Doing research for more than just your resume

Candler Cusato at work on her research

Written by Candler Cusato, Duke undergraduate ('22) who found her research project through Muser.

It’s no secret that Duke is a pre-professional institution. Most students contextualize their academic pathways here based on what they will be doing after they leave (pre-med, pre-law, pre-business, etc.). In the back of their minds, the shadow of the impending application cycle looms. The need to prepare for a future still far on the horizon causes students to engage in a mad dash to find research opportunities and faculty recommenders. But, before you hit send on applications you may have written while in this mindset, allow me to tell you why listening to that pre-professional voice in your head might not be the best idea.

Before college, I participated in research most pre-meds would dream of. I had a grant from the California government to work at one of the best hospitals in the country conducting up-and-coming stem cell research. I did poster and podium presentations to big conference crowds and received accolades that shined on my college applications. All things considered, I should have been ecstatic. But, in all honesty, I cannot recall a time in my life when I was more uninspired. After all was said and done, I began wondering why my experience had been so lackluster. The realization hit me quickly: although the work I had done was important and, admittedly, impressive, it simply didn’t resonate with me.

When I came to Duke, I knew I wanted to find a project that would excite me and reinvigorate my interest in research. I, too, turned to Muser, and there, I stumbled upon a listing for a mantis shrimp behavior project in the Patek Lab. When I saw the description, I was immediately reminded of being my younger self and desperate to learn the names of all the species of fish that lived at my local aquarium. Interested in reliving my childhood and hopefully translating my passion from the real world to the lab bench, I applied and began working in the lab in late September. In January, I stepped up my time and started spending 9 hours per week as an independent study student. And, although it’s not always easy and the shrimp rarely cooperate with me, I am passionate about the work I am doing.

With this in mind, I leave you with this bit of advice: don’t sacrifice your time doing research that doesn’t interest you just to satisfy that resume-building monster that lives in your head. Not only will it leave you feeling completely bored, it will put a bitter taste in your mouth about research in general that is difficult to get out. As you look at the listings on this site, think about what you actually see yourself doing and enjoying, rather than just slogging through. What you choose doesn’t have to be what you see yourself doing long-term or even in your major. It just needs to be work that you see value in and can actually dedicate yourself to. Trust me; it makes a world of difference.