Experience conducting research is an important criterion for admission to graduate school, medical school, and industry jobs, yet finding and obtaining a research position can be challenging for many undergraduates. Without background or experience it can be intimidating to reach out; however, by following some simple steps and tips outlined below, students can set themselves up to find and become involved in a fulfilling and meaningful research endeavor.
1. Find a lab
As an undergraduate the first question to ask is what YOU yourself are interested in. Which subjects interested you most in high school? What college classes have you enjoyed so far? What type of work gets you most excited and driven? Research does not always have to be conducted in the same field as your declared major, and sometimes the most rewarding experiences are made by stepping out of your comfort zone.
Once you have chosen a general area of interest, search for professors who conduct research that aligns with your interests. This can largely be done online by reading faculty profiles or visiting lab websites. Students can also attend research seminars or poster sessions to get a sense of the research offerings at their university. Furthermore, don’t feel limited to professors at your home university, many professors are also open to taking students from nearby universities. Finally, talk with friends, classmates, and peers about which labs are particularly welcoming to undergraduates. Not every lab is a good learning environment or focused on helping undergraduates develop, and determining this early on can save time and a headache later.
2. Reach out
Reaching out to professors can often be the most intimidating step for students, but talking with professors can also be extremely helpful to help you decide if the lab is a good fit for you. Initial contact with a professor can be made through their office hours, after a lecture, or by email. Begin with an introduction demonstrating that you are familiar with their work, and with an explanation of why their research interests you. Even if you do not have a research background, passion and excitement can go very far to demonstrate potential and promise as an aspiring researcher.
Remember to bring a copy of your resume or CV, and if you have taken a class with the professor an example of work you completed for the course can also be helpful. Most of all make sure you have done your own research before meeting with the professor and are familiar with their work. Finally, whether the professor agrees to take you on or not, thank them for their time and they might even be able to help you find a different lab that better fits your interests.
3. Secure funding
Undergraduate research can be conducted in many different capacities, but is most often done on a volunteer basis and is unpaid. This isn’t to say the experience is for nothing! Simply getting to work in a lab will give you valuable technical skills and experience, will help you learn to think independently and creatively, will help you understand material you are learning in class better, and will help you determine if a research or academic career is something you really are interested in.
Some universities will offer academic credit for research work, whether in the form of a formalized class or additional units. Sometimes this might even culminate in a senior thesis, particularly if you have seen a research project through to its completion. On the rare occasion, university undergraduate programs will offer funding to undergraduates to complete research, most often in the form of a summer stipend.
Notably, several national funding opportunities exist for undergraduates conducting research, some of which require researchers to conduct work at certain universities. These opportunities, whether fellowships that simply provide funding or formalized programs at host universities, are highly competitive and will require a well-crafted application. Below is a list of some of the best-known opportunities:
Finally, remember that conducting research as an undergraduate is just as much for your own benefit as it is to help a lab or professor. The reason why undergraduate research is so important for graduate and medical school admissions is because it is an opportunity for students to determine if these types of careers are the right choice for them. Some students will not enjoy their time in the lab and this is entirely okay; it is better to know early that you don’t enjoy something than spend time and money pursuing something you will not find fulfilling. And alternatively, for those that fall in love with research early on, an undergraduate research experience can serve as a catalyst to an exciting career.
Elliot is a transplant from sunny and warm California. He bid farewell to the West Coast seven years ago when he moved to Cambridge to study Biology at MIT. After graduating, Elliot was a recipient of the Rhodes Scholarship. He moved to England for two years to pursue an MSc by Research in Clinical Medicinat Oxford University. He is now back in Boston and continues to conduct immunology research as a student in the Harvard-MIT Health Sciences and Technology MD-PhD program.
Elliot has previously taught immunology to high school students with the MIT Educational Studies Program, and is well versed in the undergraduate, medical, and fellowship application processes. His major academic areas include biology, chemistry, physics, statistics, as well as test preparation. At Cambridge Coaching, he specializes in tutoring the MCAT -- he can tailor a plan to fit every MCAT taker's timeline and needs.
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