Undergraduate research is an enriching experience that allows you to navigate science from a different perspective. However, the experience isn’t for everyone, and there are right and wrong ways to go about finding a research home. It’s advising season, and I’m often asked by students how to go about finding an undergraduate research opportunity and what undergraduate research is like. So, I’ve compiled some information and tips to help you on this path.
- Research in a scientific lab is rewarding but doesn’t come without ups and downs. Experiments are not pre-tested by TAs, and you’ll be venturing down paths that people haven’t explored already. This experience comes with many failures and hopefully, some successes. Troubleshooting and experimental design will be significant components of the experience. Ultimately, this is where you learn the most. Be sure to have a genuine interest in the scientific topics and not just that there is an opening available. This love/passion for the specific science will help you overcome the challenges and continue pushing forward.
- Keep in mind that professors get requests to work in their labs regularly. Therefore, general inquiries won’t get much attention. Before you contact a professor, check out their web site and research focus. Read a few papers they’ve published in recent years. Reach out and express specific interests in their research and suggest/offer areas you feel you can contribute. This type of leg work is likely to catch the attention of a professor and increase your likelihood of finding an undergraduate research home.
- Many professors have specific requirements and/or expectations for students researching in their lab. Check their web site to see if they have a list of these. You can find mine here. The earlier you get involved, the better. Training a student is a big time and cost investment, so getting involved early in your academic career is often better. Don’t be intimidated by not knowing enough already. It’s often rewarding to see a student begin to connect what they’re doing in the lab to what they’re learning in the classroom.
- Know what you are getting yourself into. Will you be reporting directly to the professor, a postdoc or graduate student in the lab? All labs have different structures, so know what support will be available to you regularly. Ask to attend a lab meeting if a research group has one. This will give you a feel for the dynamic. Speak to other students and staff in the lab about their experiences.
- Do you have goals for publishing and/or presenting your work as an undergraduate researcher? If so, ask questions about whether this is a possibility and if you are interested in a senior thesis at some point make these aspirations clear. Do undergraduates in the lab have just a support role for other’s projects, or do they have their own projects?
- Don’t be afraid to start at the bottom. You will often find openings for dishwashing and general lab prep at the OU jobs site. Additionally, many labs will require you to demonstrate your competence and punctuality at these essential tasks before advancing to support research projects or obtain their own research project.
Keep in mind that these comment/suggestions are general and will not apply in all lab situations. Do your homework before reaching out. Talk with your advisor about whether undergraduate research might be right for you. Happy researching!