Getting research experience during your time as an undergraduate can be a fulfilling experience and set you apart from the pack for prospective endeavors, be it graduate school (Masters or PhD), medical school, or working in a lab as a technician/assistant. Academia is becoming increasingly competitive as more people receive bachelors and tertiary degrees. Getting research experience can be a great aid for the future.

When to start?

Short answer: Summer before Junior year

I do think it is possible to start too early. Doing research your freshman year at university can be daunting. You’re often starting out in a new city with new people and a new understanding of what studying really means. I personally began my junior year and continued until I graduated. When looking for labs it helps that you have a basic understanding of science which you can prove by the courses you have taken and the grades you received in them. Often providing an unofficial transcript is required when working in a lab. Freshman year you obviously don’t have the record to show what you can do at a University level.

Sophomore year could be a great time to get into undergraduate research if your university permits it and your grades are good. If you are struggling to maintain a good GPA your sophomore year, it may be best to put off research until you have locked down effective study habits. However, it could be beneficial having a commitment outside of classes that can push you to be a better student. Procrastination becomes very hard when you have little time to do it! 

Junior year is a great time to get into research as an undergraduate. By now you should be able to handle a University course work load and have figured out how best to study. You will also have at least four semesters of course work to demonstrate your academic strengths and you may begin to narrow down what specific fields most interest you. Starting Junior year gives you the potential to work on a project for two years which can result in a publication or two. Also, depending on your university, junior year is usually when doing undergraduate work can start to count for course credit and fulfill lab requirements for graduation. However, due to receiving course credit, this work will likely have mandatory time expectations, usually around 10 hours per week. Lab work can tremendously help your GPA if you demonstrate to your supervisor you are a good worker; being on time, doing things you set out to do, and showing good research techniques and ethics. 

Senior year is not too late! It is better to have a year of experience than no experience. As with junior year, many universities offer course and lab credit when you work in a research lab your senior year. Senior year is usually the time honors research projects begin (though some schools start this junior year). Towards the end of senior year (February/March) you will be applying for jobs or graduate school. Having a reference letter from your research supervisor can do wonders. They know how you are as a worker; something course professors often cannot comment on in reference letters.

Don’t forget about summers! Universities often have funding for undergraduate summer research. You will have to apply for it, usually around early March. Check your university website for details. If you are already working in a lab during the semester, this process will be very easy as you already have a supervisor and project. If not, you will need to find a supervisor for a summer project. Get on this as early as you can, preferably your first few weeks back for Spring semester. There is only so many spots! Universities often have summer research opportunities outside of the university, with affiliate schools around the nation or even internationally. This can be a great opportunity to travel for little to no cost.

Specifics:

  • For Fall Semester
    • Ideally before summer, during the end of Spring Semester
    • Or just as the Semester begins
  • For Spring Semester
    • Before winter break begins
    • Or just as the Semester begins
  • For Summer
    • During early March
    • April the latest

How to start?

Short answer: University’s research webpage 

Many universities have specific programs for undergraduates to do research. Check out your university’s website for these opportunities; they are almost always on the universities main page under the “Research” menu tab and called “Undergraduate Research” . Often the program is called “Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program” (UROP) or something to a similar effect. Some schools will have a list of faculty researchers that are looking for undergraduate research assistants. Look through this list of researchers and try to find one that interests you. It helps tremendously if you have done, or will be doing in the upcoming semester, course work related to the lab’s goals. If you do not see any research that interests you, don’t fret! In my experience these lists are not always well maintained or researchers do not know about them! You can go to the “Academics” webpage and find a list of faculty in your field of interest. It is completely acceptable to email any professor and ask if they have a spot in their lab for an undergraduate researcher. When you do find a researcher, look at their university profile and get an idea of what they their research interests are. You can even read one or two of their publications if your knowledge base is sufficient (don’t feel bad if it is not). Pubmed is a great resource for finding publications from a professor. Whether you find a researcher on the Undergraduate Research page or Faculty page, you will next need to reach out to them. Some universities have guidelines or applications at this point, but mostly it is a simple email. Keep in mind professors are very busy and get dozens of emails a day, keep it short and to the point. An example e-mail would be:

Dear Professor Smith,

My name is Blake Porter and I am currently a Junior at Boston University. I am very interested in the work your lab does, especially learning and memory in the hippocampus. I have completed two courses related to your lab’s research interests, Introduction to Neuroscience and Neural Plasticity, both of which I enjoyed and received A’s in. I am looking to obtain experience in research and to discover more about the field of learning and memory and would love the opportunity to work in your lab. If you find it useful, attached is my resume and unofficial transcript. If you do not have room in your lab, do you know of any labs with similar research aims that have space for an undergraduate researcher?

