How to Get an Undergraduate Research Position

Two Parts:Preparing Yourself and Searching For OptionsApplying for an Opportunity

If you are interested in being a scientist, engineer, or other researcher, then experience as an undergraduate in a research laboratory can help you decide if that career path is right for you. Professors are often looking for additional help in the lab, and are willing to educate new lab members. As an undergraduate researcher, you can get hands-on experience in the area of your interest, learn skills and material that complements your course work, and get a feel for how science and research takes place in the real world. And, if you decide to pursue research, you'll gain connections in the scientific and academic community, and have a nice boost to your resume.

Part 1
Preparing Yourself and Searching For Options

  1. Image titled Apply for Scholarships Step 1
    Determine your area(s) of research interest. What fascinates you and makes you want to learn more? Think about your major, your favorite classes, your hobbies, and your career goals. If you are having trouble narrowing down your interests, don't worry--that's part of what the undergraduate research experience is for. Brainstorm, make a list, and go with what seems most exciting and most promising. If you get into a research area and it ends up not being right for you, you can look into other research areas.
  2. Image titled Become a Midwife Step 4
    Enroll in a degree program in your area of interest at a college or university. If you want to join a professor's lab or research group, it's best to be a student at that professor's university.
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    Make sure you've taken classes relevant to your area of research interest. It is not necessary to be an expert in all areas involved in the professor's research. Make sure you are familiar with the basics and have a foundational understanding of the research area. You will learn more once you join the lab or group.
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    Write an outline of the research project you want to do. This step is optional. If you don't have a project in mind (which is to be expected from someone looking for first-time research experience), then the professor will find something for you to work on. This may mean that you'll be doing busy work or menial tasks (cleaning glassware, doing literature searches) before the professor finds a project you can help with. If you already have some specific project you want to research and it aligns with the projects going on, then the professor will be more interested in having you and your ideas around.
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    Locate professors at your university who do research that interests you. If you're in a class with a professor who works in your area of interest, ask about what research your professor does and how you can get involved. Browse through faculty webpages in whichever university departments you think are doing research that interests you. Use search engines and your university's website to find professors. Your university may have an undergraduate research opportunities program (often called UROP) that helps connect faculty to students and can give financial aid for research projects.
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    Locate other research institutions in your area of interest. Hospitals, companies, and other institutions also do research, and many have educational programs open to students. Search online and through your university to fi nd opportunities like summer research jobs, lab volunteering, and student positions.
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    Prepare your resume. When you contact the professor, you will need to be able to present what experience you have. In your resume, list what classes you've taken related to the field of the professor's research, and what relevant skills and prior experience you may have. Don't worry if you don't have much in the way of skills and experience, because that's what you will learn while working with your professor and the research group. Demonstrate that you are thorough and reliable--necessary qualities for a good researcher.

Part 2
Applying for an Opportunity

  1. Image titled Become a Midwife Step 9
    Contact the professor directly about your interest in his or her research, and/or enroll in a research program. Now that you've found professors who are doing research that you'd like to help with, you need to contact them. It's best to contact a number of professors, because not all of them will have positions available for you. Professors' email addresses and phone numbers should be publicly available on faculty webpages. If your university has an undergraduate research program, sign up for it and contact professors that way. If you sign up for a program, it is always a good idea to contact professors directly in addition to through the program.
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    Ask to meet with the professor or researcher. In an email of phone call, explain who you are, why you are interested in joining the research work, and ask if there is a position for you. If the professor responds and says yes, then ask if the professor is available to meet with you to discuss how you can join the lab or research group and what you will do there.
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    Read and become familiar with the professor's publications and background information about the research. Selected publications will often be listed on a professor's webpage. Alternatively, search engines like Google Scholar, software like EndNote, and online academic journal sites can help you find publications by searching the professor's name. This way, you will also be able to better discuss the lab or research work. When you meet with the professor, you want to demonstrate that you are interested enough to have looked into his or her work.
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    Prepare to explain the reasons for your interest in joining the research group. Know what you will tell the professor about what you have to offer, and what you want to gain from your time there, and why.
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    Prepare questions for the professor. When you meet the professor and discuss the current research projects, ask questions about anything you don't understand. This will give you a better idea of what goes on in the research group, what you have to gain from it, and it shows the professor that you are interested in actively learning more. Be sure to ask about things like