Surviving and Thriving, part 2: Doing Research as a URM astro/physics student
This is part 2 in a series about surviving life as a URM physics student. While URMs are the targets of my advice, I think a lot of it is pretty broadly applicable. Read Part 1 first and also read the entry about how music helps.
In this essay I’m going to describe why it’s important to get research experience and also how to manage yourself as a student researcher. I will talk about getting a job, getting the most out of the job, responding to discrimination and whether fitting in is necessary.
Many of us enter our undergraduate years either totally unaware or only vaguely aware of the importance of doing research to our future career in physics. People can even have the impression that coursework is more important than research. But, actually, getting research experience can be just as important as coursework if you want to get a job doing physics later, whether that’s as a graduate research assistant through graduate admissions, or starting work in the field post-bachelors. One reason this is important is because it’s very hard to get a job these days, and it’s even harder if you have no work experience in the field where you are applying for the job. Another reason is that sometimes people shine the most not in the classroom but while doing research. Strong research performance can counterbalance mediocre transcripts when you apply for grad school.
A few years ago, I was advising some students in my old residential house at Harvard, and they asked me if there is anything they should be doing differently. I asked if they were doing research in a lab during the academic year. They looked horrified at the thought and said, “but that would affect my grades!” Clearly these weren’t work-study students who didn’t have a choice about working, so part of their reaction was that of people with money who have the option to just hang out instead of working in their free time.
But, even if you have the option to just spend more free time hanging around, you shouldn’t take it, at least not every year. Why? Well, as I said, you need work experience on your CV. But also, when you apply to graduate school, you will need letters from three to four Professors/researchers, and these letters should be from research supervisors (four for the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship*, which you should plan to apply for). One way to get these letters is to do summer research experiences through programs such as the REU*. Another is to work in a lab during the school year, potentially on a project that could turn into a senior thesis (which you should absolutely do). Graduate schools are looking to find out whether you are the kind of person who can take on something challenging, manage it, and finish it. This is because a PhD is a 4–7 year challenge, and it’s a major financial loss to the department if you drop out in the middle.
Your school may or may not foster a culture that encourages this. At MIT, where I currently work in a research group with several undergraduates, it’s considered extremely normal for students to do research during the academic year. Meanwhile, at the University of Washington, many students participate in the Department of Astronomy’s Pre-MAP program, which gets students involved in structured research almost immediately during their first year on campus as a freshman or transfer student. It’s not just a private east coast school thing. (And frankly, Harvard is still behind.)
But you don’t need an official program to get involved in research. Remember, you should have three to four letters of recommendation if possible, so you don’t necessarily want to work in one group for all three summers and all of your academic years. And it can be good to mix things up, getting multiple opportunities to try your hand at different things. Of course, always discuss your strategy with your academic adviser, assuming they are a supportive person.
Applying for Academic Year Positions
Maybe I’ve convinced you I’m right, in which case you’re wondering how to get a research position and how it is paid for. In most cases, this requires you to be a little bold, so it’s good practice. You have to email professors and ask them if they will take you. Don’t do this randomly. Start by looking at the research people are doing in your department, see what catches your interest and then try to look up research papers written by that professor and their group. You probably won’t understand most of what you read unless you are unusually advanced in your preparation, but that’s ok. Reading papers is going to feel some version of that way possibly until you are a postdoctoral associate with a PhD already in hand.
Once you’ve decided which labs interest you, email the professor and ask if you can make a time to talk about possible research opportunities in the lab. In this email you should tell them about yourself (any research experience you’ve had, relevant coursework) and why you want to work in their lab. Attach a copy of your CV and make sure to include any awards and honors that you may have received in high school on it. If you know some programming languages, include those too.
Even if you have no previous experience and don’t know how to code, you should still apply for a job. Many professors understand that undergraduates will be learning as they go.
Keep in mind that if you have work-study money, it’s very cheap for a lab to hire you since the federal government pays most of your salary. You can mention this in your initial email. At MIT, there are research funds called UROPs that anyone can apply for so that they can do research for credit or cash during the school year and summer. Some schools like the University of Washington have incentives for labs to hire URM students. Overall, an undergraduate is cheap at only 10 hours a week. And if you can afford it, you can offer to volunteer for a semester to see if the professor wants to invest financially. But I would avoid volunteering to do that early in the discussion and only do it if the project is something you are REALLY excited about and the professor really can’t afford to pay you.
