As a freshman hanging out at Norbucks, I once found myself surrounded by upperclassmen dressed in more business than casual clothes. Because it was that time of year when students don’t usually miss opportunities to wear shorts while they still can, the ratio of khaki pants per square foot seemed rather odd. Why were they trying that hard? But it didn’t take me long to discover there was a career fair taking place upstairs.

That scene took place during week one of Fall Quarter, when I barely knew what a professional resume looked like – let alone that recruiting season had already started. But on that day, I realized that Northwestern’s pre-professional culture would soon put me in that position.

A year later, there I was, abandoning my Adidas sweatpants for a sharp look. Carrying a dozen copies of my resume, I followed the playbook. I wore my reading glasses to look more professional. I smiled to recruiters and giggled at their comments. And then I waited for that pitying look that comes after they figure out I am an international student. The complete career fair experience.  

Because I learned soon enough that my best – and perhaps only – option was to find a professional internship for the summer, I freaked out for a moment. After sharing my frustration about the difficulty of finding internships in the U.S., I heard from advisers and peers alike: “Don’t worry, you can always do research.” I surely could conduct research over the summer, and the idea of doing that seemed exciting, but why would it have to be my second option? Doing research should by no means seem inferior, or like a back-up plan.

Photo by McCormick School of Engineering / North by Northwestern

I understand that at a top-notch institution like Northwestern, there is intense pressure to get competitive internships. Career fairs are only the tip of the pre-professional iceberg. Whereas some applications open nearly two years in advance, all sorts of networking events are all over Handshake. I’ve lost count of how many “diversity” workshops I’ve been invited to this year. And while superdays (the final round in the investment banking recruiting process) are famous for driving econ majors crazy, other students get traumatized by the number of cover letters and work samples they have to prepare.

We are encouraged by Northwestern on many fronts to become competitive, so much so that Northwestern Career Advancement (NCA) is not enough and schools like McCormick and Medill have their own career services. For international students, the Office of International Student and Scholars Services (OISSS) has an array of initiatives to help students like me navigate those pitying looks. And Student Enrichment Services (SES) provides funding for low-income students to buy professional clothes and travel to conduct in-person job interviews. Career-wise, Northwestern has extensive resources for students looking for summer internships. But the thing is, not all of us are. Many undergraduates decide to engage in research over the summer, not because they don’t have better options — as some suggested it could be in my case — but because they want to.    

Megan Novak Wood, assistant director of the Northwestern Office of Undergraduate Research, said the office will fund nearly 300 students this summer through the Undergraduate Research Grant (URG) and the Undergraduate Research Assistant Program (Summer URAP). Novak Wood also added that there are many other resources for students interested in conducting summer research. Many are Northwestern-sponsored, such as the McCormick and the Biomedical Engineering research grants, as well as departmental fellowships and the Summer Internship Grant Program (SIGP). Yet, external initiatives, including the Summer Research Opportunity Program (SROP) and Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU), are also an option.  

“Students who participate in undergraduate research learn an entirely different skill set than what can be taught in a classroom,” Novak Wood said. “This is much more realistic of any world after graduation, and it prepares students to work through challenges and problem-solve, no matter what field they choose to pursue.”

Weinberg junior Nadalyn Bangura is preparing for her third summer as a researcher. A global health major, Bangura spent the last summer interviewing healthcare professionals about the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone, where her parents emigrated from before she was born. This year, she plans to go back to the country to delve deeper into the topic. Her new research project “Stakes of Survivorship” will allow Bangura to “explore the new identity of being an Ebola survivor.”

Throughout her college years, Bangura has received financial support from different initiatives to conduct research. While her current project is funded by URG, the Buffett Institute and the Radulovaki Fellowship in Global Health, her first-year project was supported by NU Bioscience, an Arch Scholars Program initiative designed to help “first-generation and low-income students get their foot in the door with research.” Bangura said that encouraging research is key to preparing students on an academic, professional and personal level.

“I wouldn’t have had the grit, endurance or confidence in myself to go for independent international research without this as my base,” Bangura said. “Overall, research as an undergraduate has definitely opened up a lot of doors for me. I have gotten some wonderful opportunities to conduct and take part in research that is meaningful, I've gotten to apply for a senior honors thesis, and I'm setting myself up for success in applying to graduate and professional programs.”

Students like Bangura clearly don’t see engaging in research as a second option. These students are passionate about their research topic and believe in the impact their work may promote. Not only that, but students who conduct research in college have better chances to succeed academically. A 2018 BioScience study showed that undergraduates who have conducted research in college are 48% more likely to pursue a doctoral degree in STEM.

Conducting research is valuable, and should never be seen as a second option. It benefits not only student researchers but also the communities that they work with — either in Evanston or Sierra Leone.

After a tiring season of career fair crawl and khaki pants, I did opt for pursuing a professional internship this summer. However, I am pretty sure it wasn’t my reading glasses – and definitely not my visa status – that granted me an internship offer, but the paragraph on my resume that stated I have conducted research on campus for the past two years. By doing research, I not only finally learned what’s up with MLA, but also told Morty about the amount of lexical similarity shared between Spanish and Portuguese.

As Novak Wood puts it, student researchers “learn resiliency, and show grit and resourcefulness to overcome whatever obstacles they may face,” including applying for hyper-competitive internships. Those experiences count, and are by no means less important than working for a bank or a newscast.