- You may be shocked how much you can get by asking. Always ask for things you want, even if you feel unsure. Remember-- you have absolutely nothing to lose by contacting someone!
- Be persistent and ask in person or by phone if you can. It’s a lot harder for people to say no to your face and they might take your extra effort as a sign of determination.
- Use connections if you have them. Even if your family and friends are not in academia or research, a friend of a friend may have advice or know someone you could contact.
- Start looking early, but if you haven’t, don’t give up. Positions can still be found well after program deadlines close.
- We’re in a funding crisis; people are more willing to accept free labor. Keep this in mind when looking for a research position. If a stipend is important for you, it is best to focus on applying to programs, well-funded labs (e.g. look for HHMI investigators), or to small grants or bursaries (there’s often little competition for student grants).
Applying for Programs
Contacting People Directly
Your choice of institution will likely be constrained by personal factors, which may make this decision easy. Even if you’re under 18, you may be able to work in a lab away from home if you have family or friends to stay with. If you’re hoping the placement may transition into a job or place at graduate school, you want to think about places you’d be happy to stay. Location, academic atmosphere, prestige, and living expense are all things to consider.
Choosing an Advisor
Choosing an advisor is, in my opinion, the most difficult and important choice. It sounds a little melodramatic, but a PI often has the power to make or break your career. A great mentor can make all the difference and if you don’t believe me you should stalk some of the ridiculous academic pedigrees on Academic Tree. (Check this Neuroscience one for starters.) Here are a few things to consider:
(a) Many laboratories will list their alumni. If this list is available, check that the trajectory of the lab’s alum matches your goals. If the PI you’re considering is quite young, this resource likely won’t be available or mean much.
(b) Publications, funding, and awards: Unfortunately science is tough and doing interesting work isn’t enough to make it. Check publication frequency, type (research or review), impact factor, citations, and author number. Check what kind of grants the PI holds and whether more junior lab members have their own funding as well.
(c) Many Internet resources advise talking to people in the lab about their experience if possible. This is great advice, but not something I’ve ever found particularly practical. Most people will not badmouth their boss, and while you can sometimes find clues, it will be difficult to gauge the true laboratory environment in a single conversation or visit. Moreover, what works for someone else may not work for you. I’ve found that different labs tend to have different personalities – which affect both the social and scientific atmosphere, and you should look for a trend that suits you. For example, I noticed in one lab with a disproportionate number of small, liberal arts college alums, that the PI seemed a lot more personally involved in everyone’s projects. This is really great if you like a hands-on approach; alternatively, if you’re from a huge state school and used to more autonomy, this lab’s personality may not work as well for you.
(d) Many but not all students interested in research have a field of interest or topic in mind. This is helpful to direct your search for advisors, but you should be careful not to let it excessively restrict your options. That said, advisors often want you to be as passionate about their favorite topic as they are, and depending on your qualms over authenticity and outcomes, you may need to be careful in your interactions. I’ll share a personal anecdote to illustrate this point.
I have a broad interest in regenerative medicine and once contacted a professor who works on stem cells. In my email I mentioned that I had a little experience with induced pluripotent cells (the most relevant part of my credentials), but he emailed me back to inform me that he studied stem cells, not induced pluripotent cells and asked whether there was any particular reason for me to contact him. He had posted a ‘mandatory’ article on his faculty profile called How to Pick a Graduate Advisor, which began its advice thus:
First, let me mention what a student should never ever do. An advisor should not be selected solely because he or she is the one researcher at your university that happens to work on the precise focused topic that you think you are most interested in (usually whatever you worked on in an undergraduate lab).
In my email back I reminded him of this point and reasoned surely the reverse applied. Although he offered a Skype interview, in the end, my application was rejected in favor of a candidate with a more particular interest in his signaling pathway. Although I can’t say honesty in my interest specificity served me well in terms of getting the position, it was clear from our interaction that we differed in attitude, and it’s likely we wouldn’t have worked well together anyways. This is another reason to use connections if you have them – you are more likely to have views in common with an advisor you have a connection to in real life (its like having a friend set you up vs. using OkCupid).
(e) Young vs. Old: As with the rest of these points there are pros and cons either way and you’ll have to weigh them individually. Young PIs often have more time to work with and mentor students directly, but they are naturally riskier candidates as some of the weaker scientists have yet to be weeded out. Older PI’s are more established but may be too busy to meet often with students. They also may be winding down their careers. From my observation, it seems like most successful labs have an exponential growth phase (often during a PI’s early/middle career) followed by a gentle coasting phase and then gradual transition into retirement. Ideally you want to be in a lab during its exponential growth phase, but this phase is short and therefore difficult to catch; coasting phase is an easier target, while too early and winding down can pose challenges.
Term-time or Summer
Getting in Contact
Finding some scientists’ emails can be difficult. A good trick is to check whether they’re listed as a corresponding author in any of their publications. One student I know has even used Facebook to get in touch with lab members in order to find a PI’s office – a tactic I found extreme, but worked well for him.
It’s a little hard to balance quantity and quality in the email game. Often students must email dozens of advisors before receiving an offer, and realistically you won’t have time to carefully read a dozen papers. Occasionally you’ll find advisors happy to mentor who aren’t worried whether you’ve their papers or not. A lot of this process is luck, and even with a diligent approach you may struggle or find yourself in a lab you don’t like.
Many successful scientists have had less than conventional beginnings (Craig Venter is one of my favorite examples), so if you’re really passionate about science, try not to let rejection or a bad experience discourage you. The main thing I want to emphasize is that there is no perfect approach or perfect email – and at the end of the day there’s just another quirky, vulnerable human being you’re communicating with on the other side. Your CV doesn’t define you, and with time, persistence, and iteration you are likely to achieve your goals.