Finding Your Place in Research

3/1/20 DukEngineer Magazine

Master's students stress the importance of doing homework on research labs before deciding to join one

students gather around an electron microscope at Duke University
Finding Your Place in Research

Duke students are not just students; they are also researchers, mentors and activists. In the Pratt School of Engineering, the role of a researcher is highly prized and sought after, and choosing the right project is critical for success.

While the pressure to join a research team often pushes students to join the first lab that replies or accepts them, this pressure promotes the wrong mentality in students. Instead of joining whichever lab responds firsts, students should focus on the atmosphere, structure and—most importantly—research topic of the group.

From the earliest moments on campus tours, tour guides like to tell prospective students that research opportunities are plentiful, then proceed to share anecdotes about their personal research experiences. This paints the picture that all one needs to do to get started with research is simply ‘decide’ that you are ready for it.

Two students and a faculty member huddle around a computerHowever, that is not necessarily the case. After this simple decision comes a series of rather difficult questions. With whom do you want to do research? Where do you want to do research? What type of research are you interested in? Responding correctly to these questions is crucial to shaping a research experience.

Some students arrive at Duke with the idea that they must ‘do’ research before they even establish what topics they are interested in and what they want to accomplish. Because research experience is highly preferred for many engineering careers and PhD programs, students view it as something to check off on a long list of career prerequisites.

But it is oftentimes the students that decide to wait before diving into research who have much more positive experiences. These students attribute the importance of course exploration and general networking with faculty during their first year to their success in finding the right research positions.

For example, graduate student Simiao Ren recounted that he arrived on campus interested in performing research in quantum computing, but he changed his mind in his second semester. “My first-year coursework at Duke convinced me that my true passion is in machine learning,” he explained. “And by waiting until my second year to start research, I was able to open more opportunities by networking with the students in the labs I was interested in.”

These students were able to directly connect Ren to the principal investigators of each lab. Through those connections and conversations, he is now proudly working in Leslie Collins’s Applied Machine Learning Lab.

A line of people donning clean suits in a clean room labThis raises the important question of how to successfully join a meaningful project. Before answering this question, you should ask yourself why you want to do research. The next question should be, what type of research, and in what field(s)? Answering these two questions will allow you to more effectively and purposefully approach professors.

A method that greatly helped Ren and other students was proactively connecting with the graduate students working in labs of interest. This strategy allows students to view the lab’s work in a closer context, see how the work progresses and—most importantly— meet the people you could be working with.

Duke research faculty truly want students to end up in roles that they are passionate about. Faculty want students to do their homework and meet with the lab before joining so that they can decide if they are interested in working with the people in the lab and are genuinely interested in the topic. As graduate student Evan Stump explained, “Joining a research group is deciding that [the research] is genuinely a topic that you are passionate about and most importantly feel is worth it.”

Francisco Reveriano is a first-year graduate student completing a master’s in engineering in electrical and computer engineering.