Advice for Undergraduates

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In my opinion (and based on my experiences as both student and teacher), the most important thing you can do as a biology student is get some hands-on experience. Co-op programs exist for this very reason, but if you are part of the student majority who is not in a co-op program, listen up: you need a chance to learn through doing firsthand research (or as close as you can manage, like as an assistant).

Even if you think that “research is not for me” as a career, first—how do you know until you’ve tried?, and second—there are so many transferable benefits (e.g. work experience, practice working both independently and in teams, making contacts etc.). I suspect you’ll find no shortage of materials elsewhere (your undergraduate program office?) listing reasons for getting involved in research (Step 4, below), but I will focus on steps you need to take to get there (Steps 1-3), and how to use this experience going forward, for example strong reference letters (Step 5).

The discussion of tips (below) is admittedly way longer than I’d anticipated, but hopefully some of you find it useful. I wish somebody told me these things when I was an undergrad—and this is what motivated me to write this out.

NOTE: If you are reading this, thinking about Step 5, without successfully moving through the previous steps, THINK TWICE about asking for a reference letter. For example, many students consider asking for a reference letter from the guy/gal who teaches their massive ‘101’ class. I’ve been on the receiving end of these requests before, and let me tell you that while I (and many other profs) want to help you, it is just difficult to do so without getting to know you [read the last 2 sentences of Step 5].

Step 1. Find a mentor.
There are many people/labs doing interesting things, but its not always easy to know that they even exist, let alone where to find them. So you’ll need to do some ‘homework’. Try to identify major divisions in your institution (e.g. departments) to figure out where interesting work might be carried out. But don’t limit your search to just your University or College; many have affiliated museums, hospitals, etc. Once you have found a handful of candidates/labs who have caught your attention, browse some of their current and recent work. Pay attention to the dates; if the last paper to come out of the lab was 10 years ago, there’s a good chance that the lab won’t be willing or able to take on new blood. Make a file for yourself with this person/lab’s name, contact info and a brief description of what they do—you’ll need it for the next step. Rinse and repeat, until you have a few targets lined up. Think about when and where this work might be conducted, as many have teaching obligations during the fall/winter, or may work on organisms with some seasonality—when do you think they will need help? If you think they need some research assistants for the summer, you want to start a couple of months before, ideally being at Step 2 a couple of weeks before exams begin.

Step 2. Make First Contact.
Okay, so now you want to make some inquiries, but before you do, I suggest you put some serious thought into what you will say, and how. These days, e-mail is probably the way to go, and this can be an advantage because you can actually proof-read your message. On the same note, I am always shocked when I see/hear examples of some students’ lack of tact when emailing a prof . Don’t even think of beginning with “Hey” or “Yo man/miss” (really--I have colleagues who have had some of these). Your first message should be polite, beginning by addressing them by their professional title. For example: “Dear Dr. Smith, ….”. I’m not that formal myself—I prefer my students calling me by my first name in the classroom and, I personally don’t feel offended if they begin with “Hi Dave, ….”. But the reality is that many profs do not feel the same way. As a general rule of thumb, how they respond (if they do at all—more on that below) will give you a clue of how to address them. For example, if she signs off on her reply with “Jane”, then starting subsequent emails with “Dear Jane” is probably fine. If ever in doubt, go back to “Dr.” Be sure that your message conveys:

1) that you have some idea of what kind of work they do,

2) that you have an interest in research in this area,

3) that you are seeking a position in their lab/group; be clear what sorts of commitments you are thinking about, e.g. a summer research
assistant position, supervision in a research course, volunteering (though I personally have strong feelings against unpaid research).

