How to get a research position as a U of T undergrad

So you wanna do some research at the University of Toronto during undergrad??

Good choice!

Though it might seem really difficult to navigate, the University of Toronto is Canada’s biggest research university and it is definitely worthwhile to get some hands-on experience to complement your course-based training. I didn’t know much about this when I was in undergrad so don’t feel bad if you’re a bit confused about how to go about doing this. When I was in undergrad I felt like I was perpetually stumbling through; I was passionate and really wanted to do research but barely knew what this meant, let alone how to go about doing it.

But eventually it worked out: I went from having profs ignore my emails to tons of exciting research opportunities by the time I was applying for grad school. A classic #ragstoriches story amirite?!

My lab at U of T where I conduct the research for my PhD! Image Credit: Samantha Yammine

Because I remember the U of T undergrad struggle, I’ve written up some things I think might be useful for those still in the trenches, below. Happy to answer any Q’s in the comments or via Twitter @SamanthaZY.

Where and when can you do research?

While some research labs are based on campus, many labs in the life and medical sciences are housed in one of the research institutes affiliated with a major Toronto hospital.

Usually labs who take on undergraduate students are looking for a full-time commitment during the summer. It takes a lot to train a new student so it makes it more worthwhile if the research will be your main focus that summer. During the school year you can get away with part-time work (~5–10 hrs/week).

How to make that cheddar doing research ($$$$... jk more like 0.5$)

You can get paid for conducting research in a lab, though funding works a bit differently than a typical job. It is very helpful if you can win some sort of scholarship that can be used to pay your salary as many labs have smaller budgets for hiring students (though some do have substantial training budgets).

Some of the scholarships are quite competitive but you should apply for multiple anyway. It’s great practise and looks very good on your resume/CV if you get one! The due dates for applications are in the first few months of the year, but for many you will need to arrange a supervisor beforehand so it’s a good idea to start contacting potential supervisors in January.

More information can be found on each of the websites below:

  1. NSERC USRA (Canada-wide)

2. Departmental Programs at U of T:

a) Molecular Genetics Summer Research Program
b) Institute of Medical Science SURP
c) Laboratory Medicine Pathology Summer Research Program
d) Medical Biophysics Summer Student Program
e) IBBME Summer Research Program

3. Hospital-based summer research programs (Toronto):

a) Research Training Centre Summer Research Program for Undergraduates at the Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum (Mount Sinai)
b) Keenan Research Summer Student (KRSS) Program (St. Michael’s Hospital)
c) Sick Kids Summer Research
d) UHN Summer Student Research Program (PMH, TWH, TGH)
e) Women’s College Research Institute Summer Program

4. Work Study (can get a position as a research assistant in a lab)

5. 299/499/400 research-based courses!!! (in the summer + during school year)

Image credit: Samantha Yammine

How do you pick a lab?!?

Choosing a potential supervisor can be tough. One place to start is by looking through “faculty” on department websites, for example Dept of Molecular Genetics, Dept. of Physiology, etc. Note that HMB is not a graduate department so they do not have research faculty, and Medical Biophysics and the Institute of Medical Science are exclusively graduate departments so you may have never heard of them before! A good place to find a list of all grad departments related to life sci is here for departments affiliated with the Faculty of Medicine, and here for all grad departments at U of T (including those not in the Faculty of Medicine, like CSB).

There are also a bunch of Collaborative Programs for grad schools that may lead you to interesting departments with potential supervisors here. Yes, U of T is overwhelming AF, so do it in strides and talk to friends about it.

How to approach a potential supervisor

While of course asking questions in class and attending office hours can help you leave a good impression, there are WAY more scientists in Toronto than there are profs of undergrad courses. So how do you approach a prof that doesn’t teach your class??

  • Keep an eye out for bulletins and posters advertising talks. They’ll usually be at the entrances of research nodes since each different research institute has its own weekly seminar series. If you see any that sound interesting, go to the talk and approach them afterwards with a question.
  • Go to networking events hosted by your student union
  • Engage with local scientists on social media (I know Twitter isn’t cool anymore for young peeps but #AcademicTwitter is alive and well and flooded with profs and few/no undergrads. If you do go this route, keep it professional but honest. I personally like this option because it lets you get a sense of their personality ahead of time.
  • Send an email. Keep it short but genuine, and make sure it conveys your enthusiasm. There’s no such thing as a generalizably perfect email. Everyone has different preferences and I am not a prof so I don’t know what they actually look for. But one general formula for this email that I’ve used and that I like to see personally would be:
1) A short but clear subject
2) Intro (eg. Hi Dr. ___, I am a ___ year ____ student at U of T.) *Pro tip: Don’t spell their name wrong.
3) Briefly state your academic interests (including if you are applying for a scholarship)
4) Briefly state why you find their research interesting. Read their papers so you know what their actual research is (websites are often outdated and general), but don’t try to explain their whole research program to them. A sentence or two about something simple that you find intriguing about their area of research is sufficient.
5) Call to action (why did you email them? eg. to ask for a meeting to discuss their research further + potential opportunities)
6) Attach CV/resume + transcripts (often recommended and sometimes listed on lab website as mandatory for application)
Image Credit: Samantha Yammine

Things to keep in mind!

  • Not everyone is going to reply to your emails. It isn’t personal —scientists (and most professionals) get far too many emails a day and things happen. You can follow up after 2–3 days, but if you don’t get a reply or you just get a simple, “I am not taking students now thanks” please don’t overthink it and KEEP TRYING. With that said, focus on QUALITY > quantity. You know how you can tell when that Happy New Year text from your friend was a mass text to everyone? Profs can tell too…
  • Grades are NOT everything — show your honesty, passion, and enthusiasm and that’ll get you further in research than a 4.0
  • Keep your emails to profs concise & to the point (worth repeating because I get a ton of emails that are like 80 paragraphs long and it’s just a lot)
  • Some more tips in a medium article I posted here

Why I wrote this

I know it’s tough — believe me, I’ve been there (and am still here 9 years later….. hahah). Know that there ARE people who care and want to see you succeed. Part of me thinks part of the reason it’s so difficult to navigate is because the gruelling process teaches grit and perseverance, which are absolutely critical to surviving in science.

But at the same time, there’s no reason it should be way simpler for people with scientists/doctors/academics in the family and particularly more difficult for those who are the first in their families to pursue science. Science NEEDS your fresh perspective and new ideas, so please ask for the help you need and pursue your dreams with ferocity.

And when you get to where you wanted to go — even though there will always be new goals on your horizon — always take time to give back and raise others up with you.

EDIT: MORE advice from people around the globe!

After posting this article to Twitter, I received a tremendous influx of helpful tips and advice from outstanding profs, other grad students, post-docs and university admins around the world — within less than 24hours! (This is some good evidence that I wasn’t lying when I said there are people who CARE and who want to see you succeed)

Please read the comments below, in addition to viewing the tweets that others added with their tips. I collected them all in an easy-to-read Twitter Moment here.