No matter what year of study you are in, there are always research opportunities available to you on campus. Although most labs I speak of will be science-related, given that this is my area of study, the general approach to finding a research position should be more or less the same.
Below, I’ve discussed some of the most commonly asked questions regarding undergraduate research, and added in some things I’ve learned from personal experience. As usual, don’t be afraid to ask questions, either here on UpbeaT, to a professor, or to people in the Career Centre. Finding your first “official” research position as an undergraduate can most definitely be a disorienting and anxiety-inducing process, but your chances of success are also very high, given that we are such a research-oriented institution, and opportunities are everywhere (see the end of this post for resources and links to useful sites).
It’s not even winter. Isn’t it a bit too early to apply for summer research?
Do relax and take this one step at a time, but I must warn you straight off the bat: if you plan to start looking for a summer position even in mid-January, you might be too late. A lot of deadlines in fact occur in late January, and since undergrad positions are often available on a first come, first served basis, the keener you are, the easier your life will be (remember, you are at U of T, where students go to lectures half-an-hour ahead of time to save rows of seats for their friends). Most people tend to start contacting professors as early as the end of November/start of December. Keep in mind a general timeline, and take into account the time spent on researching your potential PI (short for Principal Investigator, a.k.a. the “owner” of the lab), writing up emails and polishing your résumé. Also, be mentally prepared to be rejected, or, worse, receive no email response…ever.
So…?! [yanks out hair]
If this is your first time applying to a summer research position, you are probably overwhelmed already. I remember when I was in first year: in merely eight months’ time, I went from finally grasping the concept of grade point average to obsessing over said grade point average. Not to mention that little freaky episode of declaring a major. Amidst all this, anybody — except for some of those fabulous straight As on Biome — would have been a saint to not only know how to find summer research, but also manage to get a position. So, to draw a clearer picture for you, here’s what people usually do:
- Check out your options: where are the opportunities? I can promise you, some kid in your BIO150 class of more than 2,000 students will mightily try to win over Professor Barrett by consistently sitting in the first row of Con Hall so he/she can rush up immediately after to ask questions. Don’t freak out — your options go way beyond Barrett, or any professor teaching the whale of a class. There are summer research programs offered by many different departments (see list at the end of this post), though these tend to require a high GPA. There are positions in surrounding hospitals, in either wet labs or clinical research labs (most hospitals offer their own summer research programs). And there are unlisted opportunities that you might be able to obtain using simple networking techniques. Try your best to get a paid position. Trust me, they exist, even if the money comes from external funding through, for example, the Heart and Stroke Foundation. For many, many reasons, most PIs are hesitant to take on volunteers, so offer to volunteer only as a last option. *Note: some PIs are affiliated with more than one program/department, and might hire through a variety of programs. **Also note: for department-affiliated research programs, you can still apply even if your programs of study are from other departments.
- Apply early, and definitely NOT by the indicated deadline. Most PIs don’t sit around playing HR professional. They are busy, busy people, and many just take the first student who contacts them, if he or she is deemed qualified. For most summer programs or awards, like the LMP Summer Research Program, or NSERC USRA (see below for a complete list of awards and opportunities), you’ll need to secure a supervisor before submitting your application. The “deadline” refers to the date that all documents should be sent to an administrative office. Before this step, you’ll have to have (a) contacted the PI, (b) met the PI, (c) got the position, (d) discussed with the PI your project for the summer and anything else of importance, such as applying for external funding, and (e) had the necessary documents signed by the PI. The only exception I can think of is Medical Biophysics. Their process requires you to submit a general application and two references, as well as a list of potential PIs you’d like to work for, and the labs will pick from a list of applicant profiles.
