If you’re thinking about joining a research lab at BYU, a good place to start is the Life Sciences Advisement website.
After you’ve read through the material there, here are some more tips on how to land a position in a research lab.
Do your background research
Find research labs that interest you:
The Life Sciences Advisement directory is a good place to start when looking for labs to join. As you look for a lab, remember:
- It is more important to find research that interests you than research that looks easy. Don’t worry if you don’t know anything about the research to begin with. You can learn.
- Most professors who do mentored research have a website for their lab. That is a good place to find information about the projects their students are working on and any pre-reqs for working in the lab.
- If you don’t meet the pre-reqs but you’re really interested in the research, you could mention that to the professor. If you prove that you can learn quickly or that you will enroll in pre-req courses soon, that professor may consider making an exception.
After you find a lab with interesting research:
You’ll want to be familiar with the professor’s research before you talk to them about joining their lab. The professor’s entry in the faculty directory will likely have a list of papers they’ve published. You can also find the professor’s papers on Google Scholar or sometimes through the BYU library. Make sure to read at least four or five of these papers to get a feel for that professor’s research. Reread the papers to get a solid understanding and look up any general topics that you don’t understand. After a thourough reading of the papers, come up with two or three detailed questions about the research.
Expand your search
If you’re having a hard time finding research that interests you in your department, consider expanding your search to other departments in the Life Sciences College. Many professors accept students with a variety of different majors who have the required skills to do their research. This is especially applicable to my bioinformatics comrades–you may even consider expanding outside the Life Sciences College since pretty much everyone needs coding expertise.
One downside: if you find research outside your own department, you run the risk of not getting research credit that can count towards your major (“Mentored Research”, i.e. BIO494R, counts towards the elective credit for some Life Science majors). If research credit is important to you, the safest bet is to find a lab within your department/college.
Make a good first impression
E-mail is a good way to initiate contact, but professors’ inboxes are often overflowing during the semester, so in-person contact is the most reliable approach. The professors’ office will likely be listed in the Life Sciences faculty directory and their office hours are usually posted on their door.
I’ve heard it said that professors like it when you seem to know a lot about their research when you meet them. From talking to some professors and overhearing others, I’ve come to the conclusion that no matter how much you think you know about the professor’s research, you are an undergraduate and they are a PhD and if you go in thinking you know as much as they do, at best, they’ll think you’re funny, and at worst, they’ll think you’re annoying.
I’ve found that the best approach is to go in having done your research, wanting to learn more. Asking intelligent questions is a great way to show the professor you’re interested. And if you’re familiar with their research, the professor will always appreciate a good question and will be happy to help you learn more, even if they’re not looking to add anyone to their lab.
Another helpful thing to keep in mind as you’re meeting professors is what skills you can add to their lab. It’s good if you have a hard-to-learn skill or two (like coding in Python or operating a sequencer, for example) that applies specifically to the research you’re interested in. If you don’t have any skills, there’s no time like the present to learn. YTrain has a lot of great resources to learn new skills, as does my all-time favorite teaching device: YouTube. Once you’ve identified your unique skills, make sure to mention them to the professor at some point.
Professors are busy people, so if they don’t get back to you right away, don’t be discouraged. You might consider sending a follow-up email reminding them of your interest in their research or dropping by their office hours if you haven’t heard back in a week or two.
Try, try again
It’s easy to feel discouraged if a professor rejects you or says that their lab is full. Remember not to take it personally. At BYU, the professors are there to help you succeed, not to tell you you’re a failure. More often than not, professors will be willing to help you as best they can if you ask for it.
If a professor says that their lab is full:
- You could ask them if there is anyone in their department who has openings in their lab, and if they might introduce you to that person.
- You could also ask them if they would remember you and let you know if any spaces in their lab open up in the coming semesters.
If a professor rejects you because you don’t meet the qualifications:
- Ask them for resources to learn the skills you need.
- Keep applying to a diversity of labs. Not all research labs at BYU will have the same pre-reqs.
- Don’t put off finding a research lab until later. It is better to get into a lab your freshman/sophomore year so that you can work there longer and have the opportunity to advance and possibly publish.
Research credit vs. paid research
One last thing. There are two types of research undergrads can do at BYU: research for credit and research for pay. In my experience, a professor will often start you out getting credit for your research. This involves signing up for a class (for example, BIO494R) over the course of the semester. They’ll ask you how many credit hours you want to sign up for, and you can choose (up to 6 credits, I think?) one credit for every three hours a week you want to work. Then they’ll usually have you keep track of your hours and report them at the end of every week or at the end of the semester.
After working for research credit for a semester, your professor will likely offer you a paid position as a Research Assistant. I have no idea what a normal starting wage for a research assistant is but if you don’t have a lot of experience, it’s probably pretty low (I started at 10/hr; I don’t know how it is in general though). Once you’re hired on as a Research Assistant, it becomes a regular paid job through BYU.
Please note that it is not allowed for professors to ask students to research without credit or pay. If your professor wants you to work regular hours without any sort of compensation, either work out an agreement with them that gets you credit or pay or find a different professor.
What has your experience been like looking for a lab to join? What has your experience been like getting into a lab? Leave a comment and let us know.