For those college students majoring in the sciences, including chemistry, physics, biology, neuroscience, and computer science, research is often a necessary part of the curriculum. Even if research is not required as part of a student’s undergraduate major, it can give him or her a head start against peers. For this reason, research is a fundamental part of an undergraduate science experience.
Undergraduates will work under a “PI”, or primary investigator, in their lab. Oftentimes they will be asked to do work that others would rather not, often called grunt work. An example of this might be preparing and posting flyers to advertise a trial or study. Your PI didn’t obtain their PhD to be stuck distributing flyers! My advice would be to happily do any work asked of you. It will pay off! In exchange for your initial work, the PI or more senior members of the lab can offer you valuable experiences and mentorship.
Finding a position
You will be better served if you understand your role as an undergraduate researcher. Do not expect to initially make tremendous contributions to your lab’s work. If you work hard, this can happen in time, though. You, or a team of undergraduates, may be lucky enough to be assigned a specific project relating to the lab’s work. Use this as your time to stand out. Work diligently, meet deadlines, and communicate effectively with other lab members about your successes and difficulties. Your efforts will be appreciated by all and, perhaps more importantly, noticed by your PI.
Contacting potential labs can be an intimidating and humbling process. Expect to be turned away more often than not! Many labs simply do not allow undergraduates into their ranks; they would be better served by doing so, but it is not your place necessarily to convince them of this. Be confident and sincere about your ability to make a contribution (know what contribution you intend to make!), but learn to take no as an answer. It will be no one’s loss but theirs! There are plenty of labs that are willing to support undergraduates, so find one.
One idea can be to search for labs that are newly started or for faculty that are newly minted PhDs or new to the area. Younger faculty may be more apt to realize both the importance of research to an undergraduate education and the benefits that it can offer them. On the other hand, long-established labs may have many branches and interests. In one of these labs, you might not work directly under your PI, but under a graduate or post-doctoral member of the lab.
In any case, the best way to contact a lab is through email. Labs often have their own websites where you can find this, as well as other, information. Be concise. Introduce yourself in a tasteful and thoughtful manner. Simply state that you are inquiring about the position, or if the lab is taking on or willing to take on an undergraduate. You may want to attach your resume to the email as well. Be prepared to agree to an interview. Know what you want to take out of the experience as well as what you are able to offer. You can also read some of the lab’s recent publications to get a feeling for the work you may potentially be doing.
Expand your search
Many students make the mistake of conducting too narrow a search in their quest to find a research home. Expand your search to include not only your home department, but related departments, graduate departments, departments of nearby schools, and the private sector. For example, mathematicians, statisticians, chemists, and computer programmers can often lend their unique abilities to labs that would seem completely foreign.
Use your skills to your advantage. I speak from experience when I say that computer skills, and especially computer programming skills, are invaluable to nearly every research lab. In my case, with a few hours’ work of using basic programming skills, I was able to automate a time-consuming procedure in my psychiatry lab’s protocol. I was soon the rock star of the lab!
In addition to gaining valuable experience in your field, doing undergraduate research can offer added benefits. Primarily, you may be introduced to power-players in your field. This can be invaluable when it comes time to apply for graduate or professional schools. A letter of recommendation from a big name can truly set you apart from the rest of the application pile.
The ideal culmination of an undergraduate research experience can range from authorship of a poster to authorship of a paper. Before applying to a lab, read or do your own research on their publications. Can you find any that are authored or coauthored by undergraduates? If so, you are on the right track. If not, a co-authorship might still be offered to an undergraduate that provides a substantial contribution. Think of how a first-authorship might make your application to graduate school stand out!
You can often gain credit or be paid for your work. Even if your PI may not have the ability or budget flexibility to pay you, scholarships and grants exist for talented undergraduates interested in research. Even if you don’t see benefits immediately, think of your time as an undergraduate researcher as an investment in your future!
Remember, even the greatest and most brilliant researchers were once undergraduates. Even graduates who do not find themselves in academia look back and often see their research as invaluable to their success. Make the most out of your science education: don’t delay your search for a position as an undergraduate researcher.