Lots of talk today about the joys of undergraduate research sparked by a recent study (the results of which can be found here). Chad has a post or two that I like on the matter. I thought I would throw my personal two cents in the ring as well, since undergraduate research has factored heavily into my career choices.
When I got to college at a small liberal arts school in Illinois, I was unsure what career plans were. I had some vague interest in being a lawyer or potentially some sort of psychologist, but nothing tickled my fancy. My thoughts turned to science in my first year, and I went through a number of changes to my major (I came in as a psych major, then changed it to psych and chemistry, then finally settled on psych and biochemistry). I briefly considered pretty much all the hard and not-so-hard sciences as viable careers, but still nothing really "clicked" with me. Accordingly, my grades suffered a bit from the lack of direction, and by the end of the first year I was rather disheartened.
Over the summer after my freshman year, I began doing a side project in the behavioral psych lab. It was interesting but there was still something missing. I enjoyed the hands-on component to learning, in fact is was the most exciting part of my college career, but there was still a basic lack of interest in the material itself. A sort of black hole, so to speak, in my long-term plan.
Then during my first semester of sophomore year, I was delivering something to another professor in the psych department and stumbled into the neuroscience lab. There I stopped in my tracks, as I witnessed an anesthetized rat with its head in a stereotaxic frame, and a needle injecting some substance into its brain. "What the holy hell" I wondered, and demanded that the student, Alex, tell me what was going on. He explained that one of the lab's projects was to try and create an animal model of Alzheimer's Disease by injecting a peptide known as Abeta (which aggregates into clumps and forms one of the pathological hallmarks of AD) into the brains of rats, and investigate whether it would cause Alzheimer's-like memory impairments.
I was immediately hooked. Smitten, in fact. I fell in love with neuroscience at first sight. I immediately immersed myself in that research project and others that would follow in our lab for the next three years. I found that I had a real knack for the lab work, and became the research assistant during my final two years of college. What's more, I found myself in lab upwards of 40-50 hours a week on top of my courses. Interestingly, my GPA didn't even budge up or down from all this. Occasionally a grade would take a hit due to my laboratory love affair; I bombed with a D in Animal Physiology (although I aced the neuro section) which was a weed-out course in the Biology program, and I suffered a C in second semester O.Chem and also in 2nd semester P. Chem (which was really annoying since I led the class for first semester thermodynamics, which was all calculus-based and I suck at calculus). I was bored in Statistics, in Research Design & Methods, though, because I already knew everything in the courses. And I did have the odd distinction of T.A.'ing Advanced Behavioral Neuroscience while taking the course for similar reasons.
Undergraduate research prepared me for so much more, though. I've never been a super student in college or grad school; no matter how much or how little I focus on my grades my GPA inevitably settles in at 3.1 of 4 and won't budge. So I have to credit doing as much research as I did with helping to get me into graduate school, in no small part because I netted a publication the year before I graduated. (I would have gotten two if Alex had taped the labels down to our sample tubes before shipping them off on dry ice to get analyzed, so they all came off and the receiving lab had no idea which tube was which). I was also afforded the opportunity to go present my work at professional conferences and make contacts early in my career, which was invaluable for obvious reasons.
But undergrad research taught me so much more; I learned about being part of a team and how scientific projects were run, in ways that no in-class project can show a student. I learned how to run a lab as a lab manager my junior and senior years, and I also had many opportunities to teach as I set up and ran the laboratory components to multiple courses, and demonstrated to many students within our lab how things were done.
So I guess the bottom line is-- if you are interested in life beyond your coursework, get involved with a research project. You will learn many new things, and to see what you already know in whole new ways. Heck, even if the only thing you learn is "a career in science ain't for me", then you have done yourself a great service.