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How to try out undergrad research

You’re a freshman or early-stage college student. It’s exciting, it’s confusing, it’s intimidating, it’s a lot of things. In a nutshell, your job as a college student is to figure out what you want to do with your life and morph into a functional adult—all in 4 years! That timeline, by the way, didn’t work for me. I had to quit college and work for a while to see what the real world was like and grow up a bit. But even as a mature college student, it can be hard to know where you’re headed exactly. You take classes, join some groups, make friends. In theory, these experiences should expose you to different ideas and career trajectories and, once you’ve chosen a major, train you to be successful in that path. But it’s all a bit like trying on clothes in front of a fun-house mirror. Taking a class in immunology isn’t an accurate reflection of what it’s like to be an immunologist. So, if you’re contemplating a career in science, you’ll need to get your hands (or at least your nitrile gloves) dirty.

How to get your foot in the door

There are some key things you’ll need to do. (1) Check out professors’ websites in your area of interest to see what grabs you. (2) Talk to other students who’ve worked in departmental labs, such as other undergrads or graduate teaching assistants, and see what they have to say. (3) Send out some reasonably formal, well-written emails to professors telling them who you are and why you’re interested in working with them. The more specific you can be about why you’re interested in their lab, the better. Include a resumé and possibly an informal transcript so they can see what you’ve done. You might initially send several emails to different faculty. Sometimes you’ll have to wait a few days for a response. If you don’t hear back after a week, send a polite reminder. If you still don’t hear back, move on—you want a mentor who’s more responsive. Before you meet with a faculty member in person, do your best to understand the basic focus of their research and the types of approaches they take. Nothing turns a future advisor (or employer) off more than realizing that the person trying to get in the door has no clue what your lab group (or company) does.

What to look for before joining any research group

So, here’s something you need to know. You could work for two different research groups located right next to each other in the same building and come away with two totally different experiences. One positive, or at least illuminating, and the other a potential waste of time. Knowing which experience might be in store can be hard to predict, particularly when you’re new to science and academic culture. Here are a few things to look for. (1) Is the lab active and publishing? You need to be in a productive environment, so avoid labs that seem sleepy or inactive. You can see what a professor is publishing by looking them up on PubMed or Google Scholar. In addition, faculty often list their papers on their websites, although these are not always up do date. (2) Is the lab sufficiently funded to do the work you’re interested in carrying out? It’s hard to do science if there’s no money to do science. Funding expectations, however, will differ between fields and types of institutions. The easiest way to find out about funding is to ask the professor, but you can also look people up on NIH and NSF websites that list funded projects. (3) Does it seem like you’ll get good mentoring? Follow your instincts here. For small labs, training could come largely via the professor. For larger labs, much of your mentoring may be through interactions with graduate students, postdocs, technicians, or other undergrads. Often it will be a mixture of all of the above, which can be ideal. But if you get the sense that people in the group are isolated or don’t communicate much, then keep looking.

What if the first lab you try out isn’t a great fit?

So maybe you’ve tried research for a semester or a summer and for whatever reasons it didn’t really stick. It happens. I once had an honest (but tactless) undergraduate tell me that my “research was a lot more boring” than he’d expected. Fair enough. But before writing off research entirely, know that different types of scientific questions and environments will appeal to different types of people and will tap into different strengths and skill sets. My own first exposure to research as an undergrad wasn’t a great fit, in part because it involved a long bus commute to a medical school campus, so I changed labs and found my academic home for the next 2 years. And there are benefits to seeing how different research groups do things, which is why many PhD programs in the US require entering students to carry out rotations in several different labs. Ultimately, you can only find out what the water’s like by diving in. So, if your first research experience hasn’t grabbed you, maybe try another lab.

On being a responsible adult

Regardless of whether you end up enjoying a particular lab or even research itself, you need to be a respectful, responsible human. This means showing up when you’re supposed to, trying your best, and keeping lines of communication open. The last thing you want is to leave a bad impression with people who’ve invested time and energy into your training. Nearly everyone understands that undergraduates are busy and pulled in many different directions. Some weeks during the semester you might have three midterms, and so your time in the lab could be very limited. Generally, this is not a problem, provided you let people know what’s going on in advance. And if you mess something up, just come clean and apologize if that’s appropriate. Also, finish strong. Don’t fizzle out, ghost people, or burn bridges—even if this isn’t the lab of your dreams. For one thing, you’ll probably feel bad about it. For another, it could come back to haunt you. 

