I was fortunate enough to get a position as a researcher for the Mayo Clinic's SURF Program this year. My PI's lab focus is on the the immune system's role in CNS axonal and neuronal injury, specifically through the lens of how innate and adaptive immune effectors interact w/ infected neurons.

Although I do research under a professor at my college and I volunteered for a state university lab during the previous summer, this is my first REU/SURF opportunity, and I REALLY want to make a good impression. Here are my questions:

What are the do's and don't's in terms of being a skilled and efficient researcher?

Since I am still an undergrad, I know that I will be a less useful asset to the lab than a grad student or post-doc, but what can I do as an undergrad to not burden my colleagues and PI?

Thank you all for your help! Wishing you all the very best!

  • 5
    I wish more people asked questions like this.
    – Suresh
    Mar 11, 2014 at 21:28
  • I've removed "biomedical" from the title of the question, since your question isn't field-specific.
    – aeismail
    Mar 11, 2014 at 22:20
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    "what can I do as an undergrad to not burden my colleagues and PI" the awareness you show by this question already means that you are far further towards this goal than the vast majority of interns. Congratulations and keep going this way. Mar 11, 2014 at 22:26
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    I will be a less useful asset to the lab than a grad student or post-doc — [citation needed]
    – JeffE
    Mar 12, 2014 at 1:42
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    @EnergyNumbers I think the more specific question asked by the OP - "what can I do as an undergrad to not burden my colleagues and PI?" - is an answerable question that is not too broad.
    – ff524
    Mar 12, 2014 at 14:25

2 Answers 2


To me, the quality that makes a student not a burden is the following:

A willingness to learn for themselves and good judgement about when to stop and ask for feedback.*

If a student isn't willing to try things out and learn independently, then it creates a burden on the supervisor. I really don't appreciate when a student asks me how to do something before they do a basic Google search.

Similarly, if a student doesn't know how to judge when he/she is "stuck" and needs help, this also creates a burden on the supervisor (because the supervisor has to keep checking on the student to make sure they're progressing).

The dos and don'ts (to avoid being a "burden") that come to mind are:

  • Do ask your supervisor this question at the very beginning, to find out what he/she expects from you.
  • Do take detailed notes when you have a meeting with your supervisor or somebody teaches you how to do something, so you can refer to them later
  • Do keep a written record of your own attempts and progress (such as a lab notebook) to show your supervisor during meetings
  • Do ask a question if you don't understand an instruction or something that is said, because it will be much better for everyone involved if you clear things up sooner rather than later.
  • Do mention your own ideas to your supervisor, if you have some that you think will make your research better.
  • Don't think that just because you are an undergraduate, you can't make much of a contribution. Obviously experience helps, but it's really only a small piece of what makes someone a skilled researcher. Willingness to learn is a much bigger piece, IMO. I've had high-school summer interns who were better than any of the M.S. students in the lab, simply because they put in more effort to learn.

* Source of the quote: The Unwritten Rules of PhD Research, by Marian Petre & Gordon Rugg

  • 2
    For what it's worth, I think the same formula would apply in most non-academic roles. Almost all jobs involved being instructed by others at some point. Aside from knowing whether you can progress on your own, also develop an idea of the relative value of your time and other people's. e.g asking someone else to spend 5 minutes explaining something that would take you 10 minutes to work out on your own, is not a good use of 10 person-minutes, unless their time is worth less than yours. And maybe not even then because you interrupted them, so you cost them more than 5 minutes productive work. Mar 12, 2014 at 1:33
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    ... and not asking for help when you're stuck doesn't just create a burden on the supervisor to check on you, it also means that for the whole time you're stuck you're not achieving anything. On the reasonable assumption that your supervisor wants you to achieve something, they would want to un-stick you once you're stuck. Getting that balance right is a lot about self-awareness but also reading cues from the supervisor, asking for feedback, and accepting criticism/correction. Mar 12, 2014 at 1:38
  • I love that book. it's excellent.
    – Suresh
    Mar 12, 2014 at 7:31
  • @SteveJessop: and in addition is something that needs to be learned (as in try and possibly fail many times). As a mentor I learned that many good students are shy in terms of asking to get unstuck. (In constrast, many bad students tend to be not shy at all and unable to read clues when not to disturb). (I attribute it to a thourough training to exam situations where you are not allowed to ask if getting stuck) Mar 13, 2014 at 10:28

The purpose of REU/SURF programs is to educate undergraduates about research, and to encourage them to make good decisions about graduate school. Secondary benefits include advancing science and the careers of the participants. Note that these are not the same goals as of a PhD program (such as in ff524's answer).

The very natural desire to be a "skilled and efficient researcher" is orthogonal to these goals; in some circumstances it will be counterproductive to be skilled and efficient. Your supervisor sees the whole project while you only see what's been set in front of you.

You should set your goals as:

  1. To learn as many details of the lab dynamic as possible.
  2. To participate in the lab dynamic in the manner you are expected to.
  3. To do the tasks you are assigned in a skilled and efficient manner.
  4. To noticeably improve in your abilities and understanding, over the course of the program.
  5. (stretch goal) To have a good and creative idea that transcends the tasks you were assigned. Share this idea with your supervisor; do not just implement it. Do this at most once during the summer.

To expand a bit on (2): Listen carefully, including to body language. Your supervisor has a role in mind for you. Different faculty have different expectations with regards to issues such as creativity, asking questions, frequency of meetings, quality control, etc. You need to meet these expectations as well as you can. Exceeding expectations may not be a good thing; that's why I recommend doing it at most once.

  • Exceeding expectations may not be a good thing; that's why I recommend doing it at most once - What does this mean?
    – ff524
    Mar 12, 2014 at 14:24
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    I completely disagree - if you think you can do better than what your advisor tells you to do, you should absolutely speak up and suggest it.
    – ff524
    Mar 12, 2014 at 14:28
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    Undergrads are perfectly capable of having ideas that save time and improve the quality of the research (I have supervised several). If you think you have an idea, speak up - the worst that can happen is that your supervisor will explain why it isn't suitable (which is no big deal, wastes 2 minutes at most, and you'll learn something from it). The best that can happen is that it will be a really good idea that makes the research much better!
    – ff524
    Mar 12, 2014 at 14:54
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    Look, I don't want to get in an extended debate here. The supervisor sets the parameters -- be creative in the areas where creativity is encouraged. Being creative "outside the box" is unlikely to lead to an outcome the OP wants, and in a lab science might even lead to someone getting hurt.
    – vadim123
    Mar 12, 2014 at 15:16
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    I think this may be very field-specific - I see that you're in mathematics, where the role of undergrads in research is quite different than many other fields. In any event, acting on a "creative" idea without consulting your supervisor first can be bad - but I am always pleased when a student I am working with (undergrad, grad, or other) makes a suggestion.
    – ff524
    Mar 12, 2014 at 15:27

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