You may have to email multiple professors before you find a position that works out. If it goes well during the academic year, you may be able to stay on for summer too.
Once you’ve set a meeting time with the professor, prepare for the meeting. Go over their papers again, and write down questions you would like to ask about the research and what a student can do. Don’t feel too stressed about asking the right thing — professors should be aware of the level of knowledge undergraduates have about their work and should be able to explain what you need to know. Asking questions is more about showing your interest in their work, showing that you’ve thought about it, and showing the curiosity that is an important part of what we do in science.
It will be important to ask the professor about their expectations. How many hours do they expect you to work? Would you primarily be interacting with a postdoc, staff or graduate student instead of the professor? This is actually extremely normal, and I don’t recommend turning down the job because you won’t primarily be working directly with the professor. See if you can meet the person you’d be working with. If this is the case, ask them if you will have the occasional opportunity to check in with the professor about your research progress. Find out if staying on for the summer (for pay if you need it) is a possibility, assuming things go well. Find out about the possibility of your work turning into a research paper (which is like the holy grail of undergraduate research). Take notes on everything so you can look them over later.
Make sure that you dress appropriately. You don’t have to dress up fancy, but don’t show up in flip flops because that may actually be a safety hazard. Don’t look like you think the lab is your living room. If you have long hair that could get in the way in an experimental setting, put it up.
After the meeting is over, shake the professor’s hand and thank them for their time. Ask about the timeline for making a decision about whether to include you in the lab and when you’d have to decide if you want to work with them.
Sometime later that day, send the professor and any members of the lab that you met a thank you email.
Also, Dr. Erin Ryan notes that she did research both for credit and for pay, and the credit had the added bonus of helping her GPA.
Applying for Summer Positions
A lot of summer programs have application deadlines in January and February, so start thinking about where you’d like to spend the summer and preparing your application in November and December. Warn letter writers early and be clear about deadlines. These days, REUs are a lot more competitive than they were in my day, so you may have to apply to 10 of these programs just to have a chance of getting into one (that’s a recent stat I heard from a grad student who was an undergrad at Harvard). Apply to go somewhere that isn’t your home institution since that’s what REUs are for. Some of them will target URM students and white women (often with the phrase “women and minorities”). Unfortunately these exclude Asian Americans from URM Asian groups (I’m working on it!). Keep in mind that the people running these programs are often looking for students that they may later want to recruit for their graduate programs.
And some of them can take you fun places, like Chile! (Although that one requires taking time off from the regular academic year.)
Make sure you put real effort into your research statement, and at minimum, spell and grammar check it. Readers will be insulted if it looks like you wrote it half asleep. If English is not your first language and/or if you are uncomfortable writing, this is your opportunity to practice an important skill and also learn to ask for help. Ask your roommate/friend/classmate for help or you can also go to a writing center, which many colleges and universities have for exactly this sort of thing.
Being About That Work
In the last part of the series, I mentioned it’s important to be organized in order to do your best in classes. This is also true for research experiences. It may be even more true because research is a collective effort, and your level of organization will affect other people. If it affects them negatively, that won’t be good for your letter of recommendation.
Make sure to take careful notes when people are explaining things to you and also about what you have done. That way, if you leave the lab, it’s easy for you to hand over any important information about techniques that you’ve developed or been using. If you’re doing something involving data, you should be meticulous in keeping track of the data and doing the statistical analyses associated with it that you are expected to do. If you’re doing something mathematical, make sure to write up your final solutions, ideally using LaTeX.
Be a good communicator. Respond to emails in a timely manner (within 24 hours if possible), and show up at the lab when you say you will (or let people know that other academic obligations prevent you).
If there is material you need to learn before you can really get into the full swing of things (like the basics of Python or IDL), make a schedule for learning that material and make sure you regularly show up at lab or come up with other ways to check in so that people know you are doing it. Ask questions, but try to see if you can find answers on your own before you use up someone’s time for an explanation.
This is related to general life advice: be respectful. You are now part of a team, and what you do can affect the team. Don’t constantly email questions. If you really have a lot of questions, make a meeting time to go over them. But research is partly about looking things up, so you should also use the reference materials at your disposal, including Google and the library. Looking things up will possibly get your question answered or at the very least, help you ask the best possible question. It will also enhance your information-gathering skills, which are really important no matter what you end up doing in life.