Don’t ramble, grovel, or try to show off your knowledge. Don’t provide too much detail about your own lofty ideas and life mission at this point . Profs are typically looking for keen, but flexible students—you cannot know what they may have planned for research. You don’t need to provide any more information other than your contact details, and say “I’d be happy to provide a copy of my transcript and resume, upon request”. If you are coming with some prior experience, say from another person/lab they may know, it is worth dropping that name somewhere in the message, in a very subtle way; e.g. “I worked in Dr. Robinson’s lab last semester, and I really enjoyed the opportunity to assist in….. “. This will get their attention. To me, this puts a student in the realm of “I should ask my friend how that student was”. Also that might mean that the student has already been vetted by a trusted colleague. If you happen to be taking a class with the professor in question, it may be worth introducing yourself after class, indicating that you were the one who sent the email inquiry. This helps professors put a name to a face (or vice versa).

Your professors will be busy, so don’t take it personally if you get no email response. Best to give them a chance to catch up on work email, and wait a few weeks to send a similar (but not identical email), that includes “I understand that you are busy and that you may have missed my previous inquiry, but…” A polite reminder is usually enough to make a considerate person hurry up and respond, but if you still get radio silence, you might just have to move on. Don’t despair completely, as I have been on both ends of delayed responses—and/or referrals (to different labs/employers). Nevertheless, if your pool of prospects looks like it is drying up, go back to Step 1.

Step 3. The interview
Congratulations, you got somebody’s attention! When you show up for the interview—and be warned—any invitation to “come by my office for a brief chat” still means you are being evaluated—come prepared. Print off your resume in case you are asked for it, and be sure to re-read your notes from Step 1. Be aware that in some cases, you won’t be interviewed by the professor herself. Rather the post-doctoral fellow, technician, or graduate student will be doing the interviewing. I suspect what most interviewers are looking for from undergrads is reliability (so don’t be late) and compatible personalities (that’s always subjective). Let the interviewer dictate the pace. Obviously answer any questions posed to you, but don’t be afraid to ask questions. Ahead of time, you should think about a few questions regarding the research to reflect your interest in the subject matter, and you should also feel free to ask any questions about the duties and expectations associated with the position. Ask yourself, “would this be a place to work”? “Will I get the type of experience I a m looking for?”. “Would working with/for these people drive me nuts?”. When the interview is over, before you leave, thank them for their time and politely ask about when a decision is expected, and whether you will hear back from them regardless. After all (and you don’t need to tell the interviewer this), but you are checking out a few places, right? So knowing where you stand in your applications is a prerequisite for responding promptly to the best offers that come your way.

Step 4. (Gain) Valuable Experience
Working closely with a more senior researcher provides invaluable experience. Ask about attending lab meetings, and department seminars—this might be the best thing that you get out of Step 4: the opportunity to be immersed in this line of work. By the end of the term of your position, you may find “this is not for me”, or “I love this”. Either conclusion is a fair one that will put you in a better position regarding what to do next (or ‘with your life’). Work as hard as is reasonable for the position, and be aware, it won’t be glamorous work. In some cases you may be bored, but rather than just flat-out complain (i.e. it won’t do much good, if that was the job description). No need to kiss anyone’s ass, but don’t be a downer— this will likely tank your prospects in Step 5. You might be able to angle for/earn more enviable tasks if you indicate that you would be “keen to be involved with X, if possible”. As with all employment, do your job carefully, and ask for clarifications on instructions when in doubt. Many ‘bosses’ are not exceptionally good at training their personnel, but if something goes wrong that appears to be due to your negligence or sloppiness, kiss Step 5 goodbye!

Step 5 . Reference Letters (and future contacts)
Assuming you did a decent job, when the gig is over, convey your thanks for the opportunity (even if you thought it kind of sucked). Ask about staying in touch, and the prospects of future reference letters. A couple of strong reference letters will do a lot for your applications to jobs or more education (professional and grad school). Stay on top of contact details for the person you worked most closely with, e.g. if it wasn’t the professor (aka the Principal Investigator of the lab), then he/she will be in the best position to write a letter, but will likely eventually move on to another position. So you need to be able to find that person again, so you can ask for letters of support. In many cases, the strength of a reference letter is proportional to the length of the letter. Someone who has not directly worked with you will have difficulty writing a convincing letter, and you run the risk of getting a short (~quarter to half a page), generic letter—and this potentially does more harm than good for your applications!