Careers in the sciences are centered around research. Whether you want to be a scientist doing the research, a journalist writing about the findings, or a policy-maker or environmental manager using those findings to make decisions, a thorough understanding of the scientific method and the process of research are vital. There is no better time to get acquainted with research than college, when you will likely be surrounded with faculty and graduate students working in a wide variety of fields. Working in a research lab will help you to narrow your professional interests, inform your future career decisions, and give you a taste of what graduate research is like.
How do I get Research Experience?
Depending on your school you have a few options. Most labs are constantly strapped for cash, so they are always willing to accept undergraduate volunteers. If you are a student at a research university (or if you just happen to live near one), all you need to do is find a lab that sounds interesting to you on the school website and email the PI (Principal Investigator) offering your time. In many cases he/she will have a hard time turning away free help! Some schools may offer course credits for working in a lab. If you can get your PI to sign off on it, this is an excellent way to document volunteer research experience on your transcript while (possibly) giving your GPA a boost.
The ideal find would be a paid position working on a research project. Unfortunately for reasons stated above, these are few and far between. There are paid technician roles in many labs that do more repetitive or menial work however, and you may be able to use these as an “in” with the lab manager or PI. For example, if you’ve been working as a tank cleaner or animal feeder for a semester already when the lab has a need for help on an existing project, the PI might offer you the spot before advertising it to other students. Your school might also offer undergraduate research funding that you can apply for, which may or may not include a stipend for you. Consult your PI or your school website to find out what is available to you.
Some schools require an undergraduate thesis or capstone project during your final year. If you haven’t gotten some experience with a research lab by that point, this is your chance! Every school handles this a little differently, and some (mostly American schools as I understand it) only require a thesis of Latin Honors graduates rather than all students. If your school has a formal process of choosing a lab in which to do your thesis then that is the process you should use. Otherwise, it would be wise to start volunteering in a lab well in advance of your thesis time so you are familiar with your lab-mates and the available resources. An undergraduate thesis/capstone project is also a perfect experience to leverage when applying to graduate school.
Finally, I recommend you look into the National Science Foundation REU (Research Experience for Undergraduates) program. I’ve written about the program here, but the idea is that you apply to one or more REU Sites where, once accepted, you get to conduct a research project in a PI’s lab. You are given a stipend, research mentoring, and sometimes room and board. REUs are typically more involved than research at your home institution because most programs last 3-4 months over the summer and are typically a full-time job. The REU program can be helpful if you want to do research in a field not studied at your home institution, or if you aren’t sure whether graduate school is the right path for you.
These are all excellent ways of getting research experience as an undergraduate student. I heavily recommend that anyone working toward a science degree of any kind gain experience with a research lab before graduating. Having a hand in the scientific process early in your academic career can give you an edge in graduate school applications, help you figure out which career path is best for you, and make you a more scientifically literate citizen.
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