If things go wrong
Ideally in a research setting everyone is serious about their work but also nice and willing to help out the new kid. Sometimes it works out that way, sometimes it doesn’t. It’s helpful for you to know some of the dynamics that are at play.
Postdocs: These are people who have already gotten a PhD and are doing the academic equivalent of a medical residency before they (hopefully) move on to a faculty position, although sometimes they have to do 2–3 of these residency-type positions first. They are on a time-limited contract, and how productive they are during this contract will determine whether they are able to get another job in the field, especially a faculty position, or if they will have to leave the field and find something completely new to do with their lives. That’s really scary! On top of everything, they didn’t hire you but they might be stuck supervising you, which some people are often not thrilled about. As a result, postdocs will feel a lot of pressure, and sometimes this translates into them mistreating people who are junior to them.
I’m not saying that this is acceptable — I don’t think it is — but postdocs are possibly generally decent human beings who sometimes respond poorly to shitty conditions. In fact, they may be getting additional pressure from the professor they are working for because the professor’s ability to get more grant money will be determined by how productive they are. In essence, worries about money can really affect the dynamics of human behavior in research settings. And this is only getting worse because the last several Presidents and Congresses have not been huge champions of funding for basic science.
Graduate students: I know that when you are 18, being 24 seems really old and mature, but it’s not. So first of all, grad students aren’t that much older than you, and they may not know much about how to manage people. (Actually, professors and postdocs don’t necessarily know much about that either.) In addition, they may be stressed about coursework, qualifying exams, teaching responsibilities, their timeline to graduation and their ability to get hired as a postdoc after graduation. They might also be having a not so great relationship with either the postdoc or the professor who is supervising them. Unfortunately, horror stories about bad superviser-supervisee relationships at this level are manifold. On the whole, I think graduate students are under less pressure than postdocs, but this isn’t always the case.
Professors: As I mentioned above, you may not be working directly with one. But if you are, the stress about grant money applies. In addition, many people working in physics and astronomy typically subscribe to a mindset that says that if a student has any chance of being good at physics, it will be pretty obvious. They are frequently not very good at looking at the diamond in the rough, nor are they always good at taking a holistic view of skills that are just as important as preparation and knowledge, like level of persistence. They may judge you and write you off early.
This won’t happen to everyone, but I think it likely disproportionately happens to URMs and white women.
And it can happen to those of us who go on to be something of a success. One summer I was in a catastrophic bike-car accident that still has health implications for me, and people in my lab were not very understanding and were in fact quite mean about my low energy levels when I tried to come back to work. They were so awful that I never returned to a condensed matter lab, even though I still really love condensed matter as a topic. (Luckily, I’m currently using some concepts from condensed matter in my cosmology research, so that’s cool.)
If people start saying abusive things to you like, “you will never make it in physics,” that’s their shit, not yours. Really. It’s not possible for them to know the future, and it’s very difficult early on to know whether someone is doing poorly because their lab sucks or because they really aren’t going to end up as physicists. As I wrote in my last entry, it’s important to have a flexible intelligence mindset and persistence is an important characteristic.
When people say things like this to you, or do things that indicate this is what they are thinking, go through your flexible mindset checklist. Figure out what you can do better and do it. Do your best. Know that working hard and working smart does lead to better performance.
This is another reason to take notes. Write down the questions that come to mind, even if they seem “stupid” to you. The simplest questions can turn out to be the best, most important ones. Allow your imagination to wander while you’re reading materials related to your work and consider ways you can improve or enhance the work you actually do for the lab. Yes, this all sounds a bit like I am saying that creativity is important. CREATIVITY IS SO IMPORTANT IN ASTRONOMY AND PHYSICS! What I am encouraging you to do is to proactively engage and develop your creative side.
All of that said, if the harassment is sexual in nature or otherwise physical, you should consider reporting this to the professor and possibly the department chair. There is absolutely no reason you should tolerate harassment that physically harms or threatens you with physical harm.
You may or may not feel like you fit in at the lab. If you do, great! If you don’t, that’s an extremely normal feeling. Don’t let it chase you off. Labs are very international but tend toward only having people of only European and Asian descent in them. And within the word “Asian,” though there are 60+ ethnic groups, usually the people you run into in labs and research groups will primarily be of Chinese, Indian, Taiwanese, Korean and Japanese descent or origin. We have a long way to go toward being truly international and truly integrated in astronomy and physics research.
