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Undergraduate Research Experience

How to find, join, and succeed in a faculty laboratory

How to contact a lab

There is no formal application for lab work like you might expect.  This means you have to contact the labs one-by-one by emailing the professors that run them and offering your services.  Each email must be specific for the lab you are contacting. This is most likely the first time they have heard of you, and first impressions are everything. Also, fill out a MCB 290 Student Profile here, and provide a link to your profile in your emails.

Be professional

Address them as “Professor ‘Their Last Name’” and maintain a business-like tone throughout the email.  Working in a lab is like holding down a job, not like being part of a club or group on campus. They will be looking for students who communicate well. You can use what you’ve learned from an advanced composition class like BTW 250 to help you, or bring a draft to the career center for proofreading and advice.

Do your research

Each email should be tailored to the research being done in the lab you are applying to.  Understand what work the professor is doing, what techniques they may be using, and what the future plans for the lab are.  Talk about what aspects of this interest you and why you’d like to work on these projects. This is probably the most important part of your email.  You should flatter the professor that you’ve taken such an interest in their work, without going over the top.

Be enthusiastic

Professors are looking for students who actually want to be in lab, so if you don’t sound interested they won’t be either. Working in a lab takes energy and time. They will be looking for undergraduates who seem up to the task of learning a completely new skill set with patience and fervor.

Talk about yourself

Why are you interested in researching to begin with?  What are your plans after graduation?  How many/which semesters are you planning on devoting to research? Also include what year you are, and mention a few of your biggest strengths if you feel they are appropriate. Be sure the professor knows what you expect to get out of this experience.

Stay concise

Staying concise is part of being professional. This isn’t a term paper with a word quota.  Write about the research, why you’d like to be a part of it, and get out of there.  Professors have extremely busy schedules – a long email from an undergraduate they’ve never met will not be their top priority.

Include your MCB 290 Student Profile

Fill out your student profile online (Click here to set yours up) and include a link to your profile in the email.  Offer this as a way for the professor to find out more information about you or as a quick link to remember you by.

If your professor is from the School of MCB, it will also cut out the registration paperwork if you get chosen for a MCB 290 position.

Encourage a follow up

In one or two sentences, explain that you’re looking forward to hearing back from them and you would be interested in meeting in person if they would prefer.

Continue to How to Manage Your Contacts


Undergraduate Lab Experience (feature article)

Part I: First Courses Introduce Advanced Techniques
Part II: Undergradaute Experience in Faculty Labs

Video Interviews with Undergraduate Researchers: