As an undergraduate student studying, say, Computer Science, what are some of the practical benefits of working in a research lab? I can think of three off the top of my head.
1. Inventing the Future
At a high level, working on research is awesome because you get a chance to preview and invent the future. In classes, summer internships, and most full-time jobs you will get after graduation, you are either studying the past or doing work that will be immediately used in the present or near future. In industry, the main priorities for junior employees such as yourself are to deliver projects with near-term value in the coming week, month, or year. Only in a research lab can you prototype high-risk ideas that are five, ten, or even twenty years ahead of the state-of-the-art in industry.
Sure, every individual researcher gets to work on only a small, specialized part of a bigger research problem. But just getting the chance to participate is an interesting opportunity. One of the main purposes of college is to expand your intellectual horizons, and hands-on experience in a research lab is a good way to do so. The broader ideas you'll be exposed to in a research lab might transfer over to your future professional life in unexpected ways, even if you don't end up working in the same subfield.
2. Rapidly Improving Your Technical Skills
A more concrete benefit of doing research is the chance to rapidly improve your technical skills in a realistic setting outside of the classroom. I became a much better programmer and scientist throughout my three years of assisting on research projects as an undergraduate student. I had to learn new programming languages, libraries, tools, and technologies on-demand to meet project requirements. This sort of hands-on knowledge can't easily be taught in textbooks or classes, since it requires an authentic setting where people are doing real work and not just preset exercises with known results.
If all works out, working on research will feel like a super intensive yet satisfying lab class where you complete an innovative project that you are proud of. You will also get to practice writing up and presenting your work to an audience, which is great training for many kinds of jobs. You might also get credited as a co-author on a published research paper, which is important if you want to pursue a Ph.D. in the future. And best of all, since you are working as an apprentice, you usually get one-on-one mentorship from a more senior researcher. This sort of personalized interaction rarely happens in even the smallest and most intimate of university classes.
3. Potential for Professional Advancement
One final benefit is the potential for professional advancement. If you do compelling work, then your research advisor can write recommendation letters and make personal referrals for you to get either a good job in industry or admitted into graduate school. These letters and referrals are a lot more meaningful than having a high GPA or a professor mentioning that you got an A+ in their class. My own undergraduate research advisors helped to kick-start my career in significant and often unexpected ways. In contrast, professors who taught my classes don't really remember me, since I was one of hundreds of students they saw each year in large lecture halls.
(This blog post was adapted from my undergraduate researcher recruiting article.)