Finding research in college can be an intimidating process, especially if you are coming into college with little to no previous research experience. It can be easy to dismiss yourself as under-qualified to do research, or lacking the contextual knowledge or skills needed to work in the lab you want. What you have to understand is that research in and of itself is a learning process, so no one is really “qualified” to do it in the first place. With that being said, there are definitely ways you can improve your chances of getting into a research lab, and that’s what we’ll be talking about in this blog.
Think About What You Want
Before you even start looking at the research opportunities that are offered at your school, think about what you want from the research you will be doing. The first thing you want to decide is what field your research will be in. If you want to do research in, say, physics, not all physics research opportunities will be the same. Some may focus on astrophysics while others will have an emphasis on biophysics. Keep that in mind when looking for opportunities, because it’s not worth committing to research that won’t have anything to do with your future goals.
You also want to make sure that research will fit well into your schedule. Mark down the available time slots you have throughout the week, and make sure to leave some room for de-stressing and relaxation activities. You don’t want to have your plate fuller than necessary, especially if you are just starting off in college. I made sure that my research took place during times when my schedule was absolutely empty so that I could dedicate that time to my work instead of worrying about a problem set or an essay.
Most importantly, you want to ask yourself why you want to get involved with research. Many students want to do it to prepare themselves for grad school research in the future. Some do it in preparation for medical school. Others, like me, want to do it to get skills to use in industry research. Keep this in mind when selecting opportunities, because many will be academic-focused while others will be more design-focused. If your goal is to work in academia and do research as a career, it may be more beneficial for you to take an opportunity that requires more reading and writing research papers, since those are important skills that you will need in the future.
Building Your Resume
Assuming that you’re starting off with little to no formal research experience, you won’t have a CV (curriculum vitae), and you’ll have a resume instead. Some research labs don’t even require you to present a resume, and if so, you can skip to the next section of this blog.
If your research is more design-based, like mine is, you should put any relevant skills that you think you may be using. For instance, my lab focuses heavily on small-scale electronics that can be used within biomedical devices, so I highlighted my experience with Arduino and circuit design.
If your research will deal with data analysis, then give some examples of how you used data analysis in a class or a project to draw conclusions.
If your research will be performed in a wet lab, then highlight your experience with lab equipment and instruments, including any lab classes you have taken as a part of your curriculum.
If your research will mainly involve writing research papers, then demonstrate your ability to read and write scientific literature.
The point I want to make here is that you should tailor your resume to whatever it is you think you’ll be doing in your lab. It will be impossible to have a “perfect” resume your first time around, but don’t worry about that. As long as you show the PI that you are genuinely interested in their work and have some form of relevant experience, they will be more than willing to accept you as a research assistant.
To find research opportunities, it’s just a matter of going on your school’s website and looking up professors/researchers who may be doing work in areas you are interested in. For example, let’s say I want to work in a lab that does research on surgical robotics. Since I’m an Electrical Engineering major, the best place to start would be my school’s ECE Department website (https://engineering.jhu.edu/ece/). I’d then look up all of the ECE faculty and go through them until I found someone who is developing hardware used specifically for surgical robotics purposes. On my school’s website, a professor’s research interests can be found directly on the professor’s info page or possibly through their affiliated “lab website” page.
Just as you would not apply to just your dream university, you should not apply to do research with just one faculty member even though you might find his/her research the most fascinating; instead, you should compile a list of faculties under whom you would not mind working and start sending emails by order of preference. Remember, a few rejections isn’t the end of the world! I got rejected from a lab simply because the principal investigator (PI) did not want to mentor any pre-meds.
Even before you start emailing a researcher, read one or two research papers they have written. Although you might only comprehend 0.1% of his/her paper, reading their paper demonstrates to the PI that you are as fascinated in the field as he/she is. Thus, he/she will be more willing to interview you and will be more likely to consider you a research assistant candidate.
Emailing the Principal Investigator
After finding a principal investigator with whom you want to work, you’re going to want to send them an email. Here is the template that me and my friends used to get our research positions.
