How did I choose which lab to do my bachelor's thesis in?
Jana: I first learned of the lab I picked for my thesis during a presentation showcasing the different labs in the Department of Biology for the new masters’ students. At our university, it’s normal for many final-year bachelor’s students to also join this event, in order to get an idea of where to do their final bachelor theses – so I did. That year, a new institute had been founded at the university, and their topics were presented for the first time to us students. I was fascinated by the presentation, thrilled with the topics and convinced everybody in the room had to be just as amazed as I was. Half a year later, when the time had come to decide, I hesitated to apply for this lab for two reasons. First, I thought they would have so many applications that I would have very little chance of success, and second, I was afraid to plan and write my thesis completely in English — I just didn’t dare. Despite my trepidation, after reading the proposed bachelor projects again two days before the application deadline, I decided that I had to try. I am very happy that I was not deterred from the challenge.
Robin: During the first five semesters in Konstanz I became more and more interested in animal behavior. When I heard about the Collective Behavior Department that was founded in Konstanz I was quite excited about the new possibilities to build upon my interests. At an information event for students the new department was initially presented to us, and I was completely hooked. In the following semester, I took the new Animal Behavior Course. My fascination for the topics and the way they approached questions led to my decision to apply for doing my thesis in this department – and I was lucky! The next step was trying to get an overview of all the projects the different research groups were working on. Fortunately, one of the technical assistants showed me around and introduced me to many people that were working on different topics, so I could talk directly to the researchers about their ongoing projects, and about possible ways I could contribute. For the lab I eventually chose to do my thesis in, I was attracted by the possibility to do field work whilst conducting my own experiments, and by the friendly and supportive atmosphere in the research group. I then participated in a master course held by the lab to get a deeper insight in the topic and the methods, which was very useful for me to clarify the possibilities and questions I could work on.
Laila: I was so excited when the director of a new department in Collective Behaviour at our university held his presentation about what they were researching. I realised that collective animal behaviour is so diverse and so much is still unknown, that I really wanted to be part of this lab team. I liked having the opportunity to see how a new lab starts its research program in a new university, and of course to meet great new people from all over the world.
What did I expect research to be like?
Jana: For me, my bachelor thesis was the first time I’d really experienced how research is done. It is a bit hard to specify which points surprised me the most, but I think I certainly underestimated the importance of discussions, especially those on the writing. I’d also misjudged the time it takes to get from having an idea and designing an experiment, to getting the results and writing. Looking back at my first proposal draft, and comparing it with the thesis I ended up with, leads me to the opinion that in research only a few things end up like they were planned at the very beginning. It is a process starting with a rough idea or question, figuring out which methods could work, testing them, failing, and solving the next problem, until finally you get something that works.
Robin: Even though the bachelor program contains several practical courses, this was (much like Jana) the first time I’d experienced how “real research” works. The whole process, from finding a question to investigate to designing an experiment and analyzing the collected data, was very important for me to understand how science works. However, this also came with the experience that sometimes things turn out to be more complicated than expected. I was surprised and sometimes frustrated with how easy things can seem in theory, and how problems occur when it comes to the practical implementation. However, learning to take emerging problems as tasks and trying to solve them is probably one of the most important lessons to learn during one´s first own project.
Laila: I expected research to be self-organised and tough. I knew that not every idea is feasible and that patience is a must have.
What did I enjoy the most, and which parts of the bachelors' thesis did I find the hardest?
Jana: At the first meeting with my supervisor, he asked me: “Do you have a specific question that you are keen to investigate?”. On the one hand, this question put me under some pressure, because I’ve never done research before – I didn’t know what was possible to do in three months, but on the other hand I really enjoyed being able to have an influence on the questions I was going to investigate. I think what stressed me the most was that there were a lot of delays. For example, the zebra finches I planned to work with, and the cages I wanted to use arrived a couple of weeks later than expected. Therefore, it was difficult to make a schedule, and harder still to keep to it.
Robin: When I started my fieldwork, I realized that outdoor experiments contain a lot more unpredictable factors than experiments in a controlled lab environment do. It took me quite a while to figure out how to solve technical problems related to environmental issues, such as temperature and humidity, and that some problems are more difficult to solve: For example, how do I deal with cable-nibbling squirrels? I spent hours repairing cables and RFID antennas to keep the data collection running, and was frustrated when, despite my efforts, things did not work or the data didn’t look how I’d expected. I now realize this was a very important experience, which taught me that sometimes things take longer than you might imagine when planning them. Also, the feeling of success when something finally works after many attempts more than makes up for the frustration it might have taken to get there.
Another thing is that, in the beginning, I was quite uncertain about my lack of programming and data analysis skills. In some moments, I literally felt as if I studied piano for years and had now chosen to give a final concert on the violin. Indeed, I knew that programming is an essential tool for scientists, and I understood the importance of coming to grips with it, but I was concerned when I realized that this whole mode of thinking was new to me. Eventually, (after some initial frustration) I actually started to enjoy analyzing my data that way. It is fun to work on a code if it gives you the correct outcome in the end, even (and especially) when you must overthink some issues. So don´t be afraid to take new challenges; you can only learn from them!
Laila: In the beginning I felt really lost and overwhelmed by everything. I found it hard learning how to organise my next steps, managing my time and not getting lost in details. I thought that I could never get the work done that I needed to. Despite this, the more time I invested in reading and talking to my colleagues, the more I gained confidence and understood the bigger picture, which was an incredible feeling.
What’s my best advice for someone undertaking their first research project?
Don’t hesitate to accept a challenge. You will make much more progress if you don’t stay in your comfort zone. Be patient – most things won’t work when you try them for the first time. Find a topic you are interested in and make it your work, because then it’s easier to stay motivated. Have a close look at the lab and supervisor you will work with. I was very lucky and had two supervisors and a lab that supported me a lot. However, I also know fellow students who had different experiences. And finally, don’t be afraid to ask. If anything doesn’t make sense to you, if you don’t understand, if you disagree, or if you just don’t know how, don’t hesitate to ask. I asked a lot of questions during my thesis (to both my supervisor and labmates), and I was often afraid that it would be too much, but I always got the feedback that it’s fine.
Robin: Take the time to choose a project that matches your interests. You will spend a lot of time with your experiment and the analysis of your data, so find something you are fascinated with. I’m sure things are much easier if curiosity can be your driver, also to overcome backstrokes. Make sure to choose a supervisor/research group you feel comfortable with. You will need the support of your supervisor and contributing researchers, and work is much more fun if the atmosphere is pleasant for all! Never hesitate to ask questions. I guess everybody feels quite insecure in the beginning, because everyone around has so much more experience and knowledge in a topic that might be relatively new to you. This should not deter you, but rather encourage you to ask questions! Most people around you have been at this stage, and many were probably asking the same questions as you are right now, so do not hesitate to talk to people about your ideas, questions, and doubts. It will make things a lot easier.
Laila: Don't panic if you feel lost in the beginning, don't be too shy to ask for help, and learn to handle criticism and failure.
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