By: Beichen Liu
When I was a freshman way back when, I had a very vague idea of what research really was. I knew that there was a lot of research going on at my undergraduate institution (it was all over the school’s websites), but I just sort of assumed that it was for graduate students and professors. You know, the really smart people. It wasn’t until I entered sophomore year and started hearing about some of my friends who were joining research labs that I realized it was something that I could do too. Unless you have someone in your support network tell you, it’s often hard to know where to even start looking for research opportunities, much less how to approach a lab you’re interested in.
Undergraduate research, at least for me, was such a rewarding experience and ultimately helped me realize that I wanted to continue on with research. For some of my friends who had also participated in undergrad research, it helped them realize that they would prefer working in industry. These kinds of experiences are great for developing a sense of what you’re really interested in doing after graduation and I hope this short guide will help out undergraduate students who want to try research.
Undergraduate research experiences can be the start for a great research career! (Image source: ted.com)
- Assess your current academic situation and future goals
Undergraduate research takes time and energy, especially if you’re just starting out. There’s a lot to learn and it takes a while to become fully comfortable with what you’re doing. Depending on your course load every semester, research might or might not be a good use of your time. If you know that you are taking several difficult courses for example, then you might not want to pile research on top of classes and extracurriculars. If you are able to take research in place of another course, however, it might be a good option because research can be a bit more flexible than a traditional lecture.
Also, consider your goals. If you are interested in research and development in industry or academic research, then a research experience might help you decide on whether those are the right paths for you. It can be a great opportunity to explore interesting topics in a relatively low-stakes way.
This would also be a good time to think about what kind of compensation you would be interested in. Usually, doing research for credits is the most common route for undergraduate students. In this way, you would participate in research projects for a lab while receiving course credit. Occasionally, labs will pay undergraduate research students, but that tends to be highly dependent on the lab. Other labs, if no other options are available, will take undergraduate research volunteers, which would help add skills and projects to your resume.
- Find labs and research that you are interested in
It’s often easiest to start off with what kind of subjects and questions you’re interested in. Research labs are very often quite interdisciplinary and it’s very possible that you’ll find a research lab that might not be a part of your home department. For me, I was randomly scrolling through my school’s biology department’s website even though I was part of chemical engineering and biomedical engineering. I came across an interesting neurobiology research website, which is how I started my undergraduate research career. At the time, it seemed perfect – I was really interested in the biology-side of engineering and their work was fascinating. In the end, I found that that research wasn’t exactly for me, but it was such a valuable learning experience and my mentor was a really crucial resource for my future research endeavors.
So, my advice on this topic would be to cast a wide net – you never know what cool research you might come across. In fact, you might find that there are entire fields of research that might be a good fit for you in other departments.
- Reach out to labs you’re interested in
Once you’ve identified a few labs you’re interested in, you could start contacting labs. First check the lab website to see if there are specific people you should contact or applications to fill out. Otherwise, you would typically contact the principal investigator (PI) of the lab or a lab manager via email.
The purpose of your first email is to introduce yourself, your interests, and why you’re interested in that specific lab. You want to show that you’re a motivated and enthusiastic student who would be a great addition to that lab! Take a look at the lab’s research website, the different kinds of research projects they partake in, and maybe take a quick look through some of the lab’s publications to help you with your email. If you have a resume, this would be a good time to attach it.
- Persistence is key
PIs and lab managers are very busy people and often get many similar emails. If you don’t get a response from them, don’t feel discouraged! You can send a follow up email a week or so later, or try to contact another lab. It’s also possible that the lab is full and can’t take on new students. The very first research lab I emailed to ask about undergraduate opportunities replied back and said that they didn’t have any spots left for undergraduates. So, I contacted another lab and was able to start a conversation with my PI about her research and what kind of work I was interested in doing.
Don’t give up! If you’re really interested in one lab in particular and they don’t have space now, you can also contact them at a later date to see if any space had opened up.
- Be straightforward and clear about your intentions during the interview process
Each lab takes on hiring differently, but you would usually be asked to meet with the PI and/or graduate students in the lab if there is room for an undergraduate student. Be clear with what kinds of research you’re interested in and what you’re looking for. The people you’re speaking to also want to make sure that there’s a good fit. This fit includes research interests as well as mentor-mentee relationships. Try to get a good feel for the vibe of the research group (if you can) and hopefully both sides agree that there’s a good match so that you can develop as a researcher while also contributing to your group’s research efforts.
If there is a good match, then the onboarding process will be taken care of by the lab. If not, then rinse and repeat with other labs.
Reaching out for undergraduate research opportunities is a daunting task. For me, I was scared of being rejected because I wasn’t qualified enough. But now that I’m on the other side as a graduate student and someone who spent three years of undergrad working in research labs, I see that one of the goals of undergraduate research is to help students develop lab skills and learn what it takes to be a researcher. Unfortunately, there are usually more interested students than there are positions so don’t take it personally if you receive a no. Just dust yourself off and try again. We’ve all been in that spot at one point or another.
Beyond undergraduate research during the school year, there are also summer research opportunities you could apply for. Research opportunities for undergraduates (REUs) are great summer programs for undergraduate research, but typically require a slightly longer application process and are limited to US citizens and permanent residents. These opportunities are great though, because you get to meet other undergraduate researchers and get paid for the summer. It is also a great way to discover whether or not graduate school is something that you want to pursue.
You can often find these kinds of summer opportunities by searching for them on Google or your favorite search engine. There are several databases and lists for different disciplines, it usually just takes a lot of looking around!