Last Updated on June 26, 2022 by Laura Turner
Getting research experience in your undergraduate years is not only beneficial for applying to medical and dental schools but can also enrich your academic knowledge and competencies. However, it is hard to find and manage a good opportunity while maintaining a strong application that features accomplishments with coursework, clinical volunteering, and community service. In this article, we will guide you on how to ask for a research opportunity.
Is research right for you?
Research is challenging as the end of a project is hardly well defined. Because most students do not have polished technical skills when joining a lab, undergraduate projects often involve safety training, troubleshooting a specific technique, and analyzing results within a few months. Usually, graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, or lab technicians directly oversee a student until they can handle the lab techniques. The faculty member and lab group often give weekly updates, and everyone is expected to present their results and progress even if there were setbacks. Most prehealth students find research very frustrating with such close supervision and lack of successful results, and the consistent tedious nature and monotony of lab work can contribute to this frustration. However, for those who enjoy the work, the ability to apply problem-solving approaches, quantitative analysis, and critical thinking are appealing.
Research helps to demonstrate critical thinking and reasoning skills that are desired in applicants. Faculty are more interested in the applicant’s problem-solving skills even if the topic is not clinically relevant. Additional attributes include the applicant’s curiosity and initiative, which suggest motivation to pursue scholar tracks (such as medical education), additional degrees (like a Master’s in Public Health), or competitive residencies.
What is “the nature of the research”?
Each research laboratory focuses on developing unique tools to test hypotheses and advance knowledge. The “nature” of the research can be completely theoretical or computational (dry lab); involve molecular techniques (bench lab research); cell culture, plant, or animal models; or behavioral observation. One can also get involved with qualitative research that often involves surveys and focus group interviews.
Figuring out your interests
The first step is to identify your interests and the nature of the research you’d like to do. Being enthusiastic about the topic will make the hard work more enjoyable and valuable. Furthermore, admission committees can assess your enthusiasm about your research project in your application essays and your interview responses. Using video games as an example, you may prefer a world-building game like Minecraft or a first-person shooter like Halo Infinite. Your time is valuable, so you choose the games that you have a good time playing. Along these lines, choosing a research topic that appeals to you and engages you intellectually ensures that your valuable time is well-spent.
Different people have different strategies to figure this out, including trial and error, experimentation, taking what you can get, and asking existing students currently doing research about their experiences. You may have heard a professor mention a topic in a lecture. You may find that going online and finding credible sources is helpful. Your undergraduate research office is a good source of finding information and people to talk to.
Many institutions offer research seminar series, which often consist of undergraduate or graduate students and/or research faculty presenting research, or journal cafes, where individuals doing research present their scientific and research findings in a more casual setting. Attending and even getting the opportunity to present yourself are enlightening opportunities. This may expose you to research topics that are of interest to you, which you may not have been aware of otherwise. Organizations, like the Society for Neuroscience, offer meetings, symposiums, and conferences where you can engage with others doing and are passionate about research. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many of these events offer virtual attendance and free to low-cost attendance for undergraduate students, which makes it more accessible to explore different research topics. This has the additional benefit of networking, which can help in finding a research mentor.
Finding a research mentor
The next step is to find a research mentor. To find faculty and their areas of research, start with the faculty section of your university department’s website. Each faculty profile should include a description of their work and some publications that highlight past student contributions. Go to the student organization representing your major (Biology Club, Chemistry Club, Psychology Club) if they are hosting mixers with faculty or even host research presentations from graduate or other undergraduate students. There may be a bulletin board where research assistant positions are posted.
It’s also important to know when you are available for working in a research lab. It can take a semester from beginning your search to starting work in a lab. In addition, more positions are open during the summer when you may have more time to focus on research. You should also think about setting up a research opportunity so that you can get independent study credit from your spring semester of junior year through the fall semester of senior year.
Outside of your specific university, other medical centers, research centers, and national institutions like the National Institute of Health (NIH) are good places to look for research opportunities, including summer programs. SDN’s Activity Finder offers a listing of potential opportunities. Networking at conferences, asking your professors for recommendations, and talking with other students who are currently doing research can help to point you in the right direction as well.
Communicating your interest with faculty is essential. Have a resume that has been reviewed by your career services office ready to attach to the email. Here is an example email template:
Dear [insert title and name],
I am looking for opportunities as an undergraduate research assistant and am interested in your research in [insert subject]. After reading your article on [insert topic and source], I would like to join your group as your work seems to fit my future research goals of [insert goals]. [Explain in 1-2 sentences how your accomplishments are valuable to their lab group].
Can we schedule a meeting, either virtually or in-person, to talk further about your research and any opportunities to work with your team? My resume is attached and highlights my accomplishments so far in my coursework and important pre-professional experiences.
I appreciate your time and for considering my request.
[Your full name]
[Insert year] student in [major]
[Insert institution name]
Show that you understand the basic questions the lab is trying to answer. Do their work expectations fit your schedule? Be prepared that many busy faculty will not respond to your request immediately or may not have an available position. You may need to ask many professors to successfully get a research position. Be patient, persistent, and organized as you communicate with each professor in a professional tone.
Once you have a confirmed position in a research laboratory, the first hurdle has been overcome. The journey ahead will be rewarding and require good time management, curiosity, passion, and a determination to learn and be a valuable lab member. You may find yourself looking back fondly on this research experience later as a graduate/professional student or professional and be grateful that you persisted.