This means there will be cultural differences. In the neighborhood where I grew up (east Los Angeles), which is primarily Mexican and Mexican American, it was very common for people to know every one else’s business. Some people come from communities like that, whereas others come from communities where they don’t share personal information at work. It may seem like people are cold and standoffish, when it’s really not a personal thing against you. And it’s important for you to respect not just the reality of those cultural differences but also that some of it may just be personal preference. Not everyone wants to be buddies with their coworkers.
In fact that person who doesn’t want to be buddies may be you. I am an introvert, and I have regularly found it hard to be part of a community where socializing with coworkers becomes an important way to be considered part of the community, especially since I often don’t have a lot in common with others. I think you have to make your own decisions about how to balance between your needs and the pressures you may be experiencing, and the deciding factor should be, “What can I do that will make me feel okay with myself when I wake up in the morning?”
Try at all times to center “being about that work.” That’s ultimately what you’re in the lab to do. You’re there to contribute to original research and improve your capacity to make significant contributions to science. Make sure that if you decide to leave a lab, you try to finish something first. Avoid letting people in the lab know that you are unhappy. Nobody is going to make changes based on an undergrad (or even grad student) opinion, and it can seem uncooperative. Instead, try to set goals for yourself, in conversation with whoever is supervising with you, and stay focused on what you need to achieve those goals.
The real world of working, no matter where you end up having a job, is that sometimes it will suck, even if in general you like your job. You will not like everyone you work with, but you will still have to get along with them. So see this as an opportunity to hone a skill set that will serve you forever.
For example, I find that sometimes people try to impress me with their diversity credentials, and this can make me really uncomfortable. I try to just smile and let them feel like they are succeeding at capturing my good opinion, even though I’m often actually labeling them as a soft racist (because usually it involves some version of “I helped dark people once!”/ “I have a serious case of noblesse oblige!”). Sometimes you just have to let people talk and move along when you get a chance.
And, like I said in the last entry: if/when someone says something racist in the lab, make sure you have a team in place ready to support you. This is a different situation from a study group, though. There are power dynamics involved, and you will be keenly aware of them. Racism is fucked up, partly because it puts you in the terrible position of making a Sophie’s Choice. You can speak up and risk being labeled as difficult or overly sensitive (as has happened to me and many others repeatedly), or you can say nothing and end up feeling like shit about yourself for it (as has happened to me and many others repeatedly). At the end of the day, make the decision based on how your choice will make you feel about yourself AND whether you are willing to put up with the consequences.
Here’s an example: I once had a postdoc say something pretty horrible to me about Black people being overly sensitive about slavery. He said it to upset me, and he succeeded. I was afraid to challenge him because I was supposed to be working for him, so I decided to just leave the environment instead. I went to my office and cried bitterly. The next day I had a bunch of different white male postdocs asking me why I had overreacted! Ultimately, the situation soured my relationship with the research group because I felt harassed and undefended, and it altered my research path. I now regret not saying something in the first place, since I was labeled as angry anyway.
Unfortunately, in our community, racism is not considered to be as bad as sexual harassment, even though it can be just as mean and just as scary. Alerting someone senior could result in help arriving, but it could also result in an uncomfortable conversation where a (likely white) professor tells you that you’re probably “just being sensitive” or “I don’t think it’s that big of a deal.” I’m not saying that you shouldn’t speak up, but I want you to be prepared for potential reactions and weigh carefully what your priorities are at that moment.
There isn’t a winning choice in situations like this. Only surviving and not letting it get in the way of you thriving. All of this is extra work you have to do, and it’s not your fault, but it is your problem. This is what people mean when they say, “Minorities have to be better than their white counterparts.” You have to try to perform just as well as your white labmates, even though you might be overcoming more barriers to do so.
You can do it though. You have a right to your dreams. You have a right to your education and training. You are part of a Vanguard. You are a barrier breaker. Be about living your dreams and tell the haters no:
*Programs funded by the NSF like the GRFP and REUs are restricted to US Citizens and Permanent residents. Some schools offer summer research programs that don’t have these restrictions, depending on what type of visa you have. Your school’s international office can help with this.