Here are some of basic considerations that you should take into account in your thinking before you approach a faculty member about the possibility of a lab position.
- Why do you want to work in a lab? Some of the reasons may include those noted above, but you may have particular reasons. You should be very clear about these and really really want to try it. Just wanting it so that you have a line on your resume that looks good when you apply to grad school or to med or dental school is not a good enough reason. Laboratory research can be exciting and it can be great to be part of a team discovering things. It also requires a big commitment in time, energy, and thought. It can have weird hours and when a meeting is coming up, it can require additional hours. Research can be tedious and frustrating, and in fact it’s just too hard if you do not love it. You have to want to do it. Faculty members will be looking for this level of commitment.
- Timing. Most faculty members who take undergraduate students into their research groups prefer to take students early in their tenure in the university, mainly because the training time necessary to become a productive member of the research team can be quite extensive, often 4-6 months to reach a minimum level. Training requires commitment of time (from the lab director and members of the lab) and resources (user fees for high-end equipment, reagents, etc.), neither of which is contributing directly to the product of the lab. Many faculty members will not take a student in his or her senior year because of this training time. Many require a year’s commitment.
- Credit, for-pay, volunteer. In some cases, students get course credits for their work, in some cases they are paid, and in some cases the work is done on a volunteer basis. Many faculty will pay students during the summer but only provide research credit during the academic year. Many will not accept volunteers because volunteers tend to put the volunteer activity at the bottom of their priority list. The exception is often for an initial short period in which the student and faculty together decide if this particular lab would be a good placement for the student. Which plan is in place in the lab is entirely at the discretion of the lab director.
- Student time commitment. In most cases, especially those in which students will be working at the bench or in the field, a serious time commitment is necessary, not only in number of hours but in the arrangement of available hours. Understand that the time needed usually cannot be parsed into an hour here and an hour there, and sometimes the work requires evening or weekend time. Potential faculty mentors will tell you what is necessary for work with their particular research group. The university sets the research credit to time ratio the same way as for course-related labs, 1 credit = 3 hrs in the lab. Less than 6-9 hrs per week generally is not tenable.
- Research topic. Some students know in what area they would like to do their research. Others have a more general idea – something with genetics, or something on the nervous system, for example. If you can find and get accepted into a lab doing exactly what you want, that’s great. Sometimes that isn’t possible. What you need to understand is that in many ways, the point at this level is not how much expertise you develop in the area you think you would like to pursue in the future. Rather it is to learn how research is done, how you think about devising testable questions, how you find resources, how you develop good experiments and how you avoid poor results by inadequate attention to various technical controls or poor understanding of the limitations of particular approaches. A research experience also helps you learn how to work on a team and how to independently and in a self-directed way contribute to the research. You need to be interested in the project, of course! Without that, it would be hard to sustain your effort through the tough periods. Notice that all these skills are not topic-specific, but these are the skills admissions committees are looking for. If you are not intending to go to graduate school or to a professional school, but still want to do research, that’s fine, in fact it’s great. These same skills will serve you well in whatever career you choose to pursue.