Research in the U.S.

About Research Projects
Laboratory Safety
Keeping a Research Lab Notebook
Research – It Never Goes Quite According to Plan
Working in a U.S. Research Lab – Summary

Related Topics
Funding of Research in the U.S. & Japan
Careers in STEM in the U.S.
Women & Minorities in Science & Engineering

About Research Projects

Conducting a research project consists of:

  • Identifying an unsolved scientific question or an unsolved engineering problem
  • Designing an experiment to solve the problem or answer the question
  • Preparing an experiment (building an apparatus, making a sample, …)
  • Taking data
  • Analyzing data
  • Interpreting data
  • Drawing conclusions
  • Writing a paper and giving presentations on the results

Your job is to:

  • Understand the purposes and methods of your project as quickly as possible
  • Learn the experimental techniques used (under the mentorship of a U.S. researcher)
  • Become a more independent researcher while being guided by your mentor and other researchers
  • Work hard, be useful, and try to make significant contributions

Do’s and Don’ts

  • Dress up a little bit on the first day to show respect
  • In your first week, observe how they behave and adjust yourself
  • Be polite, work hard, and show enthusiasm
  • Try to show your interest in learning their language and culture
  • Participate in group activities with your lab and activities and events at Rice University
  • Work closely with your mentor, and adjust your schedule to his/hers
  • Work start and end times may be more flexible in the U.S. than that you are used to in Japan.
    • If you ask what time you should begin each day and are told “Most students come in around or about 10:00 AM” this means that some students arrive at 9:50, some students arrive at 10 and other students may arrive at 10:30 or even later than that.  If you arrive early and are waiting for your mentor, you can always use this time to read research papers or study your English.
    • In the U.S., a high value is placed on efficiency and effectiveness.  A common saying is “Work smarter, not harder.”  This means that researchers in the U.S. may spend fewer hours overall in the lab or office, but during the time they are working they may be very focused on completing their tasks for the day.  Once their tasks for the day are done, they are usually free to go home, and it is even okay for a junior student to leave earlier than their senior/supervisor if they are done working.  This does not mean that students in the U.S. don’t sometimes put long hours in, and research often requires this, but this may be an occasional rather than an everyday occurrence.
    • You will be expected to work in your research lab Monday – Friday during the normal working hours for your lab/mentor.  If your project requires, you may need to work late or on the weekend occasionally but you will not be required or expected to do this every day.  You will also need to take some time off from your lab to attend required program seminars and activities and your professor and research mentor will be send a copy of the program schedule so they know when you cannot work in the lab.
    • Also, it is not uncommon for people to do some work remotely or from home rather than staying in the office long hours.  For example, at Rice you may often see professors in the Rice Coffeehouse or Brochstein Pavilion working on their computers or having meetings with students.
  • In the U.S. being on time is always appreciated, but it is not uncommon for people to show up 5 – 10 minutes late with little or no explanation necessary.  In Houston, this may be due to traffic delays or your needing to wait for the hotel shuttle. If you are running a little bit late do not get too worried as your professor and/or mentor/s will likely understand.

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Laboratory Safety

Each university and research lab will likely have specific safety and equipment training that you will need to complete or will be given before you can begin research or use a new piece of equipment. It is vital that you abide by all safety training and lab policies and procedures to avoid injury to yourself or others or damage of expensive research equipment.

When you arrive at your research host lab, be sure to ask your host professor and/or research mentor/s what lab safety or equipment training you will need to complete and how you can sign up if necessary.   The following general resources from Rice’s office of Environmental Health & Safety may also be helpful for you to review.

Please also watch the following videos:

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Keeping a Research Lab Notebook

It is vital that during the course of your research project you keep a detailed and up-to-date lab notebook. Your notebook is your record of the work you have done and will be helpful for you to review as you write your weekly research internship reports and prepare for your final research presentation. Ask your research host professor and/or mentor if you must leave your notebook behind (as a resource for the next student working on your project) or if you can keep your research lab notebook and bring it home with you to Japan.

