Breaking into research: a guide for undergraduates and high schoolers

academic advice High School research
By Max Y.

Research is the crucible of scientific innovation. But to many young undergraduate students and high schoolers, participating in this space can seem daunting, untenable, or even impractical. However, if you keep reading, I hope to demystify getting involved in research as a budding scientist and convince you that working towards a publication and contributing to the wider body of scientific knowledge is indeed within your grasp.

Disclaimer: My experiences are predominantly in STEM research. However, these tips can easily apply to any field of academia!

Okay, so I just said a lot of platitudes that might sound nice in theory, but why should you get involved in research? Here are three significant reasons:

Reason #1: For the cause

First, research is a chance to contribute to science, rather than solely learning about what others have already discovered, which is the basis for how progress and change occur. Though it is hard work, helping in research can contribute towards solving the biggest issues facing society today like climate change, incurable illnesses, social inequality, and more. 

Reason #2: For the resume

Second, working in a research lab or with a group looks great on a resume or application. It demonstrates that you can work independently, think critically, and are passionate and interested in important topics. Whether you plan to pursue a career as a scientist, attend medical or other professional schools, or enter the job market, research work and a publication can help you stand out in a competitive pool. 

Reason #3: For the network

Third, this time will help you build important relationships with scientific mentors that can prove beneficial for your growth as a student. Often a close research mentor can write an exemplary letter of recommendation or help you pursue your future ambitions in other manners.

Okay, so how do I go about becoming a researcher?

Find your area of interest

It is crucial that you find an area that excites you and you will enjoy working in. Joining a chemistry lab because you think it will look good on your medical school application, even though you hate chemistry, will make for a miserable time, and probably won’t make for quality work. You don’t have to be a content expert already, but the project should be something that makes you excited and look forward to learning more. Shop around on university websites and try to keep the bigger picture of a project in mind. 

Mentorship is key

Once you know the general area you want to work in, such as cancer research or artificial intelligence, reach out to professors, PhD students, or other research personnel that work in this area, near you. Share who you are, your background, your interests, and try to find a time to meet with them so they can explain their work more. Usually if you ask a researcher what they do, they would love to tell you about it! 

Your mentor on a project is the one that will be responsible for teaching you new skills, guiding your work, and even getting you on a publication. Make sure this is someone you are comfortable with and someone that will help you achieve your goals.

Work hard, be curious

What you may lack in previous knowledge and skills, you can easily compensate for in hard work and genuine curiosity. In research, people notice hard work, and this will often afford you more responsibility and independence in future projects. Ask questions whenever you can to help your understanding and demonstrate your critical thinking skills. Try and delve into previous work published by the group or new papers in the field and ask your mentor about unknown concepts you may run into. 

Don’t lose sight of the forest for the trees

Research can be laborious, tedious work. If you have a slow day, a bad week, a failed experiment, try and not lose sight of why you are doing research and the end goals. Pipetting 400 times in a row might not seem immediately thrilling but contributing to a new cancer treatment or getting your first publication can make it all worth it in the end.   

I wish you the best of luck as you begin your journey in research. Stay curious!

Max is currently working on his MPhil in Population Health at the University of Cambridge on a Marshall Scholarship. He previously earned a degree in Biochemistry from Montana State University.


academics study skills MCAT medical school admissions SAT expository writing college admissions English MD/PhD admissions strategy writing LSAT GMAT GRE physics chemistry math biology graduate admissions ACT academic advice interview prep law school admissions test anxiety language learning premed MBA admissions career advice personal statements homework help AP exams creative writing MD study schedules test prep Common Application computer science summer activities history philosophy mathematics organic chemistry secondary applications economics supplements research 1L PSAT admissions coaching grammar law psychology statistics & probability legal studies ESL CARS SSAT covid-19 dental admissions logic games reading comprehension engineering USMLE calculus PhD admissions Spanish mentorship parents Latin biochemistry case coaching verbal reasoning DAT English literature STEM excel medical school political science AMCAS French Linguistics MBA coursework Tutoring Approaches academic integrity chinese letters of recommendation Anki DO Social Advocacy admissions advice algebra astrophysics business classics diversity statement genetics geometry kinematics linear algebra mechanical engineering mental health presentations quantitative reasoning skills study abroad technical interviews time management work and activities 2L DMD IB exams ISEE MD/PhD programs Sentence Correction adjusting to college algorithms amino acids analysis essay art history artificial intelligence athletics business skills careers cold emails data science dental school finance first generation student functions gap year information sessions international students internships logic networking poetry resume revising science social sciences software engineering tech industry trigonometry writer's block 3L AAMC Academic Interest EMT FlexMed Fourier Series Greek Health Professional Shortage Area Italian Lagrange multipliers London MD vs PhD MMI Montessori National Health Service Corps Pythagorean Theorem Python Shakespeare Step 2 TMDSAS Taylor Series Truss Analysis Zoom acids and bases active learning architecture argumentative writing art art and design schools art portfolios bibliographies biomedicine brain teaser campus visits cantonese capacitors capital markets cell biology central limit theorem centrifugal force chemical engineering chess chromatography class participation climate change clinical experience community service constitutional law consulting cover letters curriculum dementia demonstrated interest dimensional analysis distance learning econometrics electric engineering electricity and magnetism escape velocity evolution executive function freewriting genomics graphing harmonics health policy history of medicine history of science hybrid vehicles hydrophobic effect ideal gas law immunology induction infinite institutional actions integrated reasoning intermolecular forces intern investing investment banking lab reports linear maps mandarin chinese matrices mba medical physics meiosis microeconomics mitosis mnemonics music music theory nervous system neurology neuroscience object-oriented programming office hours operating systems organization