During my undergraduate degree, in engineering, I took part in two 'undergraduate research assistantships'. Neither of them went well, from my point of view. Both were done during school terms, and were in my 2nd and 3rd years.

In the first assistantship, I chose to work in an area outside my field of study (and outside of my future interests), due to some interest from high school. The topic was too complicated and unfamiliar to me, however, and I was not able to make any contributions. I spent the entire term attempting to read papers on the subject (and not understanding most of them).

The second was more related to my field, and I was able to make some contributions. It was not at the quality that I would accept from myself now, however.

If a masters application form/site asks for a complete record of academic activities/jobs, I will be including information on these.

Would it be likely to help, or harm, and application if I included information on these voluntarily? I can see two possible views myself, but do not know if someone reading an application is likely to see them that way, or which would carry more weight:

  • Poor performance is the major factor that will be seen in the applications
  • Including these could show the ability to try and take on extra work (hopefully more successfully)

In either case, I would be able to speak about some lessons learned from the experience. Along the lines of 'Don't start a major project in an area you have zero knowledge in; get some foundational experience in it first'.

  • 1
    Do you have to mention that you did poorly? Is there some official record (available to the one reading your application), stating that you did a bad job? Can't you just mention that you participated and don't emphasize the outcome too strongly?
    – Dirk
    Commented Sep 7, 2017 at 11:17
  • Is there some official record (available to the one reading your application), stating that you did a bad job? -- Yes, if OP is having their research advisor write a letter of recommendation and the advisor mentions that in their letter.
    – Mad Jack
    Commented Sep 7, 2017 at 14:32
  • Most undergraduates perform "poorly" (when measured to the same standards as PhD students or even later), which is completely normal and fine. Even master students can be more work that benefit, even PhD's... That's why you have a few more years as student, with mentors and supervisors watching over your shoulder. My advise would be to put them on, but don't say that you were bad. If asked, answer what you may have learned from the attempts, and what you would do different now.
    – Mark
    Commented Sep 7, 2017 at 18:40

2 Answers 2


I don't know about your field specifically, but in my field, you can rarely make any serious progress on research working part time for part of a school year. This is true for professors, postdocs, grad students and and especially true for undergrads. The point of undergraduate research is (1) to give you some taste of research, (2) to learn a few things, and (3) maybe help contribute a small amount of insight to some problem. At least in math, it's more common that undergrad research "only" results in a learning experience rather than a publishable paper. In fact, many research projects for grad students and beyond never become papers, and of those that do, it generally takes more than half a year. That's the nature of research. It's not easy.

Moreover, as you advance and mature your point of view, it's natural that you view your earlier work as naive (again, this is true for professional researchers). That's fine. That doesn't mean there was something wrong with what you did earlier, but just that your understanding has advanced.

Anyway, to answer your question, I would probably include lines on my CV saying you were a research assistant, and at least briefly touch on them in your personal statements. (You may also want a letter from someone involved in one of these, but that depends on your situation.) You're not expected to have outstanding outcomes, so you don't need to focus on that outcomes. But it shows motivation beyond the required coursework and that you have some experience with research.

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    Agreed, OP's description doesn't strike me as "poor" but rather "normal". If it did result in significant contributions I would call it "excellent". "Poor" would be something like "got fired for not showing up or some sort of misconduct". Commented Sep 7, 2017 at 16:11

It appears you are being too hard on yourself. You say, "Neither of them went well, from my point of view."

Don't worry about your point of view, for now. It seems that in the first case you did read some papers, i.e., as Kimball pointed out, you showed initiative. In the second case, you did make contributions. Can you get a letter from the supervisor talking about the contribution you made (even though you may think it's not upto your standards).

You don't need to write lessons learnt in your application. Just talk about what you learnt in your broad field of interest.

And yes, research is hard. Many research ideas don't go anywhere. You will have plenty of time to learn life's lessons as you progress in your academic career. For now focus on your application, write objective facts, and don't allow yourself to judge them harshly. Get letters from your supervisors, course advisors, etc. You can have a frank conversation with the undergraduate research assistantship supervisors: will they give you a good letter?

Hope this helps.

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