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Undergraduate Research Experience

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

You’ve got the position – now what?

Congratulations on obtaining a spot on a research team. If you are going to take MCB 290 for your work, visit the MCB advising office to pick up the paperwork. Alternatively, if your professor is in the school of MCB, they can provide you with your registration CRN via your MCB 290 student profile.  You will have to talk to your professor about the number of credit hours you will receive for your work.

Approach your work with a positive attitude and think about the big picture.  You need to leave this lab on good terms and with a glowing review from your professor.  The best way to do this is to impress the lab with your hard work, dedication, and maturity.

Write your own letter of recommendation

What would you like this professor to say about you after you leave the lab?  Before showing up for your first day, think about the things you hope this professor will say about you in their recommendation.  Keep those qualities and personal attributes in mind as you work. 

Work hard

Don’t let the lab down.  You’ve been selected over other undergraduates for this spot, and no one is quick to forget that.

”One of the things that the medical school admissions committees look at is whether you look like you’re just building your résumé, or whether you're able to devote yourself to something and to work seriously on it,“ Salyers says. 

Labs can spot a résumé-filler from a mile away.  You will be asked to leave if you are not giving the same amount of effort that they are putting into you.

Stay flexible

You may need to adjust your schedule to accommodate lab schedules or procedures. You may be asked to do work you did not expect, or are not familiar with.  Do your best and stay motivated.  Research may require odd or long hours, and you need to get comfortable working with a variety of different people.

Show initiative

Show interest in what everyone in the lab is working on.  Ask questions, be curious, and really get the most out of your time in lab.  Ask to be part of lab meetings and observe different experiments.  Seek out primary source material relevant to the work you're doing.  Read up on the techniques you’re using.

Asking questions and requesting to be included in lab activities, like meetings, presentations, or lectures, is a great way to show you’re a motivated student.

Understand the work

Communicating about science is just as important as researching.  You need to understand how every procedure works, why you’re doing it, and what goal it is helping the laboratory reach.

Although there are no exams in MCB 290, many professors will have you write up a summary of your research, enter poster competitions, or give a presentation about your work in front of the lab.  You need to be able to talk about your work in order to discuss your success, which means you have to understand every step of the way.

Make sure you can identify your contributions to the lab so you can use them as evidence of your great work.

Don’t fade away

Come in to lab when you say you will and when they ask you to.  A student who shows up the first week of the semester and slowly pulls away from their obligations will be asked to leave.  You want to leave on good terms, and receive a good recommendation from your professor.

For further reading see Undergraduate Laboratory Experience Part I and Part II.


Undergraduate Lab Experience (feature article)

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

Video Interviews with Undergraduate Researchers: