Working as an undergraduate research assistant changed my life. Growing up, I did not know many people who went to college and do not recall that I met a person with a PhD before I entered college. When I left for college, I was the first person in my generation to go, and I was the first person in my immediate family to attend via the traditional track. Earning a PhD never crossed my mind. I did not think that I was capable of earning an advanced degree – that was reserved for really smart people who pontificate in their stereotypical ivory towers. Even as I interacted with my college professors, I did not identify with most of them, because they did not talk, think, or look like me.
I approached the professor in charge of undergraduate research course credit with a great deal of cautious curiosity. Am I qualified? Am I smart enough? How will I prove myself? She quickly and kindly invited me onto her team. It turns out cautious curiosity is a good trait for research. I have known for many years that I like social science; research has helped me understand why. I value the rigorous academic process. Researching as an undergraduate student was distinctly different from researching for classes. While I found the process more challenging, I also found it more interesting, meaningful, and fun. As a research assistant, I learned how to strategically read and critically scrutinize journal articles, how to work on a collaborative team, how to organize and analyze data, and how to turn findings into a story.
The research process helped me set goals, meet them, set higher expectations, reach for them, and so on. My mentor used scaffolding skills to gradually build me up. I started as a summer coder for class credit. I continued as a volunteer while I wrote a proposal for an undergraduate research award. When I received my award, I spent a semester analyzing and interpreting data that I presented at an undergraduate research symposium on campus. When an opportunity came to share my findings at a national conference, Law & Society, I jumped at the chance. In roughly a year, I grew from certain that I was incapable of research to passionate that I found my calling to be a scholar. The process, my mentorship, and our team’s enthusiasm built my confidence in my abilities. The more I worked on research, the more I felt seen, heard, and understood – a feeling that sincerely changed me for the better. Because of what I learned doing undergraduate research, I began my PhD program this fall.