Fundamental Research with a Chemical Engineering Undergrad
By: Rohit Goswami, MInstP AMIChemE AMIE
There is, in the academic community, a very fixed progression of time. The average time to publish in a peer-reviewed journal for a diligent student is typically six to eight years after high-school, often during a master’s or doctorate program. Two semesters of these six years of coursework are nominally given for research in terms of the thesis preparation. However, starting early on can offset this barrier. Working in a research lab immediately after a bachelor’s degree can be daunting for a young professional, especially since lab cultures vary. Choosing a discipline early on will allow a dedicated undergraduate the opportunity to spend up to four summers, as well as winter breaks, on relevant research, making a journal publication within a year of graduation not only feasible, but probable.
Compared to a student in a master’s or doctorate position, early career professionals will find that they have less time to deliver on their projects. This sense of urgency, however, is not normally a part of the lab dynamic, as only late stage doctorates and postdoctoral researchers think in terms of goals attainable in a short timeframe. Aspects of lab culture which may seem inclusive, like daily tea breaks or informal discussions, will not be of relevance to the career of the young professional, unless one intends to continue in the lab as a student. Research after an undergraduate career is a lonely endeavor. A chemical engineering background, though, imparting a sound knowledge of a variety of fields and a good understanding of practicalities, is often lacking in terms of the depth required for fundamental sciences. Leveraging time both during the undergraduate degree and after to set up a viable workflow for efficiently consuming scientific literature is imperative. It will be imperative to be able to have in-depth knowledge of a topical domain, while being able to have enough breadth to cover, on average, the work of ten to fifteen papers per topic.
It is also very important to be able to distance oneself from the lab hierarchies, both vertical and horizontal. It is necessary to have respect for the lab PI as well as the senior students; however, they are not course instructors and should not be expected to know the solution to every problem encountered during the project. Research necessarily involves unknowns, and the burden of proof lies with the researcher; age or experience is no panacea to solving novel problems. The direction and details of the project should be clarified as formally as possible, to ensure that there is no extraneous, uncredited work.
Like for the most part, it is rather common for juniors or young professionals just after graduation to be treated as administrative assistants. Such work should be undertaken in a professional manner, with the understanding that it is part of the contract, and not a personal favor, with clear communication with the supervisor that your goals may not always be the goals of the lab from an administrative perspective. As your tenure is limited, there is often little to no time to get to know the members personally, and as a result, professionalism, as typically practiced in communal activities, should be encouraged. This is in contrast to the tight knit community formed by a lab and its student and postgraduate members.
Competence is to be proven, and not learned. With the age factor working against the reputation of the young professional, it is best to play to your strengths and not branch out. The focus for a publication in the fundamental sciences is not one to be undertaken on the spur of the moment. It will be expected that basic knowledge of the subject has been demonstrated beyond coursework through suitable examples. Clear communication is crucial. The early career stage of a young professional researcher should not last longer than the duration of a master’s degree, with the understanding that enough work may be generated to enter a doctoral program. Communal ties to societies are crucial to development at this stage, and are often able to provide opportunities not usually accessible to the young professional. Fundamental research, though often seemingly too rigorous or elitist for the engineering cohorts, is easily manageable with the mindset of a chemical engineering undergraduate, as long as it has been factored into the undergraduate program.