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Chosing a UROP lab

November 10, 2011

I didn’t pick my undergraduate major, my best friend Sabine* did.  She and I were in the same special program and met at freshman orientation.  We picked each other out of the crowd because both of us had mothers that were *still* trailing us.  Giving our parents a buddy made it easier for them to finally walk away.  And easier for us too; we stuck together for the entire orientation.  As a result, we had nearly identical schedules that first semester.  Because we liked each other and studied well together, we arranged to continue to have similar schedules, taking the same general science classes in the same order.

When it came time to declare a major, Sabine poured over the course catalogues and compared required courses, the prerequisites and the optional courses for the various majors.  She made appointments with professors and visited the university guidance councillors.  She made lists and went over the pro’s and con’s of the different options.  And when she finally decided, I just went ahead and declared the same thing.

This major required three semesters of an undergrad research experience culminating with an undergraduate thesis, so near the end of the fall semester of our junior year, Sabine handed me a copy of the UROP-office-generated list of all of the suitable professors, followed by a one-line list of keywords.  I stared at that one page list for a while, contacted the lab that seemed to have the most interesting set of key words, met with the professor who said sure and was dumped unceremoniously on a post-doc.

Sabine was much more directed and savvy than I.  She looked at webpages and pubmed abstracts and read some primary literature.  She contacted several different labs looking to work in a particular area that she felt passionately about, some on and some not on the list and finally found a lab that said yes and was dumped unceremoniously on a post-doc.

My lab environment turned out to be functional and the post-doc I worked with turned out to be a great mentor.  Her lab environment was somewhat disfunctional and the post-doc she worked with was paranoid and insecure.  When she finally realized this, it was too late to switch labs and still fulfill the requirements for the degree.  We’re different people with different strengths and interests.  On paper, however, our undergraduate records, along with other part of our CV’s, are very similar.  Our markedly different experiences with the grad school application process is a direct result of both better mentoring (more lines on my CV) and better letters of recommendation.  I worked hard and deserved every last line and absolutely nothing in those letters was untrue (even the walking on water part).  But she didn’t work any less hard and is not any less smart or dedicated and with even mediocre mentoring, could have figured out that walking on water trick too.  Neither of us use letters from our UROP mentors any more, but those words resonate through our career trajectories to this day.

How does one pick a good UROP lab then?  More important than the project would be the training record – for undergrads in particular – of the lab.  Certainly you need to be generally interested in the topic or system.  But defining your interests too narrowly may lead you to enter into a situation that your spidy senses would otherwise tell you to flee.  Once I’d been in my lab for a while, I asked suspiciously about that list of keywords that guided my choice.  My mentor laughed and confirmed that the lab hadn’t worked on most of those topics for a long time.  Ultimately that didn’t matter because I got very lucky and ended up being mentored by someone that was willing to mentor me.


* Clearly, for the purposes of this blog, I’m going to pretend that her name isn’t actually Sabine.

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