I want to do research: undergraduate version

Are you an undergraduate and think, “I might be interested in research”?  Are you an undergraduate and want your med school application to stand out?  Are you trying to decide if you want to go to med school?  Do you want a better connection to the faculty whose classes you take?

Where do you start?

To anyone on my side of the equation, it seems pretty obvious and easy: just do it. But I have a good memory and remember the utter fear of asking a professor if I could work with her. So let’s break it down in a few simple steps:

1.Figure out who you might like to work with. Did you have a professor whose lectures you loved? Or a subject that you thought was super cool? These are two great places to start. Another place to go is your University/Department website.  Almost EVERY ACADEMIC HAS A WEBSITE (I need to update mine, come to think of it), and usually they talk about what they do and who is in their lab. Keep an eye on students in the lab (PhD and MS students) and whether the focus of their research work looks cool. Get a feel for who might be interesting to work with, and start reading some papers authored by that person.

2. Contact the person/professor you have selected. Brief emails are great, because these people are likely busy, but be professional. Here’s a shell document I used to help students in the past:

Dear Dr. (Professor Name)-

I am a {your year at the University} student majoring in {your major here}. I am interested in doing research in your lab. Do you have any projects available?

Thank you for your time.

{Your Name}

This allows the professor to know who you are quickly, while not having to dig through a long email. Remember, this is just the first step. Don’t be offended if the answer is “I don’t have time for a new student right now.”  It’s not you! Profs are busy people, and you are asking something of them! When I did this, I had 3-4 responses back – a wider choice of people with whom to explore the next step. I happened to get my first choice, but don’t be offended if they turn you down.

3. Plan to work hard. When I started mentoring undergraduates, I was so excited to be in the role of mentor that I found I felt as though I put in twice as much work as they did on their projects. As I got more experienced, I realized I can’t do that and make them successful (live and learn!). So as a mentor, I had a pretty straightforward method of determining “are we going to work out.” I would start by giving them a task that required hard work for one week. Changing water in snail tanks, or feeding my experimental populations, something that required them to come in a few times in the first week and do something tedious. A LOT of students decided at that point that maybe research wasn’t for them, and that’s fine. But if you want to stick around and get your own project (which was what was in store for week 2), then you need to plan to work hard right away. I know you have exams, and homework, and life is hard. I get it, I’ve been there. But I’m not going to hand you a research project that is a priority for me, when it’s REALLY low down on your priority list.  And every single project EVER has the tedious bits that have to be done.  If you’re not willing to do the tedious stuff, you aren’t ready to do research.

4. Learn as much as you can. Ask questions, make mistakes, get messy! (Mrs. Frizzle, My Entire Childhood <-pretty sure that’s how you cite this particular quote). There is nothing I like more than when students ask to know more. They want more reading, more stats notes, more recommendations on classes or experimental designs. I mentioned above that I stopped doing the work for my students after my first year mentoring (my time became valuable at some point… not sure when…). However, if you want to do the work, I WILL BEND OVER BACKWARDS TO HELP YOU IN ANYWAY I CAN. I got into this field because I like teaching, so be someone who is teachable.

There you go. This isn’t a recipe for success (too many other variables there), but how you can start. Also, this is heavily biased by what I’ve done and the students I’ve mentored. Do you have a way to do it better? Do you tell students something different? Have things changed in the decade since I did undergraduate research?

Let me know!


Presenting my undergraduate project at the National Conference for Undergraduate Research.