long as you’re making regular, consistent progress on your work, you should also make time to enjoy your summer.

Bonus Tip:
If you’re struggling to find information about your topic, don’t forget that librarians are an amazing resource. They are experts at research, and it’s worth reaching out to a librarian at Stanford or another university or public library near you for assistance.

If things don’t go exactly as you planned, don’t stress out! Not finding what you thought you would in your sources or having your experiment turn out differently than expected is a normal part of the process. Remember, you have the power to control what your summer will be. If you set a schedule for yourself and work on your research regularly, you just might surprise yourself with what you can accomplish.