You want to do research but how do you begin?

Dare I say every undergraduate should find a research home on campus? After all, don’t you want to learn at a deeper level how all the knowledge you learn in your classes is discovered? Don’t you want to go from watching the performance to participating? Can this be true for english, economics, and history majors just as it is for biology majors? I think so, but here will stick to what I know, biology. A research home will give your courses perspective. It will give you a friend on the faculty who can give you insight you would not otherwise have. It will provide a new group of friends among the other students in the lab.

So, how and when do you find a research lab to join? I’ll use the Frequently Asked Questions format, but first you might want to check what others have to say. I teach in a certain kind of institution and so what I say may not be broadly applicable, so best to check several different perspectives. Chelsea Prather has a great piece full of links to places you might go to search for summer experiences. Here is another with  lots of tips.

When should you join a research lab? Don’t wait until your senior year! If I had to pick an ideal time to begin research, I would say it is in the middle of your first year. You have one semester mastered and are wondering if there is something more. But don’t despair if you are past that stage since many begin in their sophomore or junior years. Even if you are a senior, if this is something you want to do, go for it.

How should I pick a lab? 1. Subject matter. As a first year, how can you even know what you might ultimately be interested in? Even later on, this might be hard. As much as possible consider your interests both in the kinds of techniques you want to use and the kinds of questions you want to ask. If you want to do field work and not be in a lab, choose accordingly, though a lot of field work is seasonal. Read the web pages of faculty taking students. Your university or college might have an office of undergraduate research. Ask them for help. You might use Scholarbridge or something similar.

How should I pick a lab? 2. Lab structure and philosophy. It is really important that the lab you join involve undergraduates in all aspects of research. You should not just collect data for another person. You should be taught how to analyze the data, how to ask questions, and how to read the relevant literature. Ultimately, you should give a research poster and you might even publish your research, though this latter point varies a lot among fields. From the mentor’s perspective, training an undergrad can be costly so there is a temptation to train them on one technique and leave them there. The best outcome is a balance that leaves the bench mentor, usually a grad student, postdoc, or more senior undergrad, rewarded while exposing the new undergrad to all aspects of research. We have a philosophy document, here. We also have a one credit course to help with the research experience. We do fun things like this at the beginning. So ask your friends about their research labs. Study the web pages. Find a place that values undergrads.

How should I pick a lab? 3. Credit or pay? Many research groups do not pay undergraduates except during the summer, or if they do pay them it is only to wash dishes and the like. I deplore this situation for it makes it so hard for students that need to work also do research. It is great if you do not need to be paid, but if you do, there are labs that will pay during the year at most universities, particularly if you make your case clear. If that is not possible, getting credit for research can mean you take fewer classes. Get the specifics up front.

How should I pick a lab? 4. Summer research. I highly recommend summer research. It is likely to be paid. It can be much more intensive since you have all your time to devote to it. If you do it on campus, you can continue the work during the academic year. But there are also advantages to going to field stations, or other places that offer different summer opportunities. Remember to seek out these opportunities and apply early.

How much time should I expect to do research per week? During the academic year, it is best to be able to do research 8 to 15 hours a week. Fewer than 8 and it is just hard to get anything done. You should also plan to go to lab meetings, and to attend departmental seminars in your research area. Take fewer credits and this will be feasible. You only need one major.

How can I get accepted by a research lab? Once you have picked a lab, or at least narrowed it down to a few, then is the time to contact the head of the lab. This will usually be the professor. This professor will have two basic considerations. They want to take on  a student that is respectful of the group in all ways. This means being punctual, letting your bench or field mentor know if you can’t make it, answering emails, all that stuff that makes you a responsible adult. It also means treating the equipment carefully, and letting us know if you break something. I hope you are a good person and all this is a given. The second thing we want to know is that you will love or grow to love what we study, and that we are a great mutual fit. Why do we care about grades and stuff like that? It is because decent grades indicate you are respectful of yourself and your classes. You go to class, you do the work, you exhibit the behaviors that will make you a good lab citizen. We don’t mind if you are a genius, but we don’t expect it.

Our wonderful undergrads!

What should I do on the first contact? Contact the professor by email. The email should tell who you are and why you are contacting this professor. You should talk about some of the projects that the professor published on recently, or that show up on the web page, and indicate that you read them and are interested. You should send the professor your Resume or Curriculum Vita, and an unofficial version of your transcript. If you have any friends already working in the lab, mention them. You should ask for a meeting.

What should I do at the interview? You should listen to the professor. You should come with a list of questions, maybe 3 on the research, one on lab policies (what are they), one on how you can succeed in this group. Ask questions if the person says things you don’t understand. Act interested. Personally, if I interview you, you are likely to have the position. I find it very hard to judge undergrads. The biggest way they fail is by not having enough time for research.

How should I follow up the interview? Write the professor an email thanking them for the interview. Ask any additional questions that occurred to you. And remember, professionally we communicate by email, not texts.

What next? If you get the position, great. If you don’t move on to the next person. I don’t think it is a good idea to have multiple people in play at once, so you deserve a timely answer.

Go for it!


About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
This entry was posted in Recommendations, Research, Uncategorized, Undergraduates. Bookmark the permalink.

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