Getting Involved in Undergraduate Research

If you’re a STEM major (and maybe even if you’re not!), you probably hear a lot of students and professors talking about undergraduate research. It’s a popular extracurricular of many students looking into graduate or medical school. It’s also a great learning experience that teaches you not only about lab skills beyond what you get in a classroom setting but also about how to ask questions and problem solve. I’ve been involved with my research lab for three semesters and a summer, and it’s my favorite extracurricular activity! So, how do you go about getting involved?

  1. Do your research.

Start with the faculty website of the department you’re interested in doing research in. Read the descriptions of what each lab does and take note of all the ones that sound interesting to you.

  1. Email the labs that interest you.

Send a professional email to each of the principal investigators (usually you’ll hear them called the PI and they're the professor who runs the lab) whose lab you’re looking into. You’ll want to make it personal; if you’ve been in a class of theirs, mention it or otherwise include a few lines about why their research interests you or about a paper they published that you found particularly interesting. Ask if they have space for another undergraduate at this time and if they would be willing to meet with you to talk about their lab. I’d also suggest having a friend review your email for typos and professionalism before sending it off.

 

  1. Prepare to meet potential principal investigators.

You got a meeting, sweet! Show up prepared to talk about why you want to do research and why you’re interested in their lab. Dress professionally and be ready to discuss not only your own research interests but the lab’s research also. It’s definitely a good idea to skim a few of the lab’s publications and have a decent idea of the research that they do. Come with questions for the PI. What's the weekly commitment like? Do they expect you to stay and do a summer of research? Do they have an idea of what you might have an opportunity to work on? And, of course, ask any other questions you have about their research.

 

  1. Be persistent.

Professors get hundreds and hundreds of emails, so don’t freak out if you don’t hear back from them right away! Do send a follow-up email; it’s likely your message got lost in all of their other emails. You can continue to send follow-ups until you catch their attention. The number of times you follow up really depends on how badly you want to work in that particular lab. If all else fails, show up at their office! This is real advice from my current PI. If you show up and they’re there, they have to talk to you, even if it’s just to set up a meeting another time or to let you know that they don’t have a spot for you at that time.

 

  1. Once you get started in the lab keep a few more things in mind...

You’ll probably be mentored by a graduate student or postdoc in the lab. When they’re showing you the ropes, ask questions! Clarify anything you don’t understand, and take a lot of notes. Don’t be afraid to ask them to explain something to you again or to clarify something. You’re building a basis of knowledge for you to use to gain independence over your time in the lab. Make friends! Talk to the other undergrads, grads, and postdocs in your lab. They’re all excellent resources who can teach you a lot. Networking can be so beneficial, and it makes your lab work more enjoyable if you like the people you work with.

 

 

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