How to Score an Undergraduate Laboratory Position – Part 1 Get the Interview
So you want to work in a scientific laboratory to do research during your undergraduate days. Maybe you’re pre-med, and you heard that working in a lab will help your med school applications. Maybe you don’t know what to do with your life, but your friend’s stories about lab work sound entertaining and like something you might try. Or maybe you’ve been science-minded since age three, and you already know that research is your future, so you just need a foot in to get your career started.
How do you score a research position when everybody and their mother is competing with you for the spot?
At top tier research institutions, matching talented undergraduates to compatible labs is often harder than it should be. So, talented undergrads, we’re going to break this down into two parts:
- Part 1: Get the interview
- Part 2: Rock the interview
Today, we’ll cover Part 1.
Note: These posts are geared toward students at R1 institutions (universities that have the highest level of research activity and grant doctoral degrees). Laboratories at R1 institutions are the most competitive for undergraduate students to join, which is why we are focusing on R1 positions. If you are at a primarily undergraduate institution (PUI), it is likely that the laboratories consist entirely of undergraduate students, thus, at a PUI you will not have such a struggle gaining access to a lab. Nonetheless, some of these tips will prove useful regardless of which type of institution you are at.
Get the interview
1. Understand that the vast majority of undergraduate research positions will be volunteer work.
This sucks, mostly because it creates an economic barrier to who gets to start working in a lab. The reason most labs cannot pay undergraduates is that there simply isn’t enough money. Labs struggle to pay graduate students, so untrained undergraduates are generally not in the running for a steady paycheck.
If you really want to do research but you are turned off by the lack of a paycheck, consider your future goals. Is research necessary? If not, you're better off finding a paying job (and with all sincerity, I'm sorry academia is economically elitist. It's sh*tty, and it shouldn't be like that). If research is necessary for your career goals, you may want to think of this as an investment in your future (provided you are entering into a position with actual mentoring, rather than simply washing dishes), which could pay off in the long run.
2. Find a lab that is doing research you find interesting.
- Use department websites as a starting point to peruse different professors' research subjects. Do not restrict yourself to the department of your major. For example, if you are a cell & developmental biology major, you should look to see if faculty members in chemistry, bioengineering, neuroscience, or marine biology are actually addressing developmental biology questions.
- Identify labs that are actively recruiting undergraduate students by searching for listings on your school’s employment portal. (At UCSD, it’s Port Triton.)
- Consider laboratories of professors that teach courses you enjoy.
3. Learn some lingo and some basics about how labs are structured.
Note: In academia, it is very common to call everyone - including doctors - by their first names, and frankly someone who insists on being called Dr. Lastname may have some kind of a complex. But as an undergraduate, you should err on the side of safety and address anyone with a Ph.D. and/or M.D. formally until they tell you not to.
Principal Investigator: Also known as simply a P.I., this is the person running the lab (probably a professor). She/he is essentially running a very small company, funding the lab by writing grant proposals, and deciding what direction the research will go in. The P.I. has earned a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) and most likely completed postdoctoral training (see below). You should address the P.I. as Dr. Lastname unless she/he instructs you otherwise. The P.I. is typically either an Assistant Professor (fairly new), Associate Professor (somewhat established), or full Professor (quite established). The age of the lab corresponds with the position of the professor, from brand new (<6 years old, Assistant Professor) to quite mature (30+ years, full Professor). P.I.'s are incredibly busy (particularly Assistant Professors who are trying to establish themselves), and it is unlikely that they will have time to train undergraduates themselves. They will generally delegate that task to a postdoc or grad student.
Postdoctoral Researchers: Also called postdocs, these are researchers who have completed graduate school (usually at some other institution) and earned a Ph.D. A postdoc should also be addressed as Dr. Lastname unless she/he instructs you otherwise. These researchers are at a transition stage, where they are almost ready to become assistant professors themselves (though many postdocs forego academia and seek alternative careers, such as research at a company or NGO). The postdoc stage can last between 1-6+ years, depending on the postdoc's 1. drive to leave for an independent position, 2. luck and work ethic contributing to how well their research project works out, and 3. success in applying for jobs. Postdocs spend most of their time doing research and possibly also training and managing students.
Graduate Students: Grad students in R1 scientific labs are almost always working toward a Ph.D., but occasionally you will find a Master's student, as well. Ph.D. students can expect to be in graduate school for 4-6+ years (depending on their program/lab/project), while a Master's degree generally does not take more than 2 years. Grad students are in the challenging position of navigating possibly their first independent research project, learning new techniques, taking a few classes, probably teaching a few classes as Teaching Assistants, learning to communicate their scientific work, and possibly also training and managing undergraduate students.
Staff Research Associates: SRAs can have any level of education - from Bachelor's to Master's to Ph.D. - and like postdocs, they are not working toward a degree. Unlike a postdoc position, an SRA position may be long-term (effectively permanent). For example, sometimes an SRA has a Ph.D., has been working in the lab for many years, and is the single most experienced and efficient member of the lab (other than the P.I.). Other times, an SRA is a recent college graduate who is transitioning into research and simultaneously applying for graduate programs (in such a case, the position is temporary). Often the SRA is the lab manager, which means they are largely responsible for keeping the lab running smoothly by ordering things, being a safety supervisor, conducting experiments to help with projects, and a variety of other responsibilities.
