How To Find an Undergraduate Research Position: 10 Steps to Success

Last Updated on August 8, 2022 by Laura Turner

Are you looking to get research experience in your medical, veterinary, or podiatry school application?  Here are ten steps to help you find a research position.

Medical school admissions committees like applicants who have allocated a great deal of time to research are because these applicants have demonstrated an interest in actively shaping medicine’s future. The process of research is enriching. Research encourages critical thinking, empowers individuals to challenge previously-held assumptions, fosters faculty-student relationships, teaches troubleshooting, provides a safe space to learn from constructive criticism, and much more. This makes finding a research position a potentially critical step in your pre-health journey.

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  1. Should you get involved with research?

    First, let’s discuss the word should in the context of admissions. To be competitive applicants, there are many things we feel we should do if we want any chance of receiving a coveted acceptance offer. I recently asked my orthopedic research mentor what advice he would give regarding research and its importance for acceptance:

    “From an investigator’s perspective, it’s easy to determine which premedical students are truly enthusiastic about the conduct of research as opposed to those who want to do research as a means of padding their application to medical schools. There are many ways to stand out in the competitive process of medical school admissions, and while doing research certainly helps, it is only one of those ways.”

    In other words, pursue only those activities which are personally meaningful and allow you to develop professionally. To quote Andrew Carnegie, “Put all your eggs in one basket, and then watch that basket.” Time as a premedical student (whether taking classes or working and somehow fitting in time for activities while preparing for the MCAT) is precious, just as it will be in medical school and thereafter. Therefore, the opportunity cost associated with participating in an activity you are not passionate about is far from negligible.

  2. Invest your time wisely!

    While the AMCAS application allows for entry of up to fifteen experiences in the work/activities section, it is far more important to devote your time to activities to contribute your efforts over a longer period meaningfully.  “Shotgunning” your efforts over many activities for shorter periods and achieving results that have less of an impact over time is not as valuable.  If you choose to get involved in research, you should aim to find a research mentor whose interests align with your own and whose expectations that are realistic given your limited availability.

    This will not only make the research endeavor more enjoyable but will allow you to consistently meet (and potentially exceed) your supervisor’s expectations. This, in turn, may allow your research supervisor to write you a strong, personal letter of recommendation, should you request one.  Invest your time wisely; you won’t get it back. 

  3. What Type of Research Should You Do?

    Since your time is limited, find an investigator whose research truly inspires you, internally motivating research. Although your goal may be to apply to medical school, you do not need to limit your search to research that strictly relates to medicine. For example, if you’re interested in astrophysics, geology, or marine biology, pursue your interests and discuss what you learned in your applications and interviews.

    As an additional bonus, your research activities (regardless of whether they result in an abstract, presentation, or publication) could give you a unique set of experiences that will help you tackle the medical school supplemental application question: How will you contribute diversity to our incoming class/medical school/campus community?

  4. Finding a research position

    At this point, you might be eager to participate in research but may not know how or where to start. Colleges and universities have websites or release research newsletters to increase awareness of research projects occurring on campus. Many institutions also advertise opportunities for undergraduates through different avenues, such as through the advisors associated with your major. While each is a good way to start your search, there are likely many projects that are not as well-advertised but may still be of interest to you.

  5. Build your research resume (aka Curriculum Vitae or CV)

    Your CV is your “course of life” in academia. It’s okay if it is short; that’s expected! It should have your contact info, research experience (if any), your GPA, courses completed, skills, honors and awards, publications/presentations (if any), licenses/certifications, and any organizations you participate in. These are usually conservatively formatted and in chronological order.

  6. Networking is the secret sauce

    A protocol followed by many undergraduates is to email as many faculty as possible to request a position in their lab. These requests are often impersonal and/or informed only by a brief glossing-over of the faculty member’s recent publications. DO NOT SEND IMPERSONAL EMAILS.

  7. If you must do an email introduction, do it right…

    In his book Deep Work, Cal Newport shares how many professors opt not to reply to emails as their default response because “it is the sender’s responsibility to convince the receiver that a reply is worthwhile. If you [do] not make a convincing case and sufficiently minimize the effort required by the professor to respond, you [will] not get a response.” It proves too cumbersome to respond to every email which reaches a professor’s inbox, especially if they do not satisfy these conditions.

    Newport also provides an example of an email which meets these criteria:
    “Hi Professor, I’m working on a project similar to topic X with my advisor, Professor Y. Is it okay if I stop by in the last fifteen minutes of your office hours on Thursday to explain what we’re up to in more detail to see if it might compliment your current project?”

    This example provides a clear reason for initiating communication and demonstrates respect for the professor’s limited availability.

  8. The interview

    If you are successful in finding an interested professor, they will likely want to interview you. You may be interviewed by the professor or one of their research assistants. Be prepared to go into detail on your experiences listed on your CV—also, read up on their latest research. The mark of a good interview is how much time an interviewer talks vs. the interviewee. That means you should come prepared with questions and show real interest in their project!

  9. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again!

    If a professor does not follow up on an email, try your best to respectfully approach either him or her (perhaps during office hours or after a lecture/seminar) or at least leave a note with their administrative assistant if they have one.

    A word of caution: please go about approaching faculty with the utmost respect and professionalism. If they reveal they do not currently have a position open or the resources to train you, do not get disheartened and do not take the rejection personally. If they are looking for someone with a different laboratory skill set (e.g., they’re looking for someone skilled in animal handling and performing aseptic surgery, and your skill set does not match this description), this could be an opportunity to learn in disguise and could very well lead to another opportunity in a different lab.

    If a faculty member does not have room for you in their lab, ask if they know of any other faculty members in their department who may be looking for assistance. Do not get discouraged; when one door closes, another opens.

  10. Other Avenues

    Beyond email, there are many ways to network in-person to find out about ongoing research projects. For example, when I was shadowing, I met an anesthesiologist who was the vice-chair of anesthesiology research and introduced me to my first lab simply because I asked her about available opportunities.
    Professors often will find ways to introduce their research interests in their lecture materials. If their interests overlap with yours, do not be afraid to discuss potentially contributing to their research either after a lecture or during office hours.

    Additionally, if you are in a special interest club (Neuroscience Club, for example) or an honors program, perhaps your peers or faculty advisors could direct you to an opportunity if you let them know you’re interested. Lastly, if you discover an opportunity is not as fulfilling as you initially thought it would be, be persistent and remain motivated.

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