Part 2: So you want to be a Scientist?? (or doctor, or dentist, or physical therapist, or lab technician, or…….)

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.

    1. 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.
    2. 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.
    3. 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!

This is Part 2 in a series of posts for advice on doing undergraduate research. Find part 1 HERE and Part 3 HERE.


Part 1: So you want to be a Scientist?? (or doctor, or dentist, or physical therapist, or lab technician, or…….)

General Advice to Get Started in Undergraduate Research

The importance of undergraduate research experience on a resume is increasing as acceptance into graduate school, any healthcare related profession education, and employment opportunities in the scientific industry become more competitive. That is, as an undergrad, you NEED undergraduate research experience if you want to go to graduate school, go into a healthcare related field, or even to work as a laboratory technician in scientific industry. Although each situation is different (school size, what kind of program you want to go into, research interests, etc) here are a few pieces of advice to get you started in your pursuit of getting research experience as an undergraduate:

  • Get started ASAP! The sooner you get into a lab, the better. It’s okay if you don’t know what your EXACT research interests are yet. At this point, you probably need to get your feet a little wet to even figure out what type of research you enjoy. Science can sound a lot cooler in textbooks than it is on a day to day basis. Get in a lab. Learn some techniques. Start learning how to think like a scientist. After all, most graduate/professional programs aren’t looking for someone with experience doing XYZ, they’re looking to see if you have the capacity to analyze data, learn new things, and think like a researcher. Starting earlier will give you more time to contribute to the lab and hopefully get your name on a paper or two. Furthermore, you will have more time to develop a relationship with the professor which translates into a GOOD letter of recommendation.
  • Don’t be TOO picky…. At this point you don’t have very much, if any, research experience- especially if you want to join a lab earlier in your undergraduate career. Don’t fret if you aren’t doing research to cure cancer yet! Start by thinking about the classes that you have enjoyed the most and ask those professors if they have any space in their lab. If they don’t, look and see who is in their division/track/department (ex. if you really enjoyed molecular biology, look at the professors who teach molecular biology courses or are in the molecular biology division). Chances are you will be able to start learning basic techniques that will give you the foundation you need to succeed later on in your research career.
  • ….but choose your lab carefully. Be careful not to join a lab simply to get a letter of recommendation and be able to have it on your resume when all you did was wash dishes. Sure, sometimes you need to start at the bottom, but make sure that your time spent paying your dues will lead to research projects in the future. In the long run getting hands on experience is much more beneficial.
  • Find a professor who is willing to mentor you. Find out from your peers or upper classmen which professors are more likely to take on undergraduate students and actually mentor them. You might start by looking at associate professors who are generally more motivated to get research going and, therefore, may give you more responsibility. Younger professors also generally have more time to devote to training and mentoring. This can be beneficial not just for learning how to do research, but developing a relationship with a professor can be valuable for the rest of your career. As an undergrad you will most likely work closely with a graduate student or postdoc, but make sure that the professor knows who you are and how you contribute to the lab.
  • Record everything. Write everything down. Take pictures, videos, etc. Keep everything in a lab notebook to refer to later on. There is a steep learning curve when starting research and you will want to refer back to these notes later on. Keep everything as neat and organized as possible to make it easier on yourself later on. You may try writing things in lists while in lab and then going back later that day or week (but not too long afterwards or you will forget) and filling in the details of what you did. Keeping a good lab notebook is a skill that even the best scientist lacks. Believe me. Science will be So. Much. Easier. if you learn how to keep an organized lab notebook from the beginning.
  • Ask questions. Don’t be intimidated to ask questions. It is better to ask a question BEFORE breaking an instrument or ruining an experiment. However, don’t run to your grad student/postdoc/professor with every little thing. Spend ~15 minutes trouble shooting (Google is great!) by yourself and write down what things you tried before asking for help. This will help you start to think more like a scientist!
  • Try to work independently. Similar to number 6, try to work as independently as possible. You will probably still work closely with someone with more research experience, but don’t always rely on simply doing what people tell you to do. Try and get a small project as soon as possible (maybe after learning a few basic techniques in the lab). You may have to “prove” yourself first (for some professors, this is as simple as actually showing up to lab and wanting to do work) and it will definitely require more time and commitment, but in the end the ownership and pride you have over completing a project will be worth it!

Remember, your time as an undergraduate is meant to be spent learning and preparing for a future career. Don’t look at undergraduate research just as a requirement, but take the time to reap the benefits of having the opportunity to gain experience in a lab. This is one of the few places as an undergrad where you get to enjoy learning for the sake of learning and not just to cram for an exam or pull an all night-er to finish up a paper. Enjoy!

Stay tuned over the next few weeks for more advice on joining a lab as an undergraduate! I’ll be giving step-by-step tips to find a lab, research at a small university, research at a large university, and more!

Special thanks to Jessie Peters, Jamie Schiffer, and Katherine Nadler for input