For a helpful overview of best practices for keeping a lab notebook see “Guidelines for Keeping a Lab Notebook”.

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Research – It Never Goes Quite According to Plan

"New experiences lead to new questions and new solutions! Change forces us to experiment and adapt! That's how we learn and grow!" - Calvin
“New experiences lead to new questions and new solutions! Change forces us to experiment and adapt! That’s how we learn and grow!” – Calvin

Scientific research requires careful planning, coordination, and collaboration among all team members.  However, as the U.S. saying goes, “The best laid plans may often go awry.”  No matter how careful you plan, there will likely be bumps along the way.  Equipment breaks down, samples or materials you have ordered may be slow to arrive, you may get unexpected results that cause you to have to change your research plans, and so on.  While these setbacks are frustrating for all researchers (professors, post-docs, graduate students), they can be especially challenging for undergraduate students who may only have a few short weeks to work on their projects. However, these experiences are not uncommon or unexpected. In truth, it is a rare summer research project that does not have some delays, setbacks or frustrating moments.  Learning how to handle these situations is all a part of becoming a good researcher.

Students often worry if they will have anything ‘good’ to present at the end of their research project. However, remember that the goal of the research presentation is not necessarily to showcase your results (as it is often difficult to obtain ‘good’ results in a very short time-frame).  Rather, the most important part of your final presentation will be your understanding of your research project overall and what you did this summer.  Another key component will be the future research or future impact section, which will enable you to showcase your understanding of how your research project may be helpful to your research field overall.

Also, when you face frustrations or setbacks with your research projects, be sure that you turn to your graduate student research mentors and host professor in Japan and your U.S. co-advisor for advice, assistance, and encouragement.  They are all there to help you.

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Working in a U.S. Research Lab – Summary

  • Be polite, work hard, and show interest.
  • There will be cultural differences; they are expected and okay. After all, that is why you applied to Nakatani RIES – to do research in a different country/culture than in Japan.
  • Don’t get too self conscious about these differences – it will be appreciated if it is clear that you are making effort to fit in.
  • While abroad, you are a cultural ambassador of Japan and representing the Nakatani RIES Fellowship and your home university.
  • If there are any problems please communicate with the program faculty and staff – we are here to help you!
  • Maintain regular contact with Prof. Kono about the status of your research project and any questions you may have.

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Alumni Question: I heard some American students do research from their freshman year. I also heard GPA is important for American students. How do they manage to do research when they are already busy with classes?

U.S. undergraduates who do research during the semester typically do so on a part-time basis and work about 10 – 20 hours per week depending on their class schedule.  Oftentimes, students will receive 1 – 3 credits for their semester research projects and receive a grade for this ‘class’ too.  So, in a sense, research during the academic year is like a part-time job but to make progress in their research and yet still do well in their classes students must work very long hours at time and must become very good at prioritizing their time. If they spend too much time doing research they will do poorly in their classes and their GPA will go down which may make it difficult to get accepted into graduate school.  If they don’t manage their time well and cannot come regularly to the research lab they will not make good progress on their projects and the host professor may not invite them back to do research again next summer.

During the summer break (June – August), U.S. undergraduates can apply to do paid research through programs like those funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) for summer research experiences for undergraduates.  They can also apply to do an internship with a company by working with their university career services center or academic department/school to look up listings of companies hiring summer interns. Typically, these summer internships are funded.  For more information on opportunities for U.S. students (both domestic and international and at the undergraduate and graduate levels) see the Other Related Programs page of our website.

