Weaseling into a research lab

Undergraduate researchIf you are an undergraduate, you really should get some research experience before you graduate. This page explains why on Earth you should want to do this, and lists a few tricks for conning faculty members into letting you into their laboratories.

Faculty are beyond busy and their laboratories accommodate only a certain number of students, so you need tricks to maximize the chances they’ll allow you to join their team. But it’s not just a space/time issue, either — faculty are wary of students who might be lazy, unprepared (don’t know basic science, can’t do math, cant spel, etc.), or just plain stupid (it happens). Your school admits all the aforementioned, so don’t blame faculty for playing hard to get. 

Why get research experience?

  1. Science is pretty fun. Not without tedium and occasional, crushing disappointment, but you get to use your hands, brain, and creativity, a combination that is satisfying, I think. And you can potentially contribute answers to important questions about reality, if you’re into reality. Plus you are in college to get smarter, so you should expose yourself to at least one semester of the research life. You can then walk away in horror … but give it a shot. You’ll likely never have another chance, and you don’t want to spend the rest of your life with more regret than you already have.
  2. Research experience helps you learn an array of techniques, some of which might be useful in the future. You never know which ones will come in handy, so be omnivorous and fearless. You should internalize that most problems (and questions) have a solution if you know whom to ask and know how to hunt through the literature. Practice builds confidence that tools exist, and when tools are missing, you’ll know that they can be developed (by you, if needed).
  3. Research projects give you the practice of doing science, giving you a fluency that you can’t get just by absorbing sciency wisdom from lecture courses.  A big part of this fluency is learning to analyze your own data and to communicate the results to others, and to be able to do so without a sense of panic that you’ve totally bollixed things up. Confidence like this will make graduate school 20% more enjoyable, and is equally useful for careers that somehow involve collecting and dealing with data.
  4. The research life can plug you into the social scene for your major. You might not know it as a freshman, but in many departments the students who do research tend to have a really good time. They hang out with other students in the same boat, play music late at night in the laboratory, and get to go out to dinner with visiting speakers and the mentors of their projects. It can be fun, and if you’re OK with hanging out with dorks, it’s a great way to get the most out of your undergraduate experience. You get to be part of a “family,” so if you are at college far away from parents, sign yourself up fast.
  5. (bad reason) Independent research is awesome resume padding. If you care about getting into graduate school or medical school, you’ll have a much easier time if you have a few projects to list and have the corresponding letters of recommendations from your mentors. But mentors are really, really sick of padding-motivated research, so you have to pretend like you’re really enjoying it. But, to be honest, your mentor will see through you, so the letter will be tepid even if you did a great job on the science.
  6. (bad reason) Grades for independent projects are famously inflated, so you can boost your GPA in the math/science departments, which tend to give grades a full letter lower than non-sciency departments (the non-sciency departments claim the better students take their courses). Faculty don’t like giving grades less than an A for good efforts in science, so as long as you don’t burn the lab down, you’re looking good.  Mentors justify the high grades by saying that only the best students enter into research projects, so by doing research you flag yourself as unusually good, even if you aren’t. The high grade also reflects their fondness for the project content, which they have chosen to some degree. Giving an A affirms that their science is great.
How to get into a lab
  1. Take the introductory courses that you could probably skip if you used your “AP 5 card.” Bypassing introductory courses feeds egos, saves money, and certainly gets you into upper level classes sooner, but intro courses are often team-taught and are thus great opportunities to meet a whole bunch of faculty in a short amount of time. And you want to meet as many as possible so that you know which potential mentors might have personalities you like. By the way, faculty at good colleges and universities assume that many students have 5s on the APs, so they are going to craft their lectures with that in mind. And, to be honest, many faculty have a rather dim view of the preparation AP courses provide, so don’t be too cocky about your 5s. In particular, some AP courses seem to suck the creativity out of even brilliant students. You can still inject yourself into a lab as a freshman if you know what you’re doing, so don’t assume that following the masses into an intro course automatically delays the start of your brilliant research career beyond your freshman year.
  2. Go to as many extra talks as possible around campus. Your attendance will demonstrate that you are interested in research, even if the talks are not exactly in the area you wish to explore. Faculty really do notice who shows up for non-required talks, and they really notice when underclassmen ask interesting questions during those events. When you arrive at their office in a few weeks pitching a project, they will recognize you and smile. The majority of these events also feature free food, too. Oh, and the talks might be really good. (And if you approach the invited speaker after his/her talk, you can ask him/her whether the lab needs undergraduates during the summer. Ask for a card.)
  3. Talk to students who are currently in the labs you want to weasel into, even if you don’t know the students and even if they are scary looking. Ask them about their project, why they started it, and what they’d recommend doing to get into the lab. Their advice will be better than any of the advice on this page. The best way to do all of this chatting is to just go to the lab and start hanging out. It’s similar to coming to a party you weren’t invited to except there’s no beer. If you offer to help them do something tedious, do that. If the people you want to talk to are “in the field,” start sending emails to them early in your freshman year.
  4. Explore the web pages of all the faculty in the department, even the ones that appear poorly designed, and even the pages of people who seem really old. You should actually do all of this even before you arrive as a freshman (if you know your major, that is). For faculty who do interesting things (to you), download a few of their papers and read them. You should also Google each of them, to see what else they are up to. You’ll be amazed at how busy faculty are, and you can’t get that sense just from their web pages. Also note that absence of information on their campus web does not mean that a faculty member is inactive or that he/she doesn’t want students … some faculty prefer to be hidden so that only the truly motivated and experienced students actually bother to stop by the lab and introduce themselves.
  5. Now you can walk into their office and say, “I’ve read a few of your papers and also saw the titles of a few talks you’ve given lately … can you tell me what you’ve been doing recently??” Faculty don’t like to put their current projects online because other labs will just steal the ideas (it happens), so your question reveals that you are interested in what the faculty member is interested in. That will excite them, and they’ll assume you’re a more experienced researcher than you actually are. The flavor of your words should also somehow communicate that you think their research is totally awesome. Faculty have egos, and they are not immune to praise.
  6. Bring them a resume to keep on file. It might be skimpy, and you can say as much upfront, but it gives them a handy way to remember you even if their lab is full at the time. I really recommend attaching a Post-It that will remind them why they have your resume. Write, “Looking for research opportunity” or something like that. If you have your name and email on the Post-It, most faculty will file your resume (for eternity) but will stick the Post-It on their door or wall. If you’re really desperate, clip a small photo to the Post-It so they remember what you look like.  Faculty have to learn thousands of names, so make it easy for them.
  7. If there is a faculty person that does really cool research, the fastest way to demonstrate your interest is to take his/her courses. If you demonstrate aptitude in the courses, they will ask you to join the lab, so do well.
  8. Ask whether you could start a project “just to get familiar with the organism/equipment/lab.”  At most schools you can do research for credit, or for money during the summer … but those are situations that are harder to land. If you start informally with an easy project that is essentially off the books, you’ll slowly get accustomed to how the faculty member does research and you’ll develop a better “real” project when you plan the following semester or summer.
  9. Volunteer. Sometimes you just have to say, “I’ll wash dishes just to hang out in your lab.” And tell them that you’re good at it. You can say this almost as a joke, but clarify that you are not embarrassed to start off with something trivial and not especially interesting.  If you can demonstrate a willingness to learn, you’re in. (My first position in a lab was organizing a messy room. I’m Type A, so it was an easy job … and that same mentor got me future jobs and even wrote a letter for graduate school.)
  10. If you want to get into the popular lab, and it’s beyond full, get sneaky. First, search online databases to see what grant the faculty member just got, and read that grant carefully. Second, write a draft of a proposal for a Sigma Xi Grants-in-Aid of Research that you could submit to Sigma Xi, to bring funding in for supplies for your idea that cleverly connects to the grant your target, future mentor just got. These actions will show initiative above and beyond what your peers probably exhibited, even if you get dinged on your grant proposal. There are lots of little grants available to undergraduates, so do some searching to see what might be specific to your institution, and check with the career office for others by outside groups that might be willing to throw a few hundred dollars at your project.

