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After a lab meeting today, I am absolutely fed up with the state of my lab right now, and the current project being worked on going… nowhere.

A year and a half ago, I joined a mechanical engineering lab at my university that wanted to evaluate pedagogical techniques using EEG signals as a measure for how much students are paying attention.

I was working directly with a PhD student, and initially 99% of my work included reading papers for him, summarizing them, and then explaining them to him, since he didn’t know much about EEG or Cognitive Science. Then, we got to actually making lesson interfaces for the pedagogy part of this lab… this is where things started to get weird.

I made a rather nice interface that would show video displays of a certain mechanical test the PhD recorded (most of their work is just recording videos…) that would also synchronize with the EEG signal collection to the nearest millisecond(the headset which took a year to get despite the fact it was the main point of the research)

The interface worked… but then he told me that they actually wanna do it in C++, so they hired two more undergraduate research assistants and wrote a similar interface in JavaScript and got two conference papers out of it… whatever. Oh well.

Next, IRB is being such a pain. This is my senior year, and recently I joined another target lab at my school, in the area of BCI, which I’ve been wanting to join forever… essentially today I learned at a lab meeting that getting IRB ready would take about another year or so so that I can record student biometric data.

I didn’t say anything yet, but I blew up when I heard this on the inside. I don’t know much about IRB, but the PI mentioned something about some simpler paths the PhD student could have taken at the beginning of the year, but he didn’t act fast enough??

Literally all his contributions have been recording videos and creating text manuals for the lessons while the undergraduates are dealing with the real meat of the project like creating lesson interfaces and the signal processing pipeline.

This is starting to feel like a joke, and especially now that I’m working with a professor that I am really enjoying, where I get to do my own independent research, during a gap year before I apply for PhD programs, I don’t think there is much point in me staying at this lab…

I’m thinking of making the offer to the PI that I am giving 2 months notice, and that when they find a replacement, I will give them the run down fully about the literature, code base I am using, and how we are currently analyzing the signals. I think this is fair, but I’m not sure since it’s in the “middle” of the project.

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  • Research administrator here. IRB doesn't take a year. If that were the case, we wouldn't be able to function. It does take weeks and usually months. What often happens is that researchers don't take the process seriously and it drags out the paperwork. The offices become overwhelmed by trying to help people who don't know how to fill out the paperwork. Call up your IRB office, ask for advice, read their materials, and do the application. I support HCI folks, and seasoned IRB researchers get things done in a few months because they are responsive to the back and forth process that is required. Nov 11, 2023 at 23:53

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You can probably 'get away' with that, but it might not be your best move. You indicate (tags, title) that you are an undergraduate. Perhaps you have unrealistic expectations about the scope of research and the length of time and the complexity to get it done correctly. Yes, IRB can be a block, but it is a guard against unethical research.

The more important question for you, I think, is what you can gain from continuing (or not) on the project. It is unrealistic to expect that the research will be completed by the time of your graduation and any papers might appear long after that. You can, alternatively, discuss how your work will be presented in publications, whether as author (not so likely) or with proper acknowledgement.

But if you intend to continue to graduate study, continuing might be your best option for obtaining good letters of recommendation.

Significant research takes time as well as care. There are setbacks and frustrations. Don't expect doctoral study to be easy or painless. T/he experience you are getting might actually be extremely valuable. And if it fails, as some projects do, the onus won't be on you. I see many reasons to stay if you can deal with the frustrations. But realistic goals are important, too. Few undergraduates have significant research experience (in the US, at least) due to the nature of the beast itself as well as the time limitations of the undergraduate program. However, those that have some significant contact with real research get a boost in many applications.

I seriously question the value of a gap year to do "independent research" at your level of experience. Certainly in a field that requires IRB approval (and some others) it would be even more frustrating and less likely to result in "timely" success than what you are now doing. Some can handle it, but you would be a rare exception, I think. You have better options.

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  • Thank you for your comprehensive reply. One of my concerns though was that we knew what we were going to do, and that we needed access to biometric data a year and a half ago, and here we are still, at 0 progress with IRB. Would this be a valid concern to bring up, worded more professionally, or would this be seen as inappropriate?
    – Gayle Gale
    Nov 9, 2023 at 22:19

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