14 November 2012

How to become an undergrad scientist

Last week, Adrian Ebsary tweeted:

Hey SciTweeps - have any links that have good info on how to find and contact profs for research experience as an undergrad?

I have some resources on my home page, but this is a good opportunity to write more about this. I’ve run an REU program, worked with a lot of undergraduates, and published papers with them.

Start early

If you want to do research, be looking for opportunities in your first semester. The sooner you get started, the more likely it is that you’ll have something to show for it before you graduate.

Another reason to start early is that professors can only handle so many students at one time. A professor may be interested in working with you, but say, “Not until some of my current students graduate.” You have to be a squeaky wheel, and keep coming back to ask if things have opened up.

Also, if a professor know you’re looking for something, she or he can often help direct you to good opportunities.

Your institution

Your best strategy for getting a research opportunity depends a lot on the kind of university you are in.

If you are in a big research institution with doctoral students and post-docs, it can be harder to find an opportunity to work in a lab on the campus. The original research is mostly done by the doctoral students and post docs, and professors have their hands full with them.

If you do, that research experience might be just a step above bottle washing. You probably won’t work directly with the professor on a day to day basis, but will instead be working with grad students. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as the grad students and post docs often have more practice and are current with their skill set than the professor.

If you are at a mainly undergraduate institution, you have a much better chance of getting to become a regular in the lab, doing original research. You also have an edge in getting into summer programs.

Summer research programs

There are a lot of undergraduate summer research programs. Funding agencies love them.

These can be great opportunities, because almost all summer programs are explicitly searching for students from all over the place. This means you have a chance to travel someplace very different, work with people of very different backgrounds and styles than you have at your own university.

As I alluded to above, students from undergraduate institutions tend to have a leg up in getting placed into these summer programs, because it is assumed that professors at such universities don’t do much research. (In truth, the amount of research professors at undergraduate universities do varies a lot, but agencies tend to lump them together.)

Summer programs are very structured. This means that you, the student, don’t get a lot of say in who you will work with or the kind of project you do.

Joining a lab year round

You could join a lab that you can work in year round. As noted above, your level of involvement will depend a great deal on the kind of institution and kind of professor you end up working with.

There are several ways that you can get involved.

Honor’s program: Lot of university have an honor’s program that requires a thesis of some sort. This provides a little more structure and support for you and the professor. Not everyone qualifies for these programs or is into the extra commitment the program might require.

Independent study classes: Some universities have classes that allow you to work on a project for academic credit. The good news is that if you do what your professor tells you, you will usually get an A. The bad news is that it costs you money (tuition fees) rather than makes you money.

Volunteering: You might be willing to work just for the heck of it. Speaking as a professor myself, though, I don’t like asking people to work for free, and I am always looking for ways to support students financially.

Programs: There are not as many research programs during the year as there are during the summer, but there are some to be had out there. Keep your eyes and ears open.

Approaching a professor

There is one simple rule that can dramatically increase your chance of having a good conversation with a professor about joining his or her lab for undergraduate research: do your homework. Not your class homework (though you should do that too), but do a little digging into what your professors do. For instance, Namnezia tweeted this about postdocs, but it’s just as true for undergraduates:

SPAM email requests asking for postdoc positions never work people!! Stop sending them! Look for a lab RELATED to what you do.

If you come into my office and tell me you are excited about doing cancer research, and have no awareness that I have never done anything remotely like that, this is not going to go well for you.

Look at the titles of papers that your professors have published. Maybe even read a few. See if you can find things in discussion sections that say, “The next question to be asked in this line of research is...”. You might ask the professor if that’s been done yet. The key thing is: don’t go in cold.

Email a professor in in advance and ask for an appointment. Be clear that you are interested in their research. You may get back a, “Sorry, but my I’m not taking on students.” But if you do, just ask if you can come talk about his or her research anyway. You’d be surprised at how rarely professors get asked by someone to talk about their research. So if you do get that appointment, block off an hour, because if her get going, good luck at shutting her up.

Do not flatter.

Otherwise, you’ll come across like this:

A little creepy and scary. Rare is the scientist who wants a “yes man” student.


This might also be a good time to say that last week, one of my undergraduate students, Karina, showed me that she is co-author on a paper based on work she’s done in another lab. Hooray!

1 comment:

Neuroskeptic said...

I'd suggest prioritizing learning practical skills.

Rightly or wrongly, later in your career, people will assume that whatever work you did as an undergrad was not really 'yours' and won't credit you even if you worked on a really good project.

But if you pick up skills on the way, that's always good, means you won't need to be trained up from scratch and will be 'low maintenance'...