Don’t put off research until your junior year. Faculty are overjoyed when students spend several years in their laboratories, and you, in turn, will benefit from having a mentor that is especially committed to making your research experience a productive one. Your mentor will be in a position to write you a great letter of recommendation, by the way, if you are interested in graduate school, medical school, or other profession that values research experience. Your undergraduate mentor will thus be more useful for your future career than your parents will be, so make sure you behave yourself while you are doing your project.

Once you’re in a lab and thriving, repay the kindness and time your mentor showers on you by helping him/her recruit others into the lab. You’re the student, so you know who’s interested in joining up, and faculty really need the help in identifying future research stars.

And don’t forget that an important part of doing research is communicating it others. So don’t assume you just give the results to your mentor and let him/her disseminate it. Volunteer to present a poster, give a talk, or write a paper.

Summer science

If you are interested in doing research during the summer, find a position early in Fall semester. Here are some thoughts on the quest:

  1. NSF Research Experiences for Undergraduates (searchable!)
  2. Browse listings on your department’s web site. If your department doesn’t have a page devoted to good summer opportunities in your field, you’ve chosen a crappy department and you should change majors.
  3. If your dream lab isn’t advertising openings, bug them with nice emails. Faculty who don’t advertise summer jobs might have the money but are too lazy to advertise, so it doesn’t hurt to ask. Send your resume and a passionate email about why you’d really, really like to spend the summer with them.
  4. If you have rich parents, tell them you need summer support so that you can volunteer in the lab of your choice. They are paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to get you educated during the school year…and your future employability will be dramatically improved if you can get experience in your dream field with your dream mentor (who can’t find money). If parents are tepid on idea, start asking whether you can stay home during the summer.  Explain that you really want to redecorate the basement to make it more livable for when you return after graduation. That will scare them.

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