One of the most important things that you can do for yourself today is to spend some time assessing what your real passion is in life.  By passion I mean what really makes you happy, what type of experiences do you enjoy, do you like working with people, instruments, plants or animals or both, do you like being outside or inside, etc.  Would it not be nice to combine any and all of your preferences for the above and other potential questions you may ask of your self in this regard and combine that with an annual salary, benefits, and a retirement package – A.K.A. your career?  For some people they actually have achieved this mission in life and are proud to say that I am really pursuing my life-long passion and can make a good living at it.  In such case these people don’t really view work as “work,” it is really something that they do enjoy doing day after day and get a paycheck for it!  I am lucky enough to be one of those people and people often ask me “You get paid to do this?” and I proudly answer, “Yes, I do and love nearly every minute of it.  I was blessed with an early understanding and focus of what I enjoy in life and went for it in my college education!”  I love what I do.  For me, teaching and working with enthusiastic people, young or more senior, that are curious, eager to learn, appreciate learning new things, make an effort to put pieces together that they have learned and experience in life, and view as one of their most important responsibilities in life as being a life-long learner is a pure joy and addictive!

Your attendance to college is an essential place where most of us make these decisions.  While we may change majors a few times during our college career, this is part of the process of sorting out what you want out of life.  While you may have wanted to pursue one type of career in Middle or High School, times in your life when you really knew little about the daily “grind” or activities involved in such a career, it is really not until you either participate in an internship (before, during, or after college) or experience the core topics of such a career in college that you are capable of deciding on a pathway in life that is both fulfilling and can provide you adequate income to meet your expectations.  If you are interested in some aspect of the natural sciences there are a few things that you should know to succeed – other than good study habits, responsible study habits, extreme focus on the classes during your four years, and really experiencing the discipline.  One of the most important components of this is having research experience “under your belt.” Without a doubt, your eager attitude for this experience and what you take away from it is really worth your time investment, worth making it the center of your attention for a few hours a week, and learning all that goes into researching a topic. 

One of the important and easy tips to success in the sciences is your involvement in research.  There are many reasons why students should be interested in pursuing research while enrolled in classes and giving appropriate time to their classroom studies.  After 25+ years as a Professor and having advised/mentored hundreds of undergraduates and nearly 100 graduate students (Masters of Science, M.S., or Doctor of Philosophy, Ph.D.) the positives of research as supplementary or essential education and the development of the whole self as a scientist, or as a non-scientist interested in learning more about how science works, far out weights any possible negatives.  Involving yourself in research in a Professor’s laboratory is easy and usually only involves approaching the Professor with an interest in assisting in a project ongoing in his/her laboratory or bringing an idea to them that is closely allied to their area of focus in their research. First, you need to get to know the kinds or types of research ongoing in a Professor’s laboratory that may interest you or you may simply enjoy working with a Professor and working in his/her laboratory can be a good start.  In the first case, you need to research what they do, what kinds of questions they are asking, and why kinds of tools they are using to address these questions.  If this sounds like something that would interest you in the slightest then the laboratory may be for you.  If you are just beginning, it is usually best to offer to work in their laboratory initially for no or minimal salary, work a regular schedule around your classes and studies, inquire and discuss as best you can the different projects ongoing in the lab, and embed yourself with the permission of the Professor in one of those projects.  Getting along with the Professor and other people in the laboratory is important and part of this responsibility is yours - don’t come in like you know everything and you should only tolerate professional behavior and interactions of others in the laboratory.

As discussed above, there are many reasons for you to involve yourself in research –starting off small and working your way up.  Research experience will enhance and hone your academic abilities, critical thinking abilities, your focus, and your relationships with other students and Professors, and provides one of best ways for in-depth exposure to a topic of possible interest for future consideration as a career choice in some way – thereby achieving your passion in life.  Involving yourself in research also gives you and the Professor a great opportunity to learn more about one another and for you to gain wisdom from an experience person in your chose field.  When it comes time for letters of recommendation for job applications or applications to professional or graduate school you should be in good shape to have letters from people that really know you and can write meaningful letters - something other than simply having you in their class!  Research experience in a laboratory also takes effort, time, and patience - all attributes that people reading your application materials know from their own experiences and something that not everyone applying for the position has in their portfolio or on their resume!  Finally, many students involved in research find themselves published in the professional scientific literature as an author on a paper that they were involved with during their research experience.  In some cases you may even be the first author of the paper yourself given that you take on the necessary motivation of analyzing data, writing portions or all of the paper, and seeing the paper through to submission to the journal!  Frankly, very few people as students have this distinct honor and admissions committees, Professors, and future supervisors in scientific disciplines know this and know that you have taken your years as a student very seriously and are inherently driven and a hard worker!  This only leads to personal success and sets you apart from a flock of other applicants - guaranteed.

Fish illustrations by Joseph R. Tomelleri and used with permission.