1. Plan ahead.
When do you want to start conducting research? Some students start their first year some wait until their fourth year. In most cases, the earlier the better. If you love research, you may want to pursue a job that will have a research component. If you hate research, you learn that although you may love science, the laboratory is not a likely job for you. This information is important to learn early in your college experience.
Mentors may need up to 6 months notice for taking on a student. So if you are interested in starting in the fall, you should contact professors in the spring. If you are interested in the summer, then contact professors at the end of the fall semester. Keep in mind that it may take many emails to finally find someone who has an opening. Just keep trying.
2. Who do you want to work with?
What do you think you are interested in? There are many opportunities and you need to explore the different research avenues available to you. This is easily (although time consuming) done by exploring the UVA departmental faculty websites. The Undergraduate Research Network has created a wonderful database called UNLEASH. You can search by department, research description, or name. Find about 10 laboratories that are conducting research that you find interesting (this is an important point for step 3).
3. Email the professors you want to work with.
The email should include
- your name
- your year
- the type of commitment you are looking for (credit or paid/unpaid summer research)
- the length of commitment you are looking for (two years, one year, one semester, etc…)
- a statement of interest
- attach an unofficial transcript and/or resume
Statement of Interest: Read the description of the laboratories research on the web. Even look up a review or current paper the laboratory has published. This will probably be too technical for you to understand completely. Find the key terms in this description, look them up in the index of your textbooks and read the relevant sections of the text. Try to get a basic understanding of what the lab does. The more you know about the research the more the professor is likely to take you seriously. Don’t regurgitate the description; explain why the research interests you.
Keep in mind that the professor will be providing:
- Ideas: The professor will discuss the research that is going on in their laboratory and may provide a few suggestions as to projects that would be feasible for a new researcher and that would benefit both the student and the lab. In assigning a project, it usually means that other members of the lab will not be doing the exact same thing. Therefore the professor is depending on you to carry out the project.
- Time: Initially, you will require a lot of supervision to learn the system and master the techniques. Often things may not work right away, and therefore time must be spent by the professor, post-doc, graduate student or technician in training you and troubleshooting the experiments. Although this effort by other members of the lab is helpful training for you, it is also taking away time from their own experiments.
- Space: Space is often at a premium in many labs. In some big labs, people only have a few feet of bench space or work in shifts. Therefore providing a bench to an undergraduate may in turn mean that the lab is not able to provide space to a more experienced or long term researcher such as a graduate student or post-doc.
- Money: In an average molecular biology lab, each researcher (graduate student, post-doc, or technician) will use over $5,000 a year in supplies and reagents. In labs that use expensive reagents such as cell culture media or large quantities of enzymes, this number could easily be over $10,000 a year. Therefore, even working part time in the lab on your research project will easily cost the lab over $2,000 in reagents and supplies during the year.
The Center for Undergraduate Excellence is a great resource. The Center administers the Harrison Undergraduate Research Awards and maintains a database of research opportunities both at U.Va. and else where: Research Opportunities. We encourage students to get involved in the Undergraduate Research Network, which produces The Oculus: The Virginia Journal of Undergraduate Research.