When I first started doing research, I hated it. It made me feel like an idiot. I had been running full steam ahead towards the career as a doctor that I felt was expected of me, and research stopped me dead in my tracks, looked me in the eyes and let me in on the secret that my GPA, my standardized test scores, my resume — all of it, was irrelevant. None of it mattered. I didn't know anything.
I didn't like that very much.
After all, I had spent my entire life building my statistics. I can't remember a time before I was aware of what I was "supposed to do," and I did it all with vigor, joining clubs "for my college application" in elementary school. No one told me that college didn't care about anything before high school.
So it was a bit of a shock to find that, well, I knew nothing — that all of my classes had left me with only vague impressions, fleeting grasps of understanding and definitions so disconnected from any actual relevant substance that they sometimes took months of real-life interaction to recognize. I felt personally affronted. After all my efforts, I finally confronted the real, live application of knowledge and found myself very, very bad at it.
It took me a long time to get over it. But I'm so glad I did.
I have a number of stock reasons for encouraging people to pursue undergraduate research. Hopefully, you have heard at least some of them before. You will learn more doing research than you will in any of your other classes combined. You will make important connections with your professors. If you're lucky, this will mean you have a valuable new mentor. If not, you're at the very least that much closer to a recommendation letter.
You will find out whether or not you really want to do what you think you want to do. You might get course credit or, in some cases, even paid. It will look great on your resume. If you want to get another degree these days, it is all but required for graduate or medical school.
All of these things have been true for me. I have learned so much. I have had the great fortune of an entire laboratory full of mentors, and through that experience, discovered I have no real desire to be a doctor. As I scramble to finish my graduate school applications before their early-December deadlines, I sure am glad to have some research experience that I can talk about.
But here's what matters: I hated research at first because it made me feel like I knew nothing. But I love it now because I know that I know, well, just a little more than nothing.
I know the universe is big and I am small — that anything I can ever contribute to anything will likely be miniscule in and of itself, but that put in combination with everyone else's tiny contributions I'm reminded we can all take a step somewhere substantial.
If you're like me, you find the daily news to be more than a little bit depressing. From every side, we are constantly barraged with information, most of which is unhappy and, often, unsettling. Things just seem to get worse and worse. If you're really like me, you find yourself kind of wanting to give up on humanity every now and then.
Research is what results when, despite all of this – despite the great big, boiling vats of badness all around us – we keep searching and searching for something more.
Whether that "something more" be some sort of data, some sort of communication, or simply some sort of beauty, searching for it creates hope.
Melissa Lee is a senior in College Scholars. She can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.