Engaging in research as an undergraduate will give you a chance to assess whether you enjoy the laboratory environment. Aside from building your resume, you will gain invaluable exposure to cutting edge technology and research methods.
Firstly, don’t feel intimidated to talk to your professors about research opportunities in their own or their colleagues’ labs. Professors can be an excellent resource. If they can’t assist in alerting you to open positions directly, ask them about their early research experiences and how they got started. It just may provide some brainstorming ideas. Feel free to visit our Affiliated Faculty page, which will provide you with the information of over 50 researchers that may be interested in having a student in their lab. You can link to each researcher’s website with their contact information and areas of interest.
You can begin thinking about research as a freshman. Start by reviewing the webpages of different researchers. That said adjusting to college life, and achieving your personal best GPA should be priority. You can start working in a lab during your sophomore year or the beginning of your junior year. As a senior, you may still be able to find a position, especially through a structured course. However, your choices will be a bit more limited as applying at a late date may not leave enough time to learn and apply the skills being taught in a lab. No matter what year you are, you should strongly consider working in a laboratory setting.
Once you have identified scientists conducting research in an area that generally appeals to you, contact them to make sure they are taking undergraduates and try to read at least 2 of their scientific papers front to back. Even if you only understand 20% of a given article, it will still help develop your language base so that you can have an educated conversation. Most importantly, it shows that you take initiative. Then contact the researchers you are interested in directly to request a meeting. It is very important that you reach out to scientists personally in order to demonstrate that you have the interest and aptitude to become a part of his/her lab. In your email, it is recommended that you include complete contact information plus information about your interests, lab experience if any, availability during the week, relevant courses you have already taken, a copy of your unofficial transcript and information about why you would like to work in their lab specifically. It may take a while to hear back from a researcher. Don’t take it personally. They may want to see that you have the drive it takes to be successful. If you don’t hear from them in two weeks, pay them a visit during their office hours. Some have their hours posted on their website or office doors. You can also ask for their office hours in an email.
To prepare for your meeting, do your homework and make sure you can articulate why you want to work in his/her lab specifically. Also, rehearse answers to some questions they might ask you. Below please find a list of a few likely interview questions:
Likely interview questions:
1) Tell me what you know about the Department of Biological Sciences or Chemistry, or The RNA Institute?
2) What is your overall GPA and your GPA within your major? Most scientists interested in having students in their labs will want you to have a GPA greater than 3.0 in your science courses.
3) What science course have you taken successfully so far? (Intro Biology, Intro Chemistry, Organic Chemistry, Biochemistry, Genetics, etc.)
4) Where would you prefer to work? a) In an environment where you are provided with specific detailed instructions or b) where you have a clearly defined end-goal but the details of achieving that goal are left up to you?
5) What research areas interest you?
6) Have you had any lab experience in the past either inside or outside of the University? If so, what were your tasks?
7) When are you available during the week? Do you have large blocks of time available on any days on a regular basis? Are you willing to work during the summer? Are you willing to work a minimum of 2 years (including summers)?
8) Are you interested in doing work outside the lab, i.e. field work?
9) What would you do if you were under pressure to meet a deadline but you didn’t have the proper safety equipment to finish your lab?
10) Do you have any experience or knowledge about diseases or drugs?
11) Please provide a copy of your unofficial transcript and grades.
12) What are your expectations of this lab and your time dedication to this research opportunity (How many hours do you expect to be in the lab per week?) What do you expect to gain from this research opportunity? What are your goals for this research?
With a bit of resourcefulness and courage, a meaningful undergraduate research position could be yours! We wish you much success in your unique academic and professional journey.