How do I start to look for a position in a research lab as an undergraduate? It’s a question I’ve been getting a lot recently, especially from students who have just completed their first year of university and from entering students. It is a very daunting question to go about answering on your own, especially if you, like the majority of new university science students, have never worked in a lab before. Where do you start looking? Who should you contact? How?
The unfortunate reality is that there are very few formal structures within the university that address this issue. At certain institutions and in certain departments, there are project-based courses where students are able to earn academic credit for working on a project in a research lab. However, these courses still demand that the student find a supervisor on hir own. Very few of these courses are set up to support the student in hir search for an appropriate lab, either due to a lack of administrative resources or to the belief that finding a lab should be done on the student’s own initiative. However, initiative, though certainly commendable, is hardly sufficient to instruct a student on how to find a lab to work with, much as they may be eager to do so.
So, I will endeavour here to lay down a set of guidelines to help undergraduate students unfamiliar with the process of applying for lab research positions. Keep in mind that this is not going to be a comprehensive guide, but rather a set of very loose recommendations to consider when looking for and applying to labs. Due to the ultimately subjective nature of the entire process, following these guidelines does not guarantee that you will find a position. Rather, these guidelines are meant to provide a starting point for those students who have no idea where to begin.
A. Finding a lab to work with:
1. Identifying your interests
Here’s a fact that might surprise some of one: the key step to successfully finding a research position actually comes before you even starting looking. “Now hold on just one gosh-darn minute,” you exclaim. “How on God’s green Earth can that be?” Well my skeptical friend, identifying where your research interests lie is absolutely critical to finding a lab that you would enjoy working in, and that, believe it or not, can contribute majorly to whether you are accepted into that lab.
Confused? Well, what you need to realise is that principle investigators, (usually) the professor in charge of the lab, are looking for people with a genuine passion in the work that they are doing. If you can identify areas that you really want to work in and articulate some good reasons why, then it makes the process of looking for a lab that much easier.
2. Finding an appropriate supervisor
This is usually the step where most students new to the idea of applying for research positions get stuck. Where do you even begin to look for a lab working on research that align with your interests? While there is no universal answer to that question, a good place to begin is on the faculty page of the website of the department most aligned with your interests (i.e. if you are interested in, say, cancer, you might what to begin looking at the faculty pages of the biology and biochemistry departments at your university).
Almost every university department will have a list of their faculty members, usually with at least a short description of their research interests. Sometimes there will be a link to the professor’s lab webpage, if one exists. If not, remember that Google is your friend and do a search for the professor’s name to discover whether they have a personal or lab website. It is also a good idea to look at a few recent publications from that professor to determine whether their current research activities match with the listed research interests, because sometimes the information on these websites can be outdated.
3. Looking for sources of funding
If you are looking into paid work in a lab for the summer, then it is likely that you will need to apply for either internal or external funding as most professors will not have funding to pay for an undergraduate. The availability of these funding sources depends on your university as well as area of research.
Internal funding refers to money made available for undergraduates by the university or department they are working in. These vary in availability and eligibility across each department, so make sure to inquire about their availability in your home department. External funding is provided by a source outside the university, usually a charitable foundation or governmental agency, to support undergraduate research. These are usually field-dependent (i.e. separate funding opportunities exist for immunology research, cystic fibrosis research, etc.) and tend to be more competitive. Some funding may also be available from a governmental agency, the NSERC Undergraduate Student Research Award being the most prominent of these in Canada.
B. Applying to a lab:
1. Contacting the PI
This is another source of anxiety for many students. How should I approach a professor about working in their lab? What do I do to introduce myself? How long should I spend covertly stalking a professor before making contact? OK, maybe you aren’t asking yourself that last question (at least I hope you’re not!). Usually, it is best to contact a professor directly through e-mail. The only exception to this is if you are enrolled in that professor’s course, then feel free to talk to them after class. I don’t recommend going to a professor’s office directly since most are very busy people and may not have time to properly discuss the issue if you drop in unannounced.
