Updated: Mar 11
When I started my undergraduate program, I didn't know anything about doing research, nor did I know how to get my foot in the door. I didn't have many friends, family, or professors that gave me advice early on in my degree. Academia looked impossible, so I ignored it until I was in my third year of university and started panicking about the non-existent experience I had. Now, older, wiser, and graduated, I want to give you information and advice that can prevent this.
The opportunity to gain experience in your field is sitting right in front of you. Researchers want to mentor and collaborate with students. Instead of spending hours on job postings to gain experience, you can choose this time to easily join a lab (and get paid too!).
You don't necessarily need to want to become a researcher to do research in undergrad. Research programs and volunteering in labs can look amazing on a curriculum vitae (CV) or resume. Research experience indicates the capability to take on a project independently, critical thinking, and communication.
This guide will be catered toward the sciences and other STEM fields (chemistry, biology, physics, math, psychology), though in nearly all university departments there is research going on that you can join. I am writing through a Canadian university experience, though this information can be applied elsewhere.
*Note: doing research within a co-op program is possible. A combination of doing co-op program and research is amazing!
Most researchers will likely not take in first year students into their labs to do research projects. This is because priority is given to third and fourth year students. First year students also take general courses and may lack the knowledge needed to fully understand a project.
This doesn't mean that you shouldn't ask. Often, first year students can volunteer to do different tasks around the lab. As boring as it might be, you will become familiar with the principal investigator and other people in the lab! You will hear about projects first and when you enter third or fourth year, it will be easier to get hired for a project because you know your potential supervisor.
So how do you ask to volunteer? If there is a researcher you like but is not your professor, you can find their office hours or email address on your university website's faculty list. However, I recommend asking your own professors first since they are at least a little bit familiar with you. During breaks in a lecture, ask your professor if they have any research or volunteering positions. Some will tell you no, and others may ask you to email your transcript and they will get back to you. If going up to a professor during a break or going to their office hours freaks you out, then send a stress-free email!
Here is a simple email template you can use:
Hi Dr. [text],
I am currently looking for research or volunteering experience in a lab. I read about your research and found it very interesting, in particular [text]. I would love to discuss if there are currently any opportunities in your lab. I've attached my CV and transcript in case you would like to view it.
[Your First and Last Name]
If volunteering is not your thing, or for some reason you can't volunteer during a semester, then there are other ways to become familiar with your professors. Ask and answer questions in lecture! You can also go to office hours (even if you don't have a question) to talk to your professors. Often professors don't have students coming to office hours, and they will remember the people who do. This is a great way to meet the faculty.
In second year, especially during the summer after the year is done, contacting principal investigators to do research is incredibly important. Many will ask for your transcript and if you have exceptional grades, they may set up a project for you. Or, they may ask if you can volunteer in their lab.
Volunteering at this point is still a great way to boost your resume and prepare to undertake a research project next year. If you have already volunteered with a lab in previous semesters, try to stick to the same one to maintain connections. If you want to explore other labs and try something new, you can definitely volunteer elsewhere. Similarly, if you've done a research project elsewhere and want to work with another lab, feel free to do so.
Keep answering/asking questions in lectures and go to those office hours as well!
At this point, if you want to do research but haven't done any volunteering and don't know any professors that well, do not worry. Most supervisors will not require you to have done anything in a lab for them to consider you for a project. Often, they or somebody more senior in the lab will teach you anything you need to know.
If you are planning to do research during the semester, you need to ask as early as possible. If you want to do research in the first semester, ask about research projects during the summer before school starts. If in the second semester, ask near the end of the first semester. If in the summer, ask towards the end of the second semester. This is because the earlier you ask, the greater the chance that somebody else has not taken your spot. Additionally, the supervisor may need you to apply to a research course or an award to get funding for you and there are usually early deadlines for this.
In your university, you can do a research project through research courses and also get funding to do a research project through awards and external funding. You will typically not get paid through research courses because they are organized by the university as credit courses. University departments also give out awards to many students yearly and these awards come with funding to support the student. External funding is extremely important and usually depends on prior research experience (where volunteering can come in handy) and the cumulative gpa. An example of external funding in Canada is the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) that give Undergraduate Student Research Awards (USRA). The amount given varies but on average it is 4,000-6,000 for a semester. Your supervisor may also top this amount off. This award is competitive and looks great on a resume.
Third year is also when students apply for a fourth year thesis. Those students that do a fourth year thesis typically want to go onto graduate school, where showing the admissions committee that they are capable of academic research is extremely important. An undergraduate thesis can also benefit those who want to gain experience in a certain area and practice their communication skills.
This is when having research experience through long-term volunteering and courses is important because you will have developed connections with potential supervisors. Early in the second semester of your third year, your department will reach out to students to send them information about applying to do a thesis and finding a supervisor. Often, they hold general meetings with all students who want to do a thesis. If you still do not have any research experience, you still have a great chance to do an undergraduate thesis. Many supervisors will be willing to set up a meeting and discuss any other experience you have, and here you can explain why you want to do a thesis and why it would benefit you.
The entire fourth year is spent doing a thesis, but you can still sign up for research courses and do these during the semester if possible.
After graduation, there is still external funding (like the NSERC USRA) that you can apply to in order to do research in the summer.
At the end of your undergraduate program, you will have experience that is crucial to be competitive for many graduate school program admissions. Research skills are also transferable. If you realize you don't want to do research after graduation, you can use your research experience to market yourself in other industries. Research experience is also integral to admission to certain professional schools, such as medical school.
Any experience, whether that be in a company or a lab, will tell you a lot about how you work and what you like. If nothing else, research will help you gain perspective on yourself.
If you have any questions, don't hesitate to comment below, and share this article with somebody in your life who would appreciate this information.