Practical Steps to Get Started in Undergraduate Research
Great Naomi. Thanks for Part 1 on getting started in undergraduate research. But how do I ACTUALLY find a lab??
Finding a lab to work in for the first time can be a little intimidating. How you go about doing this will depend on a few different factors including, but not limited to, research emphasis, university size, time limitations, pay vs volunteer preferences, etc. No matter your situation, here are a few steps to get you started in your journey to undergraduate research success.
- Come up with a list of professors to contact. The size of this list will depend on the size of your university where smaller universities will have fewer options than larger universities. Here are a few ways to come up with this list:
- Write down some of your favorite classes and what you liked about them. Did you like the content of the class? Structure? Were the assignments interesting/fun/engaging? Is your opinion of the class based on the instructor? Based on this list, write down a list of professor’s names to contact. If you have had interaction with the professor, even better! (sidenote: always make an effort to have in-person interaction with any professor you take a class from. Even if the class has over 1000 students try to meet with the professor a few times over the course of the class)
- Talk to your peers/upper classmen mentors/TAs. Ask which professors are taking undergraduate students and what the expectations are for undergraduates in the lab. Talk to your graduate student TAs (if you have them) and whether the lab they work in has undergrads and what the expectations are for them.
- Go through your department directory and read professor bios/websites. Professors are notorious for not keeping updated bios or websites, but this will at least give you a general idea of the type of research a professor does. You can also see if they have a list of people in the lab and see how many undergraduates are working in the lab. Try looking at newer professors (at the associate professor level). These professors generally have more time to mentor students and may give undergraduates more responsibility than more established professors.
- Contact your list of professors. Simple enough, right? This might actually be the hardest part. If you have had interaction with the professor before, great. This will make contacting the professor 108, 439, 789 times easier. The next best thing is getting an in-person introduction from someone you already know in the lab. If neither of those 2 options is possible, go for the cold e-mail. Keep the e-mail short. Introduce yourself and tell them your major, year in school, GPA, pertinent classes you have taken (and the grades you earned in them), and a short sentence about why you are interested in doing research in their lab. You can also attach your resume/CV, but they might not read it. The best time to send cold e-mails is in the early afternoon (during or just after lunch) on a Tuesday or Wednesday. That way your e-mail won’t get lost in the abyss of e-mails professors wake up to in the morning (especially on Monday) and you won’t be forgotten over the weekend.
- And try again. If you don’t hear back from anyone within a week, try e-mailing them again as a “follow-up”. If you still don’t hear back, pick a few of your favorites and try catching them in their office. Professors aren’t as scary as you might think! Remember they are totally normal people…who happen to be really busy. If they are working at a university it means that a part of them enjoys teaching and mentoring. If you show that you are motivated to learn, professors will likely be more than happy to take you on.
Best of luck in your journey to find an undergraduate research lab home!