Undergraduate Students: Perhaps you! A lot of labs depend on hard-working undergraduate student researchers to help out with time-consuming experiments, remind everyone how exciting science is, and ask new questions about projects and goals.
4. Before contacting the P.I., do your homework.
And by homework I mean googling. Look up:
- What does the laboratory investigate?
- Read the description of the group's work on the lab website.
- Download and at least attempt to read a few of the group's most recent publications. There may be links to these pubs on the lab website, but if not you can go to Google Scholar or PubMed to find them.
- Be able to summarize the lab’s interests in a few coherent sentences.
- Be able to succinctly articulate why you are interested in the lab's work.
- How big is the lab? Are there postdocs, grad students, and/or SRAs?
- Most labs have a list of personnel on their websites. You should take a look and see if it’s a huge lab (>20 people) or a tiny lab (<5 people).
- Be on the lookout for these generalizations (which are only sometimes true):
- If it’s tiny, they might be more selective about which undergraduates they allow to volunteer.
- If it's huge, they might let anyone in, but you may be less likely to receive mentoring.
5. Write a formal, concise email explaining who you are, why you want to do research (in general, as well as in this specific lab), and why you will be a good volunteer. Attach your resume/CV.
Your email should be no more than two paragraphs. Articulate your interest and potential contributions concisely, or your email probably will not be read. A separate cover letter is not necessary, and in fact I would discourage you from including one. It's just more writing that will probably get ignored, and the extra length signals that you do not value brevity.
For the love of all that is holy, do not write a casual email. What does that mean?
- Do not include emojis, exclamation marks, smiley faces, abbreviations, slang, or other casual innuendos. This is a professional work email. If you are completely clueless about what that means, please google “how to write a professional email” right now.
- If you are responding to a job portal ad that included an email address, google the email address to find out how to properly address the email. If you are sending your application to email@example.com, then you have been provided enough information to locate the addressee’s name, position, and degrees. Look that sh*t up before sending your email.
- You are not on a first name basis with someone before you have a rapport, and this is especially true for someone you hope will hire you. This means that you should address the P.I. (or any postdoctoral researchers you may be writing to) as “Dr. Lastname.” You should only address them by their first name if they reply to your email by signing “Firstname.” If their reply is simply their generic signature (e.g., “Firstname Lastname, Ph.D. Postdoctoral Researcher”), they have not invited you to call them by their first name. Continue addressing them as “Dr. Lastname” until they indicate they would like to be called “Firstname.”
Include information about what year you are in college, what you are studying, your GPA (if it’s above a 3.5), and how many hours you could commit to lab work. Know that you are most marketable if you are a junior or earlier, have taken relevant coursework, have any prior relevant experience, can commit to 10+ hours/week, and/or have excellent grades (this shows that you are smart, you can manage your responsibilities, or both). It is understood that most applicants will not meet all of these criteria, but that is pretty much what people are looking for. The reason labs look for sophomores and juniors is that it is unfortunate to train a senior and watch them flourish for only a few months before losing them.
Give an honest explanation for why you are contacting the lab. Don’t embellish, and don’t lie. Are you pre-med? Just say that – don’t pretend research is your life. Do you have no idea what you want to do but just think research could be cool? Great, say, “I am interested in supplementing my coursework with hands-on experimentation because I am interested in [insert research topic here] and a potential career in this area.” (Probably don’t say, “I have no idea what to do with my life” though. TMI.)
Pay attention to the file name of your resume/CV, and send a PDF. Do not email some professor a document entitled “resume 015FINALfl SENDTHISONE27 r .doc” or anything of that nature. News flash: your email recipient can see the file name. Entitle your file “Yourlastname_Yourfirstname_resume.pdf” or something of that sort. Also, word docs are ugly and unpolished, so convert your document to a PDF prior to sending it. Professional, guys. At least pretend to be professional.
6. Follow up with another polite, formal email.
Do this regardless of whether or not you got a response from your first email.
If you did not get a response from your first email, persevere. Researchers are busy. They get too many emails. Some go ignored (oops). Following up in the absence of a response will indicate that you are persistent and serious – both good qualities for a prospective researcher. Don't jump the gun though – give it a good week before sending another email.
If you did receive a response, following up should be a given, but make sure you maintain the same formal tone as in your first email. If your application was declined, politely thank the person for their time, and ask if they know of any other labs looking for undergraduate students. If your application resulted in an invitation to come talk about a position, remember that being offered an interview is not being offered a job. This is not the time to get all super caj with your new research contact. You still have a long way to go, and you should err on the side of being too professional.
7. Do not limit yourself to one lab when inquiring about positions.
I would love to say that you will get offered a position at every lab you contact, but this is probably not what will happen. Therefore it is in your best interest to contact at least a few labs at the beginning of your search.
Together, these tips should help you demonstrate that you are a thorough, serious, resourceful applicant, and hopefully they will help you get responses to your inquiries/applications. If all of this sounds like too much work, then frankly, research isn't for you (I guarantee the research part is a lot more challenging than the writing-an-informed-email part). But if this has you fired up for your next application, then good luck! And stay tuned for advice on the second half of the battle: mastering the interview, making sure you will actually be mentored, and landing your career-propelling research position.
Above photo by Lauren Shipp