Getting involved in a lab - what an undergraduate needs to know
Sometimes it’s persistence, sometimes it is being at the right place at the right time, sometimes it is a little bit of luck. Getting into a research lab as an undergraduate can be one of the most rewarding experiences of your degree, but how do you find your place in a lab? Here are a list of tips for finding and joining a lab to un-complicate the process:
Go into the search process with an open mind. You may think that you know you definitely want to do virus research or want to work with one specific professor, but you may find an amazing research experience outside of what you think you are looking for. Try not to pigeon-hole yourself into one type of research and lose the other opportunities out there for you!
Ask around for advice and opportunities. Ask your professors, your advisors, other undergraduates who have already found research experiences. Ask if they know of any upcoming openings in labs or ask how they would recommend finding opportunities at your specific university.
Search through lists of faculty or active labs on your university’s website. Explore lists of faculty in your discipline and pick out ones that sound interesting to you. Remember to keep your options open and focus on labs that could give you the type of research experiences you are looking for, even though you might not think it is your “dream topic”.
Read papers published from interesting labs. Find out if their work actually interests you. What type of techniques do they employ? How do they ask and answer their research questions? What projects sound exciting?
Cold email the PIs. This can sound daunting, but it is more common than you may think. Not everyone has a direct connection with the professors they end up working with, and that’s okay! When sending these emails, be kind, formal, and grateful for any advice/experience they may be able to provide. And make sure to use the information gathered from reading their papers to show direct interest in their specific research (i.e. don’t send the same email to multiple professors)!
Cold email MANY PIs. Yes, this can take a while. Many professors may not have space for undergraduate researchers. Because they can be so busy, professors may not even respond. Don’t be discouraged, and keep reaching out to other labs!
Be open to shadowing. Some labs may not have opportunities for you to participate in hands-on research, but they may allow you to shadow some of their other researchers as they perform their science. This is a great way to see research up close and personal, and still gives you the opportunity to get into a lab!
Respond promptly to possible open positions. These may be for the following semester or year - and get excited!
Once you find a position, treat it like a trial period. Just like a good pair of shoes, the research experience needs to be the right fit - for you AND the lab! It is okay to determine it is not the right fit for you, and try something else if you don’t like it.
Once you are in a lab, make sure to prove that you are motivated, ready to learn, and excited about the research! Be a good lab citizen, and put your best self into your work. This goes a long way with the supervisors who gave you the opportunity to work in the lab. These can sometimes be hard positions to get, don’t waste it!
If after all of your attempts to find a research lab at your institution you still haven’t found the right fit, or your institution doesn’t have undergraduate research, have no fear! Try applying for summer research opportunities, intern at a private research lab, etc! There are so many ways to participate in research, and you won’t regret your experience!