Choose Your Undergrad Research Position Wisely

Author’s Note: It is widely believed (and for good reason) that undergraduate research positions are highly competitive. This belief leads to the misconception that obtaining any research position is the goal.My experience with undergraduate research position applicants has taught me that having a genuine interest in the position is one of the most important tips that I can give potential undergraduate researchers. This importance is echoed by numerous colleagues I’ve spoken with on the subject over the years, and those interviewed while writing Getting In.

The misconception that any research position will do can also have lasting negative effects on the success the student has once they are in the position. Over the years I have found that students instinctively know whether they are interested in a potential position before they apply for it. Those students who take any position just to be done with the search end up in disappointing experiences, which can affect how enthusiastic their letter of recommendation is at the end.

This article provides undergraduates with a new way of approaching their search for a research position by explaining why the choices they make at the application stage are so important for getting an interview and for their success in the lab afterwards. It’s relevant because it focuses on a topic that is almost never mentioned in the mainstream advice on how to find a research position.

Each semester I post an advertisement for the open undergrad research positions in my lab. The ad includes a description of the project, the methods my lab uses, and the overall objectives of my lab’s research focus. Yet each semester, several undergrads with interests completely unrelated to my research program apply for a position in my lab. To be happy and successful during their research experience, I know that these students should choose a lab with a research project that aligns with their interests. Here is some insider’s advice: If you want to get an interview (and be offered a position), only apply to research positions that are genuinely interesting to you. If you dislike working with computers, then don’t apply to a bioinformatics lab, and likewise, if you want to do clinical research, don’t apply to a lab that focuses on freshwater ecology.

When you’re genuinely interested in a research area, or the techniques a lab does, it’s much easier to demonstrate your enthusiasm at the application stage and during the interview.Professors who mentor undergrad researchers are adept at recognizing when a student is searching for just any research position—regardless of the science the lab does. Even a well-written, professional email cannot compensate for a lack of passion. In reality, most professors only look at an email inquiry for a few seconds, and then make a decision to ask the student for more information, schedule an interview, or eliminate the student from consideration. In only those few seconds, most professors select the students who are genuinely excited about the research, because everyone wants to work with someone who is excited to learn.Why the right research position is worth the search.

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Research is challenging. It has boring, frustrating, and annoying parts. Every project starts with information overload, and it can be difficult to learn the fundamental techniques. Both of these can be a blow to self-confidence. In addition, you must sacrifice time from your schedule to participate. If you join a research project that is interesting to you—whether your inspiration comes from the topic, discipline, or the techniques—it makes the difficult parts easier to get through, and helps you to stay disciplined if your motivation takes a temporary dip. But if you choose to join a research project simply because you want to wrap up your search, you might soon find that trying to muster enough passion or enthusiasm for the project is more work than the research itself.

Here are five reasons to invest time in your search for the perfect research position:

  1. The perfect position is out there. For most undergrads, the search for a research position is their first real job hunt, and they are unprepared for the frustration and time commitment. It would be great if all labs with available positions advertised for undergrads, but many do not. You might need to approach professors after lecture, attend a seminar, a campus research symposium, or use other approaches. However, once you know what you want to gain from a research position, it gets easier to find one, you just need to keep your search going to find it.
  2. If you aren’t interested in the topic, techniques or what you can learn from a particular research position, you won’t enjoy your time in the lab. Few things will make you more miserable in your life than when you dislike your job. And because a research experience happens in a professional work environment, it is very much a job. This is true even when you are taking research for class credit.
  3. Your time in college is limited, and you should spend it on activities that are of high value to you. You should participate in activities that you are passionate about and that you find worthwhile. You’ll always be better off pursuing something you find interesting, rather than accepting a research position that you don’t want to be part of—even if it means extra shadowing for a semester while you continue your search for the perfect research position.
  4. Your success in research depends on how much you care about it. You’re unlikely to be successful if you’re counting the hours until your time in lab is over. Even if you are polite to everyone in the lab, your lack of motivation will be obvious. As stated above, research is hard. There is too much to learn in a short time, and learning the techniques requires attention to detail. If you don’t care about the details, you won’t notice them, which will lead to mistakes and the need to redo experiments. It’s bad enough to need to redo an experiment, it’s even worse to need to redo it because you spaced out and made an avoidable mistake.
  5. Letters of recommendation from your research professor are not guaranteed. Even if you take research for credit and receive an “A” each semester, that only indicates that you have met the grading requirements—not that you’re earning the letter you need. A professor is not obligated to write a strong, positive letter, and won’t be able to do so without personal observations of your strengths and your commitment to your research project. These are impossible to fake long enough to secure the kind of letter you need support your application to med school. The strongest letters happen when an undergrad and lab have matching ideas of expectations of the experience!

Your genuine enthusiasm for the lab’s science is the key to your short-term success (getting an interview and offer to join the lab), and your long-term success (being both productive and happy in the lab). It is definitely NOT true that just any random research opportunity is acceptable.

In essence, if you pursue a research position that you have no passion for, you’ll waste your time and likely make yourself miserable. In the end, it won’t be worth it. Give yourself permission to keep searching until you find a research position that inspires you, even if it means your search takes an entire semester. The payoff will be well worth it–being involved in a research experience that fosters your intellectual curiosity and is a meaningful use of your time.