A word about box-checking

Many undergrads, particularly pre-meds, are told they need to get research experience on their resumés because it looks good to medical school admissions committees. And I have sympathy for students in that position. In fact, several of the top undergrads in my lab ultimately went on to medical school, which is great. The world needs scientifically literate physicians. These students had several things in common. They were all responsible and mature, liked working in the lab, enjoyed thinking about science, and did their level best to be productive. So, all good. But if in your heart you know that you’re just going through the motions, I’d make a plea to forgo research and make space for other students who really want that experience. Consider looking for a clinical-related position instead.

Differences in research at different settings

This is a tricky section for me to write, but here goes. Your experience doing research at, for example, a small teaching-focused college, could be quite different than what you’d get at a large research-intensive university. And since you might someday be pursuing a PhD at a large university, you need to know that. This is not a value judgment, because every environment has tradeoffs. If anything, small liberal arts colleges seem to produce more PhDs per capita than larger universities. So, to be clear, the training opportunities you might get at a small college, a big research university, or just a medium-sized state school (like the University of Wyoming, where I work) can all be wonderful! But know that the atmosphere at a research-intensive university or medical school might feel more pressurized. Because I compete with faculty at larger universities for effectively the same types of grants and publications, my lab’s environment is probably more like what you’d find at UC Berkeley than at a primarily undergraduate institution. Regardless, what matters in the end is that you obtain a crystal-clear picture of what continuing in the field will look like. You don’t want surprises, and there are several ways to avoid this happening. One is to spend a summer or two working at a research-intensive institution. For this to happen you’ll likely have to talk to an advisor at your institution to see what kinds of opportunities might be available; some colleges have arrangements with other institutions to help facilitate this kind of experience. But you can also do the footwork on this yourself through internet searches and findings sites such as the ones listed at the bottom of this document. Another is to spend a few years working as a technician or as part of a post-baccalaureate program, which will likely make you much more savvy, efficient, and successful as a PhD student. The bottom line is to know the road ahead, including the expectations and environments that you’re likely to encounter. 

How to get the most out of your experience

The often-quoted phrase that 90% of success is just showing up admittedly has some truth to it. Still, it turns out that the final 10% leaves a lot of room for distinguishing yourself. One of the great things about joining a research group is that you’ll immediately go from being a passive consumer on the outside—an anonymous student taking classes and reading textbooks—to being a participant on the inside creating textbook content. You’ll get keys to the building and might even have your own desk and bench space! And once you’re ensconced and comfortable, you’ll hopefully start to feel like you really belong. You’ll get a sense of intellectual ownership of your project. And the more you show you can do, the more others will step out of your way and say, “Go for it!” It’s an opportunity to feel valued and to be valuable! But all of this happens only if you commit and try your best.

A few other points

  • The earlier you start, the deeper the experience you’re likely to get. In my opinion there’s nothing wrong with approaching faculty as a first-semester freshman, even if you barely know which end of a pipette goes into the solution. So long as you’re genuinely excited about the possibility of doing research. Some other websites suggest waiting a year or two until you’ve had more coursework under your belt. It’s your call.
  • Summers are the best time to become deeply immersed in your project. Semesters are tougher. But once you get a summer under your belt, the semesters get easier because you’ll know your system and how to juggle your commitments.
  • Along those lines, look for opportunities to get paid! Different institutions will have different types of funding sources for students. So, get on top of this early and apply.
  • Try to get to know the people in your research group. Strike up random conversations (though ideally not when someone is in the middle of a complex experiment). Ask people to have lunch with you or to go for a coffee. Ask for advice (people love giving advice…hence, this website). Trust me, these (slightly strange) people sitting next to you at the bench could become your friends for life!
  • Do your best to be appropriately independent and to avoid becoming a pest. When someone is giving you instructions, take notes and pictures of the white board, so you won’t have to ask the same questions over and over. At the same time, know when to ask for help so that you don’t destroy an expensive piece of equipment!
  • Simply put, exceed expectations. Distinguish yourself. Make it so that when you leave the lab to move on with your career and life, the remaining lab members are heartbroken.

Partial listing of summer internship program websites: