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I have been interested in pursuing undergraduate research opportunities and have been going to experimental chemistry labs since my freshman year. However, something bugs me quite a bit. The fact is that in my institute, undergraduates who are interested in experimental chemistry (I don't know about the theoretical guys; they are in a different league altogether, XD) are assigned to a PhD student. The undergrad does manual work on the project the PhD student is working on in the hopes that they will get authorship by virtue of their work. In most cases, there is no intellectual contribution by the undergraduate. This, coupled with semester studies, leads to most undergrads having an erratic schedule. An example of this would be a student who is attending the lab during a hectic semester. They would go for about 3 hours each day and for 3 to 4 days a week, doing nothing more than running a chromatography column and then returning after a day or two and then being absent for about 2 weeks before the mid-semester exams.

My question is simple: Is pursuing undergrad research during the ongoing semester worth it? I know there are people who give more time to the labs during the semester—possibly 5 to 6 hours a day for more days a week—for working on the PhD student's project in hope of getting an authorship in the paper. But can efficient research be done with such an erratic schedule and with no well-defined project on hand?

I know there already is an answer to a similar question - Is it better to do undergraduate research in the summer, or during the school year?.

But I am more interested in knowing if it is even worth doing this type of research during the semester with such a schedule, as I don't see myself being very productive.

P.S.: All the research I am talking about does not give the student any credits.

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    The title and body of your question don't really seem to match: if you're concerned about manual labor without intellectual contribution, it doesn't seem to matter if that occurs during a semester or the summer, does it?
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Oct 13, 2023 at 14:35
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    I found it very worthwhile back in the day. You need to learn how to do basic things in a lab. You likely, right now, do not have the ability to have significant intellectual contributions. And learning how to schedule your time to provide for regular lab time is a useful skill to learn.
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Oct 13, 2023 at 16:36

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Your decision, in large part, has to be based on what your goal is. I'm assuming that you're interested in pursuing some sort of post-graduate work in chemistry (or some sort of related field), so I'm basing my answer off of that assumption.

Generally, undergraduate research is looked upon quite favorably by potential graduate advisors and/or graduate admissions committees in the natural, physical, and behavioral sciences. Most even consider this a requirement. Many undergraduates do research working directly with a PhD student, or also in conjunction with a faculty member or faculty advisor. It's even more valuable if you're able to be an author on a poster or a paper associated with that research. (I've served on both individual advisor admissions committees as well as departmental admissions committees, so I speak from direct experience).

The schedule you described doesn't seem out of the ordinary, especially if it's a time-limited engagement of one semester. My experience is in a natural/behavioral science field, which had a similar schedule when I was an undergraduate. I'd suggest working out a clear schedule (hours/times) and defined scope of work with goals for this experience before you commit, so you can feel confident what you're signing up for.

I would suggest, though, that beyond the one semester, you try to stay involved in research activities throughout your undergraduate time (perhaps in a way that is more sustainable, schedule-wise). I'd also highly suggest that you try to arrange the research to "count" for some sort of credit to your degree. In the US (and Canada, the UK, and parts of Europe), you can count these types of activities as "independent study" credit, which would count as a course credit, so it recognizes your time. That would likely make your time that much more worth it for your research activities.

Best of luck!

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