In a nutshell, I'm drawing circles on images for most of my day (more precisely, ROIs around cellular components in fluorescence imaging). I volunteer to do this on weekdays from 10am to 7pm, and I stay late until 9pm once or twice a week to finish the day's set of images when it's considerably large.

I'm spending at least 45 hours per week drawing circles. I'm working efficiently (it takes me on average of 15 minutes per page of stitched images), I try not to take breaks to maintain momentum unless I'm noticeably slowing down (and limit them to 10 minutes), and I try not to take more than 30 minutes for lunch.

I understand that monotonous tasks are a key part of research, and it's suitable work for me as an undergraduate (as they're low-risk and require little experience). I'm also lucky to do research so early in my career. But in the evenings, I begin to think of all the other undergraduates out there getting ahead doing amazing work (like Martin McLaughlin, who already produced publishable, original work in his first year), and I feel discouraged and expendable.

And it's entirely my fault, too. If I spent my time in high school more effectively by learning Python coding for automation, statistics, and understanding more of the relevant literature, I could be so much more useful to my supervisor doing more stimulating complex tasks.

It's been a month since I've started, and the long hours of this repetitive task are wearing me down. But I don't want to let my supervisor down, so I intend to keep getting the daily image set done each day. She hasn't required me to set these hours or get the image set done each day, but I've been doing this for so long that it's expected (though she's always very appreciative each time I submit, and she works longer hours than me).

I plan to continue until the project is complete when my supervisor graduates in December (lessening hours to the evenings when classes resume). Until then and for future research opportunities, how can I keep myself motivated with monotonous tasks and avoid burning out?

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    I don't know about your specific task, but drawing circles full-time for a month (assuming it takes no intellectual effort) is a red-flag, even if you are an undergraduate student. And please note that abusing undergrads for lackluster tasks is common in academia.
    – user35129
    Jul 1, 2017 at 17:50
  • It's a red-flag for undergraduates, but it's the only task I'm qualified to do as I'm entering my first year of undergrad only next year (hence why I feel lucky to be doing research in the first place). I do understand it's quite common, though this question here suggests it's not unethical. And no, it doesn't take intellectual effort (it just takes pattern recognition to identify the organelles to circle).
    – anon
    Jul 1, 2017 at 18:04
  • I don't know why are you spending 45 hours a week drawing circles, but I am sure that it will be much more beneficial for you rather that time learning. Academically or personally Jul 2, 2017 at 18:42
  • @user2173836 that was baffling me, too. 45 hrs a week one can learn a lot, a can be useful. If he wants to learn Python, as he says, he can be a functional beginner in a couple of days and start automate many of this
    – Greg
    Jul 5, 2017 at 0:52

2 Answers 2


First of all, I think you're taking the wrong approach here. Drawing circles isn't helping you at all in any way. You can't put on your resume that you know how to draw circles. You aren't getting paid. You aren't learning anything. You're burning yourself out by working 45 hours a week and you haven't even started university yet.

In my opinion this is a perfect opportunity to learn programming and image processing. I have worked with many undergraduate and even high school students (I was one myself) in different labs, and I can tell you that you're perfectly capable of learning basic programming skills over the next two months if you work at it. With these skills you can attempt to make software that recognizes these ROIs in your images automatically.

From the sound of it your supervisor is a graduate student and not a professor, and since you're volunteering, they should have no problem with you taking a different approach to solve the problem of identifying ROIs. If they want people to do simple repetitive work, they can use a service like Amazon Mechanical Turk.

So to answer your question, academia is all about coming up with new approaches to solve problems or learn new things. If you want to stay motivated, use this time to learn something new that will help you in the future, and also help your supervisor.

  • You know, you're right! Thank you for encouraging me and giving me a practical solution. I'll get back to reading Guttag's Introduction to Computation today, and I'll work myself up to implementing something with OpenCV. Even if it doesn't work, it'll certainly be a transferable skill.
    – anon
    Jul 1, 2017 at 18:58
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    @user234213234 Programming experience in Biology will be extremely helpful if you plan to stay in academia. While you read that book, here are some Python packages that would be helpful to be familiar with: numpy, matplotlib (for quick graphs/plots), scikit-image, scikit-learn, and opencv.
    – Steve
    Jul 1, 2017 at 19:11
  • Thank you for taking the time to write out that very useful list! I'll aim to learn each one over the next couple of months - I really appreciate your help.
    – anon
    Jul 1, 2017 at 19:18
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    @user234213234 No problem. And don't forget that you likely won't come up with a solution that works perfectly, and that's to be expected for anyone who does image processing. Even if your code only works 70% of the time, that's 70% less manual selection work you have to do.
    – Steve
    Jul 1, 2017 at 19:29
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    Another alternative for this task is to become familiar with ImageJ. ImageJ is free image processing software developed with US NIH funding. There are dozens of plugins for ImageJ to do image segmentation, specifically for people tired of drawing circles.
    – Bryan Krause
    Jul 5, 2017 at 15:29

You need to first be clear with yourself about your expectations of your volunteer activity and then communicate it with your supervisor or maybe the lab investigator. She may suggest you to work on a more intellectually demanding project after you finished your current task (hopefully soon). If not, you can ask her to design a better plan for your research activity in the lab that satisfies your exceptions in addition to the lab's. At the end of the day, you may decide to stop your activity for now and focus on your studies for some years. Doing high impact research needs a solid foundation of the research area which can be obtained through taking different courses in your major. after a while, you would have more knowledge to be able to work on a real project with more challenging tasks and with a more distant supervision. In my experience, Having a full focus on your courses for now can guarantee a more productive research experience in future for you.

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