Finding a research position can be challenging. There are more students than available opportunities. Here we list principles that can help you obtain a research experience.

  • Persistence Pays – expect some rejections but take them in stride.
  • Be Creative and Proactive – take advantage of opportunities available to you.
  • Start Early – best time to start is during your freshman year.
  • Have Confidence – everybody starts at the beginning.
  • Talk to Your Professors – many of them are quite nice.
  • Make Yourself Visible – attend seminars, office hours, events and talk with people.
  • Look Outside the College – institutes, gov’t organizations, hospitals, non-profits.
  • Surf the Web – opportunities are everywhere.

You’re Looking for a Lab!

Why do you want to be in a lab?

Do you want to join a lab because your advisor told you it would be a good idea? Because you took a class and became inspired? Because you are curious about science research as a career? Because you want a good letter of recommendation? They are all equal good reasons, just keep in mind that working in a lab is a commitment. The Professor (Principle Investigator) is spending time and money to train you and it may take much longer than you think to be trained.

How much time you are able to commit to your research?

Every lab expects different amounts of commitment for the undergraduate students that work in the lab. You may need to come in evenings and weekend, some labs ask students to work in the summer, some labs let you work from home on data analysis. Know what you can commit to, if you are taking a full course load and working, you probably do not want to work in a lab that expects you to be there for 15 hours a week. Look carefully at your schedule and be honest with yourself before you start looking for a lab.

Are you trying to get credit for research?
Decide if you want to conduct research as a volunteer, for undergraduate credit or as a paid position. Different campuses allow different things. At Queens College, students have several options for taking undergraduate research credits as part of the Honors in Math and Natural Science program and within the STEM majors. You can take 1, 2 or 3 credits a research a semester. A few labs have funds to pay students to work in the lab however most campuses do not allow students to be paid and take credits in the same semester. You may also opt to volunteer, remember that if you volunteer you will want to be truly committed to the lab. Often students who volunteer, lose motivation to come to lab during midterms and finals which does not go unnoticed.
How do you find a lab?
The best place to start is by looking over the department websites. Most departments have a list of professor and the kind of research they do. Dont limit yourself to the department that you are majoring in. For example, if you are a biology major, dont forget to look at the Chemistry and Psychology Departments for possible options. You should also ask the professors that teach your STEM classes and the department advisors as they may be taking students or know which labs may be a good match for you. I highly recommend finding three possible labs as not every lab is taking students or they may not be a good match for your goals and schedule.
How do I reach out to the professor?

So you have found a few labs that you are interested in contacting. Now what? Send them an introductory email. Consider something as simple as:

“Dear Dr. XXX,

My name is XXX. I am an undergraduate student majoring in biology and I am interested in doing research in a lab. After reading your website, I am curious to learn more about what you do. [Add a sentence about what you find interesting about the research.] Would it be possible to speak with you about the work your lab does?

Thank you,

Note that some professor will not answer your email or will simply reply, “I am sorry I am not taking students.” Do not be disheartened. Professors get lots of requests, you have identified some options, keep trying.

After You’ve Applied for a Research Placement

You got an interview, now what?

So, a professor responded and is willing to meet with you, you need to be prepared. Take this meeting as seriously as you would a job interview because that is what it is. Again, consider the questions above, why do you want to be in a lab, what are your schedule limitations etc. Review the professor website and consider looking up the most recent research papers from the lab to demonstrate your interest. In addition, you should come with a list of question including: Can you summarize the projects that your lab is currently working on? Where do you expect, I can best contribute to the lab? Do you have a weekly lab meeting I should plan to attend? What classes do you like your students to have before they start work in your lab? How much time do your students usually spend in the lab, including weekends, summers etc.? Do you help support students attend conferences? Will I be working with you directly or will I be working under a fellow student? (Keep in mind, COVID is making training and lab work challenging in some labs.)

You have been offered a positions, now what?
The professor tells you they have a position for you, congratulations. Before saying yes, carefully assess the exceptions of the lab, can you meet them? If so, follow up with an email asking any remaining questions, figure out how to register for research credits or what hire paperwork might be needed. Check your email, be responsive.

You’re Starting in the Lab! Congratulations!!!

So, it is your first day:

In many labs you will need to take several online trainings and certifications before you can work in the labs, you might also need a chemical safety training certification. Often to work in the lab without direct supervision (alone in the lab) you must have a city certification called a C14. Be sure you know the rules. Once you are cleared to work in the lab, make sure you understand how you will be asked to document your work, will you have a lab notebook? can you type it? how do you store digital data like images or documents? In all cases, if you are not sure, it is better to ask. (Be aware that there may be additional steps needed to access campus during COVID restrictions.)

You are in the lab, now what?

Keep your goal in mind, are you feeling a part of the research community? Are you communicating well with your research supervisor? Are you making progress in your research? If you answered anything other than yes to these questions, schedule a meeting with the professor to follow up. Make sure you understand what is expected of you if you want to be an author on a paper or attend a conference. Communication is key.

Now it's time to building a lifelong network:
The lab can be just a place to do research, or it can be a second home. In some labs, people study, socialize and build a community. It is great to have a place to be on campus between classes. Your professor can also be a great resource for years after leaving the lab. If you have built a relationship with your professor, they can write you letter of recommendation, help identify job opportunities. Keep in touch, they love to hear how you are doing.