Thank you for your time and I look forward to hearing from you,

Blake Porter

Life is a number’s game, send out emails to all researchers that interest you. Tailor your email to each researcher, try to have one sentence that focuses on their specific work. Don’t get discouraged if you get a bunch of No’s; it probably isn’t you, they likely really do not have the space and resources for you. Sometimes they will ask you to apply at a later date when they know some students will be leaving. Always include a final sentence asking if they know of any other professor in the field looking for undergrads, this can be a great way to get leads.

What actually takes place when the head researcher of a lab receives these emails? Your email gets forwarded to every graduate student and post-doc in the lab to read. They then report back to the principal investigator if they are interested in having you as a student. 

Alternatives:

  • Ask your course Professors
    • Most all professors are also doing research. Some advertise at the start of a course they are looking for undergrads, most don’t. If there is a professor you like then go up to them in person during their office hours and ask if they are looking for an undergraduate research assistant. Do your homework! Go to there knowing what research they are doing!
  • Ask your Teaching Assistants
    • Often for a course the teaching assistants are not in the lab of the professor teaching the course. If your teaching assistant is a Masters or PhD student, ask them if they or their lab is looking for an undergraduate research assistant. Again, office hours is a great time to do this.
  • Ask your Guidance Counselor
    • Often you have to meet with your guidance counselor for course approval every semester. Ask them if they know of any labs in the department that are looking for undergrads.

Moving Forward:

At this point you have a lab that has a spot for you, but now what? First, what is this going to be primary for? Some paper work may be required at this point.

Is this for Course Credit?

If you plan on getting a course credit for working in the lab, be sure to fill out the appropriate paper work and talk to your guidance counselor if this is permitted. Working in a lab for credit is often called “Directed Study” and requires a small form to be filled out justifying how research experience will help you in the future. Some Universities have a GPA constraint on this, usually your GPA will need to be above a 3.0. 

Is this for Work Study?

Often working in a lab can count for Work Study. You will need to figure out if this makes sense for your current situation, is the course credit worth more than your work study pay? Does your GPA need a boost more than your wallet?

Can I get paid for this?

Again, if this is for course credit, you usually cannot get paid and get a course credit at the same time. But if you are not getting course credit or if you are doing this work over the summer, there is often university grants for undergrads working in a lab. Often it is a fixed amount with the expectation you work a certain number of hours a week, generally 10-20 during a semester and full time (40 hours/week) over the summer. Check if your Undergraduate Research Program has anything for this. The university often has more grants for the summer than it does during semesters. So you know, the university usually supplies the lab you are working in with money to take you on.

Securing your position:

Prepare: Often you will meet with the lab before they officially take you on. This can be as formal as an interview or casual, but err on the side of formal. Once you know what lab you are going to, do as much research as you can on what the lab does. See if the lab has a dedicated website. Find out what individual researchers are working on. Read some papers the lab has put out. If the lab you are going for is larger, you will most likely be working with a graduate student or post doctoral researcher rather than directly with the principal investigator. If you know who you will be specifically working with before hand, read up on them! Check out their Linkedin or Academia or Research Gate pages. See if they have a personal website. You should come to your interview with some background knowledge on the lab, what its research questions are, and what techniques it uses to answer these questions. If you find one of their papers, go to the Methods section and google anything you don’t know. YouTube may also have videos of the techniques being performed and can provide you with a good insight into what you will be doing. You don’t need to worry about specific, just have general knowledge of the topics.

Interview: Your meeting with the lab will likely start with meeting the graduate student or post doc you will be working with. Generally they will give you a tour of the lab and point what is going on where. You may or may not meet the principal investigator (PI) if it is a bigger lab. Often they are off teaching or giving lectures or at conferences. You will then likely sit down and have a interview with your supervisor. Your supervisor will lay out their project, what they are doing, and what you will be helping with. They will likely ask you if you have done research before, why you are interested in doing research, and why you decided on the lab you did. Be sure to highlight to them any lab work you have done in your courses, especially if it is relevant. At some point they will ask if you have any questions. This is likely the most important part of the interview from the stance of your supervisor. They want to know what you know and how you think. If you ask insightful questions about the research or techniques it can score major points. They may provide you with background papers on why they are asking the questions they are. If they do not, ask! “Is there any background papers I could read to getting a better understanding of the work you are currently doing?” By the end of the interview, if you both agree on everything, the position is usually yours. But, some supervisors do like to think things over for a few days and will get back to you then; don’t get discouraged by this.

Good luck!