But what should you say in the e-mail? First, have an appropriate subject line. Something nice and specific like: “Consideration for an undergraduate research position in your lab” would be acceptable, something vague like: “Meeting?”, “Hello” or (god forbid) leaving the subject line blank is not. In the body of your e-mail, you should clearly articulate that you are an undergraduate looking for a position in their lab. Make sure you make it clear what type to position you are looking for (i.e. volunteer, paid, for a course, whatever) and including your year and program might not be a bad idea either. Go on to explain why you would like to work in that lab in particular (be specific!) and ask for a time to do a face-to-face meeting. If the professor has any specific instructions on their lab website (e.g. include a CV, etc.) be sure to follow those instructions. Make sure that your e-mail is polite and lacks spelling and grammar errors. Ask a friend to read it over if you are really paranoid. Then send that baby, and away you go!
2. The interview
So you’ve got an interview with a prof about a possible research position. Congratulations! Now to prepare yourself for the interview. First, make sure that if you are asked to bring anything, to do so. It looks very unprofessional on your part if you come into the meeting without something the professor has asked you to bring. The content of the interview can vary wildly between individually professors, but some common themes usually exist.
First, be prepared to comment intelligently on the research being done in that lab and your reasons for wanting to get involved. Of course, this doesn’t mean you have to know every last detail, but make sure you have some idea of what kind of work goes on the in lab. Some professors will want to talk about your academics, and will ask questions about why you chose your field of study. Have an answer prepared. Some might ask about your hobbies outside of class, it really depends on the prof’s personality.
Also be prepared to tour the lab and meet with some current students. Professors will often ask their students what they thought of you afterwards, so be sure to ask questions and seem interested (which you of course should already be!). Finally, have one or two questions to ask to professor at the end. If you weren’t offered a tour of the lab, this might be a good time to request one.
1. My GPA is low. Should I bother applying?
Absolutely, professors know that GPA is not necessarily an accurate predictor of success in a lab environment. Some professors will value grades more so than others, it really depends on the prof. If possible, have ready an explanation of why your grades are low and some ways you are looking to improve.
2. I e-mailed a professor but they haven’t e-mailed me back! It’s been, like, 3 days and I haven’t heard back. What happened?
There are a few reasons why you haven’t heard back from a professor after e-mailing them. The first is that they’ve decided not to take you on and haven’t bothered to reply. In my experience, this is a rare occurrence as most professors will at least e-mail you back to say they’re not taking undergrads at the moment. A second reason is that your e-mail was very poorly written, and what I mean is that it looks like you’ve barely put any effort into crafting that e-mail. In that case, read what I had to say about contacting professors and follow those recommendations.
The other, more likely, reason is that your e-mail simply got buried in the professor’s inbox. Professors receive an ungodly amount of e-mails every day and it may be something else happened to come up and the professor simply forgot to reply. If that’s the case, wait a week and send a polite message asking whether they’ve received your previous e-mail. Most professors should answer after that.
3. Should I include a CV, transcript, a photo of my face, etc. with my initial e-mail?
My philosophy on this is that unless the professor has explicitly requested this on their lab website or faculty page, don’t do it. A good number of professors do not want to see a CV or transcript, and if they do they will e-mail you back asking for one.
4. I don’t know what I want to do research in. I just need the experience for med school, grad school, clown college, etc.
First of all, that’s not a question. Secondly, this is a terrible philosophy to take towards research positions. If you really only want to do research for a line on your CV, then you will most likely not enjoy the experience and waste both the professor’s time and your own. Even if you really have no interest in research, then at least find a topic area you are interested in and want to learn more about, and apply for a lab in that field.
If you really can’t think of anything, then consider not doing research and using the time to do another extracurricular that you are more interested in instead. After all, research isn’t mandatory for med school admission, and all you’d be doing is taking away a spot from another student who might be genuinely interested in that field of research.
As a final note, absolutely under no conditions should you give the impression that you are only interested in working in a lab just to get into medical school in the application process. Nothing guarantees a more swift rejection.
So there you go. Some guidelines on how to look for that first research position. Hopefully these pieces of advice will serve you well in your search. I wish you the best of luck. If you have any more questions for the FAQ, do leave a comment and I will do my best to answer.