What You Need to Know to Get into Your First Lab: A guide for the Overwhelmed Undergraduate
If I had a barrel of apples for each time I’ve heard one of my classmates or friends say, “Oh, I want to work in a lab, but I don’t know how to find one” I could build a moon base out of apples. Working as an undergraduate will help you land sweet internships, look good on your resume, and, most importantly, help you connect core concepts across classes and departments. To help you get that experience I’ve taken the process of getting into a lab and broken it down into small, doable steps that you can work on over the course of your semester. Here we go!
Step 1: Figure Out What You Like
While this may seem a bit silly, it’s crucial that you have a vague idea of type of research you want to do, and that idea should probably not be as vague as “biological research”. In my experience, undergraduate courses, from the introductory to the advanced, don’t offer a very good idea of what’s “out there” in terms of possible research paths, so try to get an idea of what piques your interest. Go to guest lectures on campus, read Nature, watch TED Talks, read science books on the Amazon best seller list; whatever. The point is to be like a sponge: absorb as much as you can and you’ll naturally find yourself drawn to a certain specific subject.
Step 2: Find Some People Who Like it too
If you’re at a school that has even a barely passable science department, you’re probably at a school that has a biology club. More than likely there will also be a club for each scientific major as well as inter-major clubs and scientific fraternities and sororities. Getting involved with these organizations will allow you to learn more about your interests and network with students who are already working in a lab and who know if any labs on campus are hiring. Surrounding yourself with people who are interested what you’re interested in will keep you excited and in the know about new research in the field, and may even give you the opportunity to practice some basic lab techniques with the club.
Doing a quick search of your university’s website will let you find a directory of the student organizations on campus and will provide a brief description of what each organization does. You may also be able to find out which faculty member is the clubs “sponsor” or “advisor”, which brings me to my next point.
Step 3: Find a Professor Who’s Doing Something Related to Your Interest
Unless you’re at one of the biggest, best universities in the world, you probably won’t be able to find a professor who’s researching exactly what you’re interested in. However, that isn’t your goal. Your goal is to find a research lab where you can learn and begin to understand common techniques and theories in your field of interest. You may want to work in a very specific field of genetic engineering, but any lab where you have to figure out how to use restriction enzymes is going to be incredibly helpful to you.
Getting any lab experience and truly grounding your understanding of the basics (because let’s be honest, none of you remember anything that happened last semester and neither do I) is what’s going to help you get a solid start on your post
Protip: Your university departments will all have individual pages for each professor that describes the type of research they do, the classes they teach, and provide links to recently published papers by the professor. Read these pages. These will be immensely helpful in figuring out whom you do and don’t want to contact within 15 minutes.
Step 4: Get a Hold of a Few Professors and See if They Have Lab Space
Once you’ve chosen a few professors, send them an email expressing interest in doing research in their lab. I try to work the phrase “Sit down and talk” to give them the impression that I want to meet with them in person, but you can say whatever feels natural to you.
Chances are, you aren’t going to hear back from them after the first email, but don’t be discouraged! You know how busy your semester seems? Now multiply that by real adult responsibilities like paying bills, having a family, grading tests, supervising grad students, and planning lectures and you’ll understand why your email to them may slip through the cracks. You could probably attach fifty pictures of mac n cheese with bacon bits in the first email and they wouldn’t even notice!* So email them again! And if they don’t respond to that, call them and leave them a brief voice mail if they don’t pick up. Bake them a cake and put a custom message on top of it in frosting! Hire a kiss-o-gram!* Become a certified pilot and skywrite them a request for a research position! Obviously you want to have some tact, but the point is that you can’t say “good enough” after one email. Persistence will eventually get you on their schedule, so don’t be afraid to bother them until you get an explicit answer as to whether or not they’re willing to talk.
So, I hope that I’ve helped turn getting into a lab into a series of manageable steps rather than an intimidating, unknown goal. Once you’ve scheduled a meeting with a professor, read part two of my guide!
*Don’t actually do this. Or if you do, tell me what happens!
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