How To Find a Research Lab
TRACY TRAN Whether or not your career goals include going to graduate or medical school, being involved in research can help students grow academically, gain professional experience, and make contributions to the intellectual community.
The University of Texas at Austin is considered a leading research campus with sponsored research expenditures exceeding $500 million dollars during the 2013-2014 school year. The university manages several off-site research facilities, including the J.J. Pickle Research Campus, and accommodates a total seventeen libraries and museums on campus. Active research occurs throughout these establishments in areas like science, art, history, engineering, business, and computer science.
Opportunities for students to engage in research are widespread and abundant throughout campus—so why aren’t more students involved?
Several resources are available for students to help find research opportunities on campus like the College of Natural Sciences website cns.utexas.edu, EUREKA, a search engine of undergraduate research available on campus, SURGE, a student organization that organizes panels and speakers to promote student involvement in research, and information sessions hosted by the Office of Undergraduate Research. Programs such as the Freshman Research Initiative (FRI) and Summer Research Scholars have also been implemented to boost student involvement in on-campus research.
Although these resources and initiatives have had a positive impact on helping students procure research positions, most students find success by directly emailing or talking to professors. This process can be intimidating and can deter students from becoming involved sooner.
As a lab manager for the Children’s Research Lab and a research assistant (RA) at the Biomedical Imaging Analysis Lab, I have had experience recruiting RAs for my lab and understanding what professors look for when filling positions in their lab. Here is a short list of advice I would give to students searching for research experience.
1. Find an area of research that truly interests you.
This sounds obvious, but I have seen students limit themselves to looking for research that specifically relates to their major or goal profession. I think it’s refreshing when students explore areas outside their major. Medical and graduate schools are no longer looking for the typical biology students; they are looking for students that have multidisciplinary skills and interests. Becoming involved in research is a commitment to 8+ hours to that lab and professors; you might as well find something that interests you.
2. Find a professor.
After narrowing down your interests and deciding on an area of research, you should find a professor with similar research interests. I suggest either using EUREKA or looking at professor websites by departments. Most professors will have a website with information on their research if applicable. Some websites will also have application information for interested undergraduates. If you’re in that professor’s course, you might think about approaching them after class instead of e-mailing or applying online.
3. Do research on the professor and their lab.
Whether there is a specific application process for that professor’s lab, you should do research about their interests before emailing them or speaking to them in person. My advice would be to look on their website or use UT Google Scholar to find their publications. If there is a statement of interest, cover letter, or interview process involved, professors will be very impressed that you have already taken the time to read their articles. It will also show your dedication, level of commitment, and interest in joining.
4. Include specific objectives in your e-mail.
Things to include in your email or conversation with the professor: short introduction (name, major), why you’re interested in their research with reference to their publications, previous research experience, your availability (hours/week), and a general inquiry on whether they have positions available. If you decide on having a personal conversation with your professor, I suggest sending a follow-up email with your resume or CV. If not, I would attach those documents onto your original email.
5. Be respectful and professional.
Focus on applying to one lab at a time. If a professor says no, that is when you should move on and apply to another lab. Professors are extremely busy and you should respect the amount of time they might spend looking at your application. This also means you should have patience when waiting on email replies. My golden rule is to wait approximately five days before sending a follow-up email. Proofread all emails you send and be on time for all meetings.
Professors are constantly looking for committed students to join their labs. However, taking on a student is an investment. They are investing their time teaching you, helping you develop new skills, and learning new techniques for preparation that will help you make worthwhile contributions to their lab. Every student is capable of becoming a valuable asset to a research lab, you just have to put in the dedication and work as well.
I wish you all luck and hope you are able to become involved in research (if that’s something you’re striving towards). If you need any personal advice for specific situations, I suggest submitting them to Ask Cat!