How do I get a research position?
How do I decide where to apply?
The first step to getting an undergraduate research position is deciding where you would like to work. The CoC's page on undergraduate research is a good start keeping the following in mind:
Reflect on your interests: What motivates you to want to do research? The labs in the CoC work on a wide range of problems, from designing new drugs to developing new energy technologies. You will have a much more meaningful research experience, and it will be easier to put time into research if you find a project you are passionate about. Also consider the nature of the day-to-day work: do you prefer to be working with chemicals in a wet lab or would you rather do computational work?
Read about labs: Lab websites will generally have a section describing their research topics and a section listing papers from the lab. Look through these sections to find labs that align with your interests. Skim through any papers/abstracts that seem particularly interesting to you, but don't worry if you don't understand a lot of the content. Ask yourself: Does this work make me curious to know more? Is this the kind of project that I would be excited to work on?
Group culture: Your future labmates will not only help you with your research but will also serve as invaluable mentors in your personal and professional development. Finding a lab with a supportive culture can make your experience much more valuable. Think about whether you’d rather be in a smaller group, where you might get more direct mentoring from your PI, or a larger group, where you can meet and learn from a wider range of graduate students or postdocs. You can also learn a lot about a group’s culture just by looking at their website, for example if they have photos from group retreats or social events.
Time commitment: How many hours per week are you willing to spend on research? How many semesters do you want to commit? Are you able to regularly come in to the lab or would you need to work remotely? While many labs are flexible on these questions, some will have specific requirements which may affect your decision of where to apply.
Additional information on individual research groups and their pages may be found here (for Chemistry) and here (for CBE). Tip: Click on the PI's name to find out more about the PI and their research interests, but also click on their research group link to find out even more!
How do I approach a lab to apply for a position?
After identifying a lab you’d like to join, it’s time to craft an email to express your interest. If you are applying to a specific position, you can reach out to the graduate student / postdoc in charge of the project directly. In general, this method will be more fruitful as the graduate students/postdocs are the ones running the projects. If you are applying to a lab without an explicit position, you may either email one of the lab members or the PI. In general, it’s best not to send the same email to multiple members of the same group.
A successful email will be professional and specific. Below, we give an outline for some of the key components you might want to include. Don’t be discouraged if you do not receive an immediate reply; it’s appropriate to send 1-2 polite follow-up emails in the following couple of weeks.
Dear Professor X,
Introduce yourself. Give your name, year, and major, and state that you’re writing to express interest in the project/lab. If you know the professor (for example, have taken their class/gone to office hours), mention that - they may remember you. If one of your GSIs recommended you contact a specific graduate student, tell them that in the email so they are aware of the connection.
Describe why you are interested in the project or lab and what you hope to get out of the project. This could include big picture interests like sustainability or medicine, as well as specific aspects of the project that appeal to you, such as skills/techniques you want to learn. It can also help to give an idea of how a research experience would fit into your long-term goals, like going to graduate school or getting an industrial research position.
Read a couple of papers or abstracts recently published by the group and perhaps ask a few questions about them. Don’t worry if you can’t understand most of the content or don’t feel like your questions are very intelligent -- the most important thing is to demonstrate that you’ve put some time and thought into learning about the lab.
Give some background about your experience. If you’ve done research in the past, briefly summarize what you’ve worked on and what you’ve accomplished. It’s a bonus if you can relate any skills gained from your past experiences to things that might be useful in the lab (e.g. familiarity with Matlab or Python if you are applying to a computational research position).
Specify when you're hoping to begin working (eg. summer) and whether or not you need funding or are planning to take research for credit/volunteer your time. If you're looking for a position during the school year, commit to at least a semester or longer if possible (since training an undergraduate researcher tends to take time, most labs tend to prefer students looking to work long-term).
If possible, include the name of a reference who can vouch for your work ethic and research aptitude - for example, a GSI in CBE.
Ask to set up a meeting to discuss the project and learn more about the lab’s research. Suggest a few times that you are available. Mention that your CV/resume is attached.
[Attach your CV or resume].
If you’re really passionate about joining a lab, there are additional ways outside of sending an email which can set you apart and demonstrate your interest. If you are in a class with the PI or if one of your GSIs is a member of the lab, office hours are a great chance to ask questions about research or how to get a research position. Come prepared with specific questions about papers you’ve read. You can also look for seminars or guest lectures given by faculty or grad students in the group. Seminars are often posted around the CoC on bulletin boards, doors, or elevators. You might also access the lab’s website to sit in on research group meetings (some are open to the public, and many are willing to open their doors if asked) and contact the PI to get the details of when/where group meetings are held.