10 things I learned during my BSc(Hons) degree

1. Your project does not define your future research...

The great thing about a 1 year honors research project is the lack of commitment. Malcolm Gladwell claimed it would take 10,000 hours of practice for someone to become an expert at something (although this has been debunked as far as I can tell). If you take into account the amount of time lost to taking courses and completing assignments, you will spend 10-15 hours a week on your project. 2 x 12 week semesters makes ~360 hours spent on your research project. The fact is, that nobody is asking you to become an expert during your honors year. If anything, your thesis should be an exercise in learning the general skills you will later apply in a further research degree or in a job. It is far more important to choose a project which interests you and allows you to develop skills like computer programming and data analysis than a project which will result in publications.

2. ... But you may findPhD project through your research!

Your honors degree is a great opportunity to learn about all things related to your topic. In order to understand the context of your project, you will likely have to do a short literature review. This means learning how to read scientific papers (more on this in a second), interpret the results that are being presented and further explore anything that catches your interest. My current research is tangentially related to my honors thesis - searching for papers about the Galactic center lead to me learning more about gamma ray astronomy, and ultimately stumbling on the work of my now supervisor.

3. Attend journal clubs

If your university offers journal clubs, attend them. Even if you are the only student there. Even if you don't understand what the hell is going on for the first six months. Attend the journal club. You'll be surprised what kind of things you pick up via osmosis in these settings. As you get more confident, learning to present a paper you've read is an awesome learning exercise for many reasons. Firstly, it teaches you to critically evaluate the information presented in a scientific paper. Secondly, it gives you vital experience in presenting ideas to other scientists who may not be au fait with all the information you are presenting. Thirdly, it requires you to read scientific papers. If you want to do further research, this is a skill you must learn at some time. And finally, you will make connections with other students and staff who can assist you in ways you may not expect: as mentors, to bounce research ideas off, and to provide references when you eventually move on to a job or further study.

4. Pick a mentor

Your supervisor should be the first person you turn to for advice, but it is also important to have someone who is not directly involved in your research project to discuss work (and, in some cases, grievances) with. There is a lot of advice out there about choosing a mentor, who to look for and how to ask. You may be surprised who is willing to be your mentor - it is not necessary that they are in the same field of research, or have necessarily followed the same career trajectory you hope to follow.

5. Stop comparing yourself to other students...

And by the same token, stop competing. Unfortunately, this is not something I learned until far too late, being an extremely competitive person. In the end, by comparing your work, your research output or the complexity (or not) of your project to others, you will only hurt your own work and psyche.

6. ...And don't let other people compare you to others either!

Once again, something I learned all too late (I still struggle with both 5 and 6 here). There is definitely a comparison ethic in academia, and it is important not to buy into it. It is harmful in all too many ways. Find ways of diffusing situations where you see this happening.

7. Get all the public speaking experience you can

I taught an undergraduate lab class where the final assessment at the end of an experiment had a substantial oral component: Students were made to stand in front of a whiteboard and answer questions posed by the two demonstrators responsible for overseeing the experiment. At the beginning of semester, students would often cower beside the board, speak quietly and almost apologetically. One student I recall actually taking to one side after this short exam. His answers were excellent and mostly correct, but he looked at his feet, mumbled and answered in such a passive way. The main thing I remember telling him was to answer everything with confidence, even if he wasn't sure it was correct. It took the entire semester, but by the end he was giving animated responses and regularly getting 95+% for his exams. I have so much more to say on the subject of public speaking, but here I present one of advice: Practice at every opportunity you get. This is a skill which is vital!

8. Write constantly.

Writing, like public speaking, is one of the soft skills that students often realize is important far too late. Once you begin to practice writing regularly, it becomes easier. In fact, one of the easiest ways to start is to acquire a Twitter account, and join the academic community on Twitter. Writing less than 120 characters is a reasonably good place to start writing practice. In academia, brevity is mostly rewarded: the ability to succinctly and simply explain your research is important when one begins to write papers. A journal or blog is also a good start. It may not directly contribute to your thesis, but it does give you practice not only in writing, but in developing your own voice. There are individuals whose writing I can recognize from seeing a conference abstract. And the more you practice writing, the easier it will be when you come to write your thesis.

9. Start writing now.

I started writing my thesis around the mid-year mark. I was finished with the first draft a week or so early. A number of my classmates stayed at uni all night on the day before their thesis was due to complete them. Start writing as soon as you have material to write. If you have just started your honors year, I guarantee you have enough material to write an abstract and part of an introduction. It doesn't have to be perfect, as long as you write something down it can be edited. As an addendum: NEVER delete anything you have written. In LaTeX, it is possible to comment out text you no longer wish to use. In MS Word, move unwanted text to another document. But never, ever delete what you have written. You never know when it might come in handy.

10. Have fun

Of course, your honors year is important academically. However, you should not let the pursuit of good grades get in the way of having adequate downtime and enjoying yourself. It is important to work hard, but it is also important to enjoy your work. Ensure you plan times to spend with friends (not talking about work). Get some exercise, even if it's just a walk around the park at lunchtime. Make sure you laugh at least once a day (preferably more). It's easy to be passionate about your work in the future if you always make sure you are having fun while doing it, so start building the good habit now. And you have earned the right to be proud of yourself - you're working hard and I congratulate you for that!