How to Get Into Research

Image how to get into researchOne of the questions that every single student in the Faculty of Science will ask or answer at some point in their undergraduate careers — along with “are you thinking about medical school?,” and “so, we’re sleeping in Burnside tonight, yes?”  —  is “How do you get into a lab?”

The answers to this question are like snowflakes — each one has its own special number of emails sent and blend of luck.  But most of them are based on these three simple steps:

1. Update your CV

Before you can even think about who you want to work with or what you want to do, there is something that EVERY undergraduate should do periodically and that you should do right now: You need to update your CV (or, as maybe you call it, your resumé).  This is your first and best chance to show a PI (principal investigator aka a professor) that you would make a valuable addition to their lab.  CaPS at McGill has several excellent CV workshops that you should absolutely take advantage of, as well as drop-in appointments, where you can get one-on-one advice.

Your CV should inform your PI who you are and what you bring to the table, while leaving a lasting and positive impression.  Make it neat, clear, and concise – no longer than 2 pages, and nothing that’s older than 3 years unless it’s extremely relevant or significant.  For example: I’ve kept my first dry-lab experience (ie. I worked with computers and paper – no chemicals or animals) that I had while I was in high school on my CV for the last 3 years. Now that I have more recent wet-lab experience, however, that first lab experience will be coming off of my CV — unless I happen to be applying to a job back at the same institution or in the same geographical region where I had that first experience.  Similarly, I never put my high school education on my CV these days — but I might if I were applying to a position back in my hometown, where an employer might have some connection to it.

When preparing your CV to submit to a lab, don’t worry if you don’t have any obvious previous experience – it’s helpful, yes, but not necessary.  Instead, focus on providing concrete examples that highlight abstract qualities: dependability, ability to work independently, and responsibility are all important qualities for a research assistant or an undergraduate who wants to pursue an independent project in a lab. If you have any reference letters on file extolling your virtues, or have a few people who are willing to be contacted as a reference, you can mention that at the bottom of your CV so a PI knows that information is available to request from you.

2. Figure out who to contact

Once your is CV updated and ready to dazzle a PI, it’s time to figure out who to send it to.  While I’m sure it’s happened before, it is rare for an undergraduate to find a place in a lab the first time or place they ask.  It’s a safe bet to approach between 5-10 labs; some students end up contacting more than 20.

There are a number of strategies for finding a professor to work with.  I’ll never forget when my BIOL 200 professor told me (and the rest of the class) that not only was there a list of new faculty members at McGill, but that this list was a bit of a gold mine for research opportunities.  You can sort through new faculty members by department and name, so if there’s a specific field you want to work in or a specific person you want to work with, this site makes it very easy to sort through. While professors can be fantastic mentors at any stage in their career, that BIOL 200 professor pointed out that a new lab might have more opportunities for an undergraduate to be creative and explore an independent project.

That’s not to say people haven’t had great experiences in larger, more established labs
as well, including labs that are right in front of them.  Developing a relationship with a professor who teaches one of your courses might open the door to joining their lab. Finally, you might want to check out the SOUSA site.  There are a number of research courses for credit at McGill, including the 396 course group. Sometimes, PIs have projects that are ready to go, but need an undergrad to do them.  A listing of 396 project proposals is available on the Office for Undergraduate Research in Science website.

Regardless of who you end up working with, it’s important that you find a lab that you’re going to enjoy working in.  A great lab experience starts with finding a field you’re genuinely interested in – cultivating a passion for the subject is difficult if there isn’t any interest to build from.  Do yourself a favor, and only contact labs that are working in fields that you are curious about.

3. Actually talk to professors

Once you’ve figured out who you want to contact, it’s time to pull the trigger and reach out to them.  This is probably the most daunting step – I probably proofed the e-mails that went out to professors when I was looking for a lab 200 times. (Its a good idea to have a friend proof your emails, too.)  There are two ways to do this: in-person or via e-mail.  Either works, really, but we’re going to focus on e-mail in this post.

First thing to keep in mind is that if you e-mail a professor, you’re not guaranteed a response. Professors get enough e-mails a day to fill a virtual swimming pool, so your e-mail might get buried or just ignored.  It’s not personal.

There are a few things to include:

  • Your full name and contact information

And please make sure your e-mail is professional. Use your @mail.mcgill.ca account.

  • Something that shows that you are actually interested in their field

While PIs wouldn’t have expected you to have read every paper they’ve written since their undergrad, you should at least Google them and see what they’re about.  If your major corresponds to their field and you’ve taken relevant coursework, you might want to mention that as well.   

  • Something that relates to what you’re looking for, more specifically

Are you looking for a position immediately for a research course?  Are you looking for a summer job?  Are you just hoping to volunteer and get some experience under your belt?  Let them know.

A final general guideline: Don’t just use a form letter that you don’t have to change from professor to professor. That’s a bit lazy; while I can’t speak for PIs, people I know have generally gotten better responses to personalized e-mails than to form letters.

Here’s what your e-mail should look like, when all is said and done:

To: albert.einstein@mcgill.ca

Hello Dr. Einstein

I am an undergraduate student interested in getting some research experience. As a Underwater Basketweaving major, I have a broad interest in the tensile strength of reeds, and your work looking into how the distribution of ion channels impacts the membrane tension of cattail stems seems really interesting. I was wondering you had any space in your lab to take on a student for the summer/semester/year, or if you know of someone who might.   I have attached a resume so you might be able to make a preliminary assessment of my suitability for a position, but I do hope to speak with you further so you can get a more complete idea of what I have to offer.

Thanks for your time,

Jane Doe
U9 Science McGill University
jane.doe11@mail.mcgill.ca
(514) 555-3000

<Jane Doe Resume for Summer Research.pdf>

If your e-mail is closer in any way to the e-mail below rather than the one above, go back to the drawing board. Two things in particular to note below is the file name on the PDF document (keep them professional, add your name, make sure they’re open-able and attached properly) and the mismatch between the recipient e-mail and the salutation.  Double check that the person you’re actually sending an e-mail to is the person you WANT to be sending an e-mail to.

To: albert.einstein@mcgill.ca

Hello Dr. Planck,

I am an undergraduate student interested in getting some research experience because I’m applying to medical school and I hear that’s important. Do you have any space in your lab to take on a student for the summer/semester/year?

Jane

<Resume_momedit.pdf>

Once you’ve sent the e-mail (or e-mails), the waiting begins.  Don’t be afraid to follow up in a week or so if you haven’t heard, and reply promptly to any positive responses you get. Remember that profs are incredibly busy people — lack of reply isn’t necessarily a sign that they wouldn’t be interested in you. Hopefully, you’ll get at least one invitation to come and meet the PI for a tour of the lab and/or a discussion of what you might be doing there.

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