What it means to be an undergrad in research
(at least at first)

Posted on June 22, 2016

One of the most amusingly large gaps you will realize is 1) how you see yourself as an undergrad versus 2) how everyone else sees you. It is probably the most defining feature in picking out undergraduate versus graduate students, and it's much more of a difference in perspective than a contrast in the activities each do every day.

How undergrads see themselves:

- Undergrads are busy people. They have a lot of things to manage: schoolwork, clubs, social life, sports, jobs, research. Research is just one thing on the list of what they do, and it's not the one they're graded on.

- Undergrads got into colleges by being evaluated holistically. They have friends who value them for who they are as people, and what they care about.

- Undergrads accomplish things. They do their problem sets and accomplish the goals set out for them.

- Undergrads are VIPs. Courses are designed around them, TAs are designated to help them, they have access to professors and people are here to help.

How graduate students see undergrads:

- People who are not high-commitment and who do not yet have many skills or much knowledge

- People who don't realize that your primary goal is your research, and that you think of undergraduates primarily in terms of what they can accomplish in this setting

- People who expect things to get done rapidly and are impatient with ambiguity and things not working

- People who haven't yet learned to learn independently and don't realize how much "hand-holding" they need compared to what you're used to

- People who expect to be on papers and don't realize that almost anything they do you can accomplish much better and faster

- People who expect you to drop everything for them since that is the environment they are used to

- Potentially useful because they can be trained to do grunt work, because they look good on the CV in the mentoring column, and because the really good ones start acting like graduate students and can do their own projects

- Most importantly, rewarding because graduate students like giving back

Essentially, it boils down to the fact that undergraduates think they are a lot more important than they are, which is a perfectly reasonable expectation given the context of undergraduate life. This attitude can be grating, however, and one of my most important realizations in college was that everyone is self-serving, and that graduate students, unlike professors, are not explicitly paid to care about you. That does not mean that doing research with a graduate student will not be an incredibly fulfilling experience, it just means that you have to go in without the expectation that graduate students are there for you. They want to help and mentor you, and they're happy to spend their time with you, but you need to acknowledge that this is something they're giving you rather than you giving them.

This attitude difference is a complaint I've heard from graduate students and professors alike, and it's a transition that everyone goes through. And once you're through, and working independently and doing well and mentoring other new people, there's all the fun stuff, like lab get-togethers and hanging out and doing great research. Just go in the expectation that you're here to learn and people are happy to help but have their own work, and you'll have a great time :).