Related Topics

Funding of Research in the U.S. & Japan

In both the U.S. and Japan, science and engineering research is primarily funded by government agencies through grants awarded to universities or university researchers.  National labs in the U.S. and Japan also play a vital role in advancement of research in an array of science and engineering fields.  Industry R&D is also a vital component of R&D, particularly to apply basic research findings to products in the marketplace.  For more information see the U.S. National Science Board’s 2016 Science & Engineering Indicators Report, particularly Ch. 4 Research & Development: National Trends & International Comparisons. Some highlights from this chapter include:

  • Most of U.S. basic research is conducted at universities and colleges and is funded by the federal government. However, the largest share of U.S. total R&D is development, which is mainly performed by the business sector. The business sector also performs the majority of applied research.
  • Universities and colleges historically have been the main performers of U.S. basic research, and they accounted for about 51% of all U.S. basic research in 2013. The federal government remained the largest funder of basic research, accounting for about 47% of all such funding in 2013.
  • The United States remained the largest R&D-performing country in 2013, with total expenditures of $456.1 billion, a 27% share of the global total, and an R&D/GDP ratio of 2.7%. China was a decisive second, with R&D expenditures of $336.5 billion, a 20% global share, and an R&D/GDP ratio of 2.0%.
  • Japan ($160.2 billion, 10% global share, ratio of 3.5%) and Germany ($101.0 billion, 6% global share, ratio of 2.9%) were the comparatively distant third and fourth. The other 11 countries/economies in the top 15 were South Korea, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, India, Taiwan, Brazil, Italy, Canada, Australia, and Spain—with the annual national R&D expenditure totals ranging from about $69 billion (South Korea) down to $19 billion (Spain).

One thing many students notice when doing research abroad is that, compared to the U.S., research labs at universities in Japan tend to have better and newer equipment overall than the majority of research labs at universities in the U.S.  This is in part due to differences in the nature of funding for science and engineering research in these countries. For example, in the U.S. PhD students are paid a stipend and given a tuition exemption in return for their work as research assistants or teaching assistants.  This means that most of the budget for research grants awarded to professors in the U.S. must be used to support student salary and tuition.  In Japan, PhD students must pay tuition and fees individually. This means that more money of the money in research grants awarded in Japan can be used to pay for equipment and other facilities.  This is also why in the U.S. it is not uncommon for different labs, or even many labs at a university, to share expensive equipment through programs such as the Shared Equipment Authority at Rice University.

For more on funding of science and engineering research in the U.S. and Japan see:

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Carers in STEM in the U.S.

Finding a Job as an Undergraduate in the U.S.: Unlike Japan, there is no set hiring or interview time-table like in Japan, though many companies do seek to recruit graduating students in the fall or spring semester of their final year of study.  Some students do not find a job until after they have graduated and may continue to work a part-time job or live at home until they find a full-time job in their chosen career field. Many U.S. undergraduate students pursue summer internships or part-time jobs with a company in their desired field of employment as a way make their resume more competitive to a potential employer when looking for jobs after graduating from their bachelor’s degree. However, it is not required and students can apply for any job with any company after they graduate even if they have not done an internship with that company first or have no prior experience in the field. Hiring is done by each company as needed and when they have jobs available.

All universities in the U.S. have career centers, such as the Rice Center for Career Development, that provide job and internship search and support services including a database where employers who want to hire Rice students can list opportunities.  They also arrange career and internship fairs on campus. They also offer a wide range of student resources that can be helpful for college students seeking to apply for internships or jobs. Career center services are open to undergraduates, graduate students, international students and alumni of that university so even after graduating from Rice University alumni can still utilize the career center to look for or find jobs. There are also many student chapters of science and engineering professional organizations on U.S. university campuses that often invite companies to speak to students at their monthly meetings.  These are great ways to meet and network with potential employers in your field and gain advice from, typically, young employees on how they conducted their job search and what types of jobs are available to graduates from that university. For example, at Rice there are a number of clubs focused on Women in Engineering and a number of different types of professional organizations/clubs for students too.

