Tips ’n Tricks for a Successful Undergraduate Research Experience
What are you missing beyond the classroom?
As a scientist or engineer, undergraduate research is a critical component of your college education. Research not only provides you with practical scientific experience, but it also develops your problem-solving skills. Whatever path you choose after graduation, it is safe to say that undergraduate research can be a springboard for an exciting and fulfilling career. After reading this article, you will hopefully be armed with the information you need to have a successful undergraduate research experience.
Finding a Lab and Faculty Advisor
One of the first challenges you will face as a prospective undergraduate researcher is actually getting into a lab. An advantage of enrolling at a large, private research institution like Boston University is that you have plenty of options in terms of labs and faculty advisors, with opportunities in fields as varied as photonics, archaeology and biomedical engineering. The downside to this is that you may become overwhelmed by your choices and not know where to begin.
“The best way to find interesting research is to start early.
There is no real way to narrow down your options without putting in the work to define your own interests. It is important to realize that your undergraduate research need not define what you do for the rest of your life. The purpose of undergraduate research is to simply gain exposure and experience to a new way of thinking and solving problems. Hence, you could work on Parkinson’s disease research as an undergraduate and conceivably do your graduate work in condensed matter physics. So, keep yourself open to trying new things. The best way to find interesting research is to start early. Ideally, you should begin working in a lab your freshman year.
It is important to do some homework before approaching a lab director or faculty member for a position. Here is a list of some of the questions you should ask yourself:
- What research areas do you find interesting? (Biomedical sciences, engineering, computer science, geology, mathematics, chemistry, particle physics, etc.)
- What type of experience are you looking for? Do you plan to work in a lab for an extended period of time? How many hours per week are you willing to commit?
- Have you had any research experience? Do you have any special skills?
- What type of research do you see yourself doing?
- What type of experiments do you see yourself doing on a daily basis? (programming, bench research, running computer simulations, working with small animals, etc.)
- What type of lab do you want to work in? (large or small)
You may not be able to answer all of these questions completely, but once you have thought about them, you are ready to begin searching for a lab. A good place to start is http://bu.edu/research. This website is maintained by the Office of the Provost and contains information about the research groups at BU. You can also start by visiting departmental websites that encompass your area of interest. If you are interested in biomedical research, you should broaden your lab search to the medical campus as well.
“From the professor’s lab page, you can learn a lot about the environment and culture of his or her lab.
Browse faculty research interests and see if you can visit a particular lab’s webpage. From the professor’s lab page, you can learn a lot about the environment and culture of his or her lab. By seeing how many students and post-docs work in the lab, you can determine its size. If you end up joining a large lab, you might not receive as much attention from your advisor and may work with a graduate student or a post-doc instead of directly with your advisor. Although there is no substitute for a one-on-one relationship with a faculty member, working with a graduate student or post-doc isn’t necessarily a bad thing. On the other hand, a large lab may suit you well if you have the determination, motivation and focus to work independently with minimal supervision.
In a smaller lab, you may receive more attention from your professor and can reap the benefits of working in a small group. If you lack research experience, a smaller lab may be a good fit for you, as you will receive more direct instruction and training. The smaller groups, however, tend to have fewer positions available for undergraduate researchers.
After assessing the size and environment of the lab, be sure to read a few of the lab’s latest publications. This will help you determine whether or not you would enjoy doing similar experiments, or if the particular field is of interest to you at all. Tread cautiously, though, as many research areas that seem intriguing when you first learn about them in class might not suit your interests in practice. For example, you might become fascinated with the concept of genomics from a biology lecture, but realize that you would not enjoy the heavy programming and data analysis required for genomics research. Hence, it is critical that you read a lab’s publications before committing yourself to a research position.
Once you have finished your homework (browsing the lab’s website, reading publications and defining your interests) you should send an e-mail to the lab’s directors. Keep the email short (no more than 100-150 words) and express a genuine interest in what the particular faculty member is studying. Be sure to demonstrate your knowledge and interest in the research that you gained from reading the lab’s publications. You should also include any relevant research experience. If you do not have any research experience, do not feel discouraged. The most important thing is to convey passion and enthusiasm for research. If you do not, most faculty members will not invest the time to train and mentor you. If they don’t respond immediately, don’t be afraid to e-mail them once again. Professors are busy, and may have simply forgotten to write a reply to you.
Get to know the professor with whom you may be interested in working for. Offer to meet with the faculty member to discuss his or her work. Most professors will require an interview before they allow you to work in their lab. You do not need to wear formal attire to meet a faculty member; however, wearing sweatpants to the interview may not accurately convey your seriousness.
“By showing that you care, you will gain much more from the experience than just a line on your resumé.
At the interview, be ready to discuss how much time you can commit to research (hours per week), your interests and skills, and how long you intend to stay in the particular faculty member’s lab. This will give your professor a good idea of what kind of project to assign you to. It is best to be honest about your skills and how much time you can spend doing research. If you over-commit to a lab, you will find it difficult to keep up with your classes and other activities, which can lead to a miserable college experience.
Apart from telling your prospective lab director about yourself, ask about the work going on in his or her lab. This is your chance to shine. Try to demonstrate an understanding of what is going on in the particular lab when asking questions. If you already have a project in mind that you would like to work on, propose it to the faculty member. It is important to engage faculty members in a conversation about their work. Professors are usually very pleased to see students showing a genuine interest in what goes on in their lab. By showing that you care, you will gain much more from the experience than just a line on your resumé.
Last Words of Advice
It is also important to meet with the graduate students and post-docs in a lab before committing to it. Ask the lab director if you can talk to a couple graduate students or post-docs – if you get to know them well, they can be great mentors. In addition to helping you with experiments, post-docs and graduate students can tell you a lot about other projects going on in the lab. This will give you a greater appreciation for your area of research and help you understand the context for your work.
Once you have been offered a research position, you should relax! You have worked hard sending out copious emails, waiting weeks for professors to respond, reading publications, and interviewing with professors to convey your intelligence and passion. Don’t become too complacent, however, as this was only the first leg of a long journey.
The next installment of Tips ‘n Tricks for a Successful Undergraduate Research Experience coming soon!
Update – Check out the next article in Tips ‘n Tricks series here, or view the full Tips ‘n Trick series here.