Entry-level research positions a catch-22

Ambitious students should start young, but without experience, opportunities are uncommon.

Anant Naik

The University of Minnesota is moving forward in leaps and bounds when it comes to research. In science programs and beyond, it seems like everyone is doing research and developing novel ways to solve problems around the world.

However, finding research projects can be incredibly difficult. In my own experience, the convoluted process of joining research projects at the University at a young age seems to be one of many roadblocks.

As undergraduates apply for opportunities in various research-based arenas, the biggest criterion that professors use to decide whether to accept students into labs is their previous experience. But if students never get experience, they’ll never be able to get access to other research opportunities. Depending on the lab, this is sometimes far more important than work ethic or time commitments. This makes sense — if you don’t have much experience in a field or in the lab environment, you’ll be less desirable than someone who does.

Many undergraduate freshmen have this problem. They’re unable to get involved in research opportunities because of their inexperience. Thus, they must spend significant amounts of time acquiring skill sets that they didn’t have earlier.

One way to fix this problem is to promote high school students’ involvement in research environments. We could achieve this by initiating collaborative projects between college labs and interested high school students.

This partnership would have several benefits. First, it would increase student exposure to the fields in which they are interested. This is important because students could then decide whether their areas of study are something they would want to pursue in the future.

Many undergraduates spend their time changing majors not only because of indecisiveness but also because many don’t know what to expect from their chosen fields. New research opportunities would expose students to the rigor of their potential careers, allowing them to gauge whether the study is something they would like to continue.

Second, high school research would expose students to the skill sets needed to work in a lab. This would allow freshmen undergraduates to save time — having already learned all of the procedures, they would be better prepared to launch their own projects in college.

Furthermore, students could begin building a network among peers and professors in their prospective fields, which would enhance their ability to attain a career in their chosen field.

Currently, many high school students must pursue their own research opportunities. If they want to get involved, they must email professors and graduate students — which can seem like a daunting task. They must also arrange for their own transportation to and from labs. This means that if their school is somewhat far away from the University, the distance could deter them from commuting.

To overcome these problems, the University should introduce a formalized program that connects willing professors to eager high school students in specific fields. As far as I know, no such program exists. If one were instituted, it would strengthen the rigor and dedication of incoming freshmen in their respective fields.