Career Options for STEM PhD Students:  For students who go on to pursue master’s or PhD degrees in Science, Technology, Engineering or Math (STEM) fields there are typically two career paths: pursuing a position in academia or pursuing a position in industry.  The most traditional route is that students who graduate with their PhD will find a post-doctoral researcher position at a different university in the U.S. and work there for, typically 2 or 3 years. They may also break this up and pursue post-doc positions at multiple institutions during this time.  As a post-doc, they are more focused on research, since there are no classes, and may have greater responsibility for managing a research lab or helping their advisor with writing grant proposals, reviewing draft journal articles written by the PhD students, or other related task. In this way, they are learning how to be a faculty advisor themselves. Hopefully, at the end of the post-doc period they will be competitive and be able to secure a tenure-track faculty position though this is very competitive right now.  Some students also choose to pursue a long-term, full-time position with a National Research Lab.

Because the academic career path is so competitive and there are more post-docs seeking faculty positions than there are jobs available, increasingly U.S. universities are provided increased support for PhD students who want to go into industry.  For example,  Columbia University’s Career Education Center has a helpful website outlining some career opportunities for STEM PhD’s outside of academia. Rice’s Office of Graduate & Postdoctoral Studies offers an array of workshops and professional development resources available to support graduate students and post-doctoral researchers. If you consult Google sensei about “Alternative Career Paths in STEM” you will find a wide array of resources on this topic.

Overall, the job search process in the U.S. is a highly individualized process that requires that students seek out mentoring, advice, and resources from their professors/advisors, academic departments, student organizations, career services center, and graduate and post-doctoral studies offices.  If a student does not actively seek out jobs and career advising, no one will come knocking on your door to hire you.  Just as you must be curious about research to make progress, to make progress in your career search you must remain curious about what resources are available at your U.S. university and ask for advice from your mentors. Then you must individually go out and apply for the job/s that you are most interested in.

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Women & Minorities in Science & Engineering

This section provide some background information and data on women and minorities in science and engineering in the U.S. and Japan and links to articles and other helpful resources for students who would like more information on this topic.

A view of Women & Minorities in S&E the U.S.
As the U.S. National Science Board’s 2016 Science & Engineering Indicators Report notes, “As researchers and policymakers increasingly emphasize the need for expanding S&E capabilities in the United States, many view demographic groups with lower rates of S&E participation as an underutilized source of human capital for S&E work. Historically, in the United States, S&E fields have had particularly low representation of women and members of several racial and ethnic minority groups (i.e., blacks, Hispanics, American Indians or Alaska Natives), both relative to the concentrations of these groups in other occupational or degree areas and relative to their overall representation in the general population. More recently, however, women and racial and ethnic minorities increasingly have been choosing a wider range of degrees and occupations.”
Most universities in the U.S. have specialized programs, offices, and support for women and minorities in S&E at both the undergraduate and graduate level.
At Rice University, the Women in Engineering page highlights female enrollment in engineering programs and university offices and clubs whose mission is to help and support female engineers.  Rice University has been recognized for its success in the recruitment and retention of minority and female graduate students in the US News & World Reports article “Graduate Engineering Programs Beef Up Efforts for Minorities & Women”.

For more on women and minorities in S&E in the U.S. see:

A view of Women & Minorities in S&E in Japan
As the MEXT and JST “Program to Support Research Activities of Female Researchers” outlines:

“As a result of past efforts to support female researchers in Japan, the proportion of women in research roles has begun to increase; however, in comparison to advanced European nations and the US, Japan still has relatively few women in research. Unfortunately, there has not been much progress in the appointment of female researchers to leading positions. Not only from the viewpoint of gender equality but also to demonstrate organizational creativity (including the ability to adopt diverse viewpoints and ideas and to conduct innovative research), it is extremely important to increase the number of female researchers and to improve their research skills.

This program therefore aims to improve the research skills of female researchers and to support their appointment to leading positions. With the cooperation of universities, research institutions, and private enterprises, we are working to improve the research environment for women and to provide more opportunities for research, taking into account many women’s need to balance research against the demands of everyday life (henceforth referred to as the “work/life-balance”), including “life events” such as childbirth, childcare and the long-term care of elderly relatives. Flexible support will enable women to develop and demonstrate their research skills to the full.”

For more on the role of women in the workforce in Japan and science & engineering in particular see the resources below:

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