Museums and Labs As Research Sites

By Hannah Thorner and Jenisha Sabaratnam

Labs or Museums? Depends on the Major
There are many research opportunities for undergraduates available at UC Berkeley, so sometimes it can be difficult to know where to start. One way to narrow down your options is to think about the location you seek to be doing research work. When people first think of research, they tend to picture an academic research laboratory. However, museums are also major locations of research work on our campus. While laboratories are often dominated by graduate students and postdoctoral students working to publish their studies, museums tend to work to preserve materials as data and act as a resource for other research projects. Each kind of space offers different experiences for undergraduate researchers, so its worth considering what might be a good match for you in terms of your prior experience, personal interests, and learning goals. Some students, over the course of their study, develop research in multiple research spaces.

STEM Labs: For Your Information
Laboratory STEM work may be a great fit for you if you want to learn a lot of different techniques, gain some background knowledge in your field of interest, and ultimately want to pursue an independent research project as a senior. Laboratory work requires a lot of time and dedication to learn the techniques needed to run an experiment to completion. At first it will seem like you are only doing “grunt work,” but during this time, your graduate student or postdoctoral researcher mentor will be assessing your initial performance. Your mentor should be able to recognize your strengths and weaknesses with certain techniques and offer you pointers on how you can improve. As they see you gaining mastery over the required techniques, you are then often offered the opportunity to pursue a project more independently. Having taken some classes or otherwise learned about the field you are doing research in will only enhance your experience. A great benefit is seeing connections between concepts you have learned in class and how they are applied in techniques used in lab.

Research in a Museum: Ideal for Humanities Majors
When most students think of research, they immediately think of working in a lab in a science-related discipline. But not only is research not limited to the sciences, but it can also take place in a number of different settings. One ideal place for humanities research is in a museum. There are so many great benefits that this type of location can provide, and it may well be the next best place for you to begin your research careers. Research in the humanities usually complements what you’re studying at university. It is rather unlikely that students who specialize in one field will work in areas that are completely different; this is because, unlike the sciences, the humanities do not necessarily have a lot of crossover in classes, topics, etc. at the lower level. Because of this, if you begin research in a museum, it is not very common that you will move between various departments in the museum itself. Training in one area can be quite thorough and specific, and there is a certain level of expertise that comes with working in just one role. However, it is of course possible to eventually move onto another area of work if you feel like you have exhausted what you can learn, and/or you would like to try something new. Remember, regardless of location, the point of research is to learn! But the benefits of a museum means that there is an abundance of roles, assignments, and projects that constantly need attention.

When a student begins research in a museum, they are usually immediately trained to work in one section or department. Most students come in with little to no prior experience, and this is nothing to worry about – most are trained on the job! A student’s schedule is usually set week-to-week, and stays consistent for the duration of the semester and/or year. The most important person during your research work will be your supervisor. They know the ins-and-outs of the museum, and they will be the one who will train you and assign you projects. Make sure you’re clear on what your roles and responsibilities entail from the beginning, and always communicate with your supervisor if you want a change or simply need clarification. They really enjoy working with students, even if those students are completely new to the work, because they get to share their passion as well as have more people working on the numerous projects that constantly come through the museum. While most students have a set job description in the beginning, this sometimes change as time goes on. Museums themselves do not always know what is going to come through, or what work needs to be done, and a lot of the time, students get moved onto different projects as help is needed. This is actually a perfect way to learn through greater exposure and gain experience in a wide variety of topics. Each student is usually assigned their own (or joint) project that they will primarily work on from start to finish. Rather than working on one small aspect of a project and then repeating it again and again in other projects (similar to specialized work in a production line), a student works on one project entirely and performs all the roles needed to complete the task (similar to craft production). This is much less repetitive, and students find that they learn a lot more this way. Because of this, there is also a great opportunity to pick a project that interests you the most, rather than simply being assigned to do something that you do not enjoy.

Museums and STEM: A Great Combination
Museum STEM work may be a great fit for you if you want to focus in on a specific task, don’t have a lot of prior research experience, and like working with a large team of people. Museum work allows you to have a more flexible schedule because you are part of a larger team where others can pick up where you left off. Usually you enter a museum as part of a single division, either preparing, archiving and recording, or maintaining materials that have entered the museum. Similar to a laboratory, you will start off doing more “grunt work” tasks, and you may even learn these task from fellow undergraduate researchers. However with time, you may get the chance to learn more advanced techniques or get to work in different divisions of the museum. Theses characteristics make museums a great place for people just getting started in research. Because of the potential to explore different divisions of the museum, you may find yourself discovering a new field that will inspire you to look into other research projects not directly related to your major.

Overall, your research experience is what you make of it regardless of where you end up. Generally, the longer you stay at a particular research facility the more you will learn from it. However, it is also important to recognize when a place just isn’t for you and to consider looking for opportunities elsewhere. When you feel like you are no longer getting anything out of the experience, ask questions, be curious, and get help to understand the project you are working on and why you are there. No matter where you decide to pursue research opportunities you should find a community of supportive people passionate about furthering the knowledge of the world. The relationships you build through this community often turn out to be influential on your future path.