- Be genuine in your email/cover letter. Sometimes, people will tell you that mass-spamming profs actually does work. If this were true, it would be because you send out so many emails — a probability thing. Most times, though, PIs can definitely tell if you’ve just copied and pasted a “general” email to them. Take the time to personalize it, and in this way, demonstrate your passion for their area of research. Make your voice a unique one. I wouldn’t recommend getting every single email critiqued at the Career Centre, because that would be too time-consuming. Instead, get one critiqued, as well as your résumé, so you better understand your areas of weakness and make changes accordingly. It’s a good idea to read a few of the PI’s papers so you can effectively discuss your interest in his or her work through email. Each PI usually has an online profile under the department he or she is affiliated with, and within this profile you can often find valuable information, such as a summary of the PI’s research interests, what the PI looks like, how many people are in the lab and what they do (sometimes it will state how many undergraduate students are in the lab and if the PI is looking to take on any more students).
- Passion is everything. GPA is not. Don’t be thrown off by the fact that you might not know everything about the PI’s research. It’s more important that you have a solid grasp of everything you’ve learned so far in your courses, and communicate this, along with the passion you have for research. While some PIs will indeed take on students primarily based on their GPA, most realize that when it comes to research, marks are not fully representative of your potential at all. That being said, if a summer program indeed has a high cut-off (most of them do, unfortunately) and you do not meet this, apply anyway. Emphasize your other strengths in your application. Think about it: What could happen — except an unexpected opportunity?
- Interviews. Treat them like any job interview. Dress professionally. Write thank-you letters after you’ve met with the PI. Prepare for hard-hitting questions, such as those that cast doubt on your GPA, as well as the usual list of questions (e.g., “What interests you about research?” “What are your plans after undergrad?”).
- Network. Tell people you are looking for a research position. Talk to your TAs — most of them are master’s or PhD students and can at least give you some helpful hints. This was actually how I got my current lab position.
Is it common for first-years to get these positions?
Some first-years do, though it’s probably much easier for those finishing their third year, and maybe second year. I had a friend who contacted a PI at Sickkids in mid-November of her first year, and got a position straight off the bat. You never know what’s going to happen, so make sure you are well prepared.
Big lab? Small lab?
Each lab has its own culture. The smaller labs are more intimate, and your PI might interact with you a lot, giving you guidance and support on a daily basis. The bigger labs can be mind-boggling — it’s a much more self-directed environment. You might never see your PI, but instead interact with a “supervisor” who might be a postdoc or PhD student. Often, though, bigger labs have more funding. More available resources means that you might even be granted the freedom to boldly take your experiments in a new direction. There could be, however, a lot of pressure to get paper-worthy results.
Don’t be too picky
You should be looking for areas of research that intrigue you, but don’t let this deter you from applying to lots of labs that you might feel slightly unsure about. Any opportunity will offer growth — sometimes an unfamiliar one even more so. As an undergrad, you are looking to gain some hands-on research skills, to get a feel of what research is truly like, and also to make a contribution to your lab. A good learning experience is what you make of it.
Good luck! May the Force be with you!
- Heart and Stroke Foundation
- Sickkids Summer Program
- Mount Sinai Summer Undergraduate Research Program (SURP)
- St. Michael’s Hospital
- Dept. of Medical Biophysics (MBP)
- Institute of Medical Science (IMS)
- Institute of Biomaterials and Biomedical Engineering (IBBME)
- Dept. of Laboratory Medicine and Pathobiology (LMP)
- NSERC USRA: General information from NSERC can be found here. You will have to apply through a specific department, and the number of awards allocated to each department varies. This information is not yet available for the summer 2010. Check departmental websites for updates starting in early January, but definitely scour for potential PIs ahead of time and make sure that they are eligible to sponsor you through NSERC. Departments include Physics, Cell & Systems Biology, Physiology, and Ecology & Evolutionary Biology
- Nutritional Sciences
- Molecular Genetics and Microbiology (MGY)
- Pharmacy (you don’t need to be in pharmacy to apply)
- Pharmacology and Toxicology
* Note: Although information packages for summer 2010 are not out yet, they don’t change much from year to year.