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Undergraduate Research Experience

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

How to manage your contacts

Give professors time to respond to your emails.  If you don’t hear back from a professor within 10 days, you may want to stop by their lab and pay a personal visit. Sending them an email expressing interest in their lab before a visit gives them a heads-up and ensures you won’t be wasting their time.   They may be selecting between a few students, and a personal visit may give you the edge, or perhaps your email just got lost in their inbox.

Send smart

It may be best to email the labs you are least interested in first, just in case there is something in your email that’s hurting you. Send out your emails in small batches, and let the results trickle back in before sending out the rest. 

If you get feedback from a professor that can influence your next round of emails, use it to your advantage.  However, always tell the truth about your abilities and commitment to a lab position.

Once you start to hear back

You are bound to receive many “Thanks, but no thanks,” responses.  Some may come back with good news, and request to see you in person or talk over the phone. Visit a lab you’re waiting to hear back from if you’re in a pinch. 

You’re most likely to be offered a spot in only one lab, in which case your only option is your best option.  Remember: don’t be picky. 

Stay positive

Every professor has a cycle of undergraduate, graduate, and post-doctoral students that flow through the lab.  Although you may be an excellent candidate, the lab you were hoping for just may not have any open positions at the time you apply.

Finding a lab requires being the right person at the right time.  Move on to other labs on your list with your head held high.

Be flexible

Take any position offered to you. “If you have to, take a position as a glassware washer or media maker.  If you look interested and hang around and offer to help people out, it’s amazing how quickly you can work yourself into an undergraduate research position,” Salyers says. 

Continue to How to Succeed in a Lab


Undergraduate Lab Experience (feature article)

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

Video Interviews with Undergraduate Researchers: