4 Steps to Secure a Research Position in College
Research can be intimidating at the start, but working in a lab has been one of the most rewarding aspects of my college career. I encourage you to review my advice if you are looking for any kind of research position, whether it be business or genetics.
Do not let anyone tell you what you cannot do. The sky is the limit and perseverance is key!
1Professionalism: Resumes, dress code, and thank you notes: the first step is all about recognizing your responsibility as an aspiring professional in the field.
You must learn to balance your life as a student and as an aspiring professional. When you meet the scientist(s)/professor(s you might be working for, you should dress to impress in order to show respect for their lab. Business casual is appropriate. If this is a scientific position, you will be required to wear pants and close-toed shoes to work in a wet lab, so this is your chance to be especially refined.
Professors’ attitudes range from relaxed/casual to strictly business, so you want to approach all emails, resumes, and communication with immense respect. You must remember you are a student, and it is rather gracious they are giving you their time. I would always recommend sending a handwritten thank you note in the mail after meeting with someone, whether or not it works out.
Finally, the resume! I would recommend you go to your school’s career center or search professional websites to ensure your resume is up-to-date and aesthetically pleasing. I would even ask someone in a creative/art-based major and a business major to check your resume and see if it appeals to both of them. It always helps to have totally different perspectives on your resume, but go to people you trust.
2 Professors. They can be intimidating, but they are your best resource.
Remember, professors are working at your university for a reason. They are teaching because they believe in students like you who work hard. They also seek to connect with others in their respective fields. This means you do not need to be afraid to ask them for help, advice, connections or opportunities. Even if they cannot offer you a position, professors are well-connected with other researchers or professionals in their area(s) of interest.
Also, do not be afraid to let your professors open your mind to other degrees, career paths, or fields you might not have considered before.
3 Opportunity meets the prepared mind. You must do your research, not only about the lab/professor but also about what is happening in your area of interest today.
Odds are, if you are reading this, you are a science major. You are pretty smart and have taken Physics, Biology and/or Chemistry before. Scientific literature is a whole different language, however, and you may or may not be familiar with a true scientific journal. Do not be afraid of it — just tackle it. Read what you are genuinely interested in, write questions in the margins for your professors, highlight things, look up everything you do not understand, and budget at least 2 hours per paper.
To find scholarly articles: ask a professor, browse your favorite news source, or search Google Scholar to see newest trends and discoveries in the field. Nothing impresses a scientist more than a student who already knows something about the lab they are applying for and the recent discoveries in science.
4 “It’s not always what you know, but it is who you know.” Attend networking events at your school, be social, be open, be genuine, and bring a one-page resume — just in case.
Do not hesitate to tap into the alumni network at your school. I consider myself very lucky to attend the University of Southern California where we have the world’s greatest alumni base: the Trojan Family. I am privileged to have several mentors in the USC Alumni Association because of the invaluable connections I made at networking events. The most important pieces of advice I shared with you in this article are things I learned from my alumni mentors!
No matter what college you attend, take full advantage of the opportunities you have as a student. Ask you professors to lunch. Sign up for email rosters with information about scientific lecture series. Attend talks around your school. Use the library research resources and databases like PubMed to your advantage. Talk to the people who want to help you while you are still studying, learning and growing. And, as always, stay current!
Sophie Wix is an undergraduate student at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles studying Health and Human Sciences. She is working on fluid biopsy cancer research at the Kuhn Lab at USC, part of the Bridge Institute@USC Convergent Science Initiative. Check out her video mini-documentary here.