[insert greeting here] Dr. [the name of your PI],
My name is [insert your name here], and I am a [number of years you’ve been in college]-year [insert major here] undergraduate student at [insert university name here].
I am incredibly fascinated by your research in [the research you want to conduct]. I am particularly interested in how your lab [insert something really cool the lab does]. If possible, I would love to talk to you and potentially work in your lab. If you are interested, my resume is attached below.
(optional) I understand that you are really busy, but even a one or two line response would really make my day!
[insert your name here]
In case that was confusing, here’s a copy of my email to my PI.
Good evening Dr. Choi,
My name is David Chuong, and I am a first-year Electrical Engineering undergraduate here at Johns Hopkins.
I saw that there was a research assistant position available for the development of wearable sweat sensors, and I am fascinated by the work you are doing. I have great interest in your goal to individualize the health care system, and I would love to contribute to it.
Attached below is my resume, if your offer is still open and you would like to consider me for the position. Thank you for taking the time to read this.
Another and arguably more effective way to ask for an interview is to mention that you are familiar with and willing to discuss one of the PI’s articles. Take, for example, the following email Natalie wrote to her PI:
Dear Dr. Whiteson:
My name is Natalie Tran, and I am a first-year Chemistry major with a vested interest in Biology. Thus, I have taken the following classes, which pertain to your research field:
Bio 93: DNA to Organism
Bio 94: Ecology and Evolution
Chem M2A and M2B: Major specific Chemistry
Chem ML2A and ML2B: Major specific Chemistry Labs
As a phage enthusiast myself, I have come across a specific paper published by your lab entitled “Predictable Molecular Adaptation of Coevolving Enterococcus faecium and Lytic Phage EfV12-phi1,” and I hope to sit down with you to discuss the paper in further details as well as join your lab as a research assistant
Attached below is my availability. I hope to hear back from you soon.
As you can probably already tell, I slightly modified the email template that my friend gave me to better fit my needs. You can do that too, or you can even make your own template. Just make sure you convey enough important information about yourself and show that you’ve done your research on what the lab is doing—the last thing you want is to make yourself appear clueless about the position you’re applying for.
If the PI emails you back and lets you know that he/she is interested in letting you work in the lab, usually he/she will schedule a talk with you shortly afterwards. Unlike with internships or jobs, this talk usually isn’t used to judge you; rather, it is used to qualify you and make sure you know what you’re getting into. It’s less about what they want from you and more about what you want from them.
For example, in my interview, my PI explained to me what they’re working on in the lab, what I should expect to be doing, and asked me a few general questions about the work I’ve done in the past and my availability. He then asked me if I still wanted to work in the lab, to which I said yes. I felt very relaxed during the entire process, because I felt as if I already had the position and was just listening to see if it was right for me. Of course, this may be different in some more competitive labs, in which case you should really prepare for your interview and be ready to answer any tough questions the interviewer might have about your resume or work experience.
What to Expect from Research
After you get accepted into a lab, you should expect to be trained within the first few weeks of work. This should include both training for your position and general safety training. Even though I was working in a dry lab doing programming and electronics work, I still had to go through safety training in the case of an emergency. Once you’re done with your training, it’s time to get down to business. Expect to work a certain amount of hours every week (generally around 5-10, but can definitely vary) and also attend regular meetings to present your findings. You usually won’t be stuck doing exclusively one task—you’ll have the opportunity to perform a variety of tasks, and they’ll get more interesting as you progress.
Research is an awesome learning experience and a great way to develop practical skills. While you may be learning theory in class, research is where you can test new theories that haven’t been proven yet. It’s also a very collaborative environment, and you’ll be working with individuals from all sorts of backgrounds. You’ll have to figure out a lot of stuff on your own, so be prepared to read lots of scientific literature and ask a ton of questions, but it’ll all be worth it when you actually get to contribute to a meaningful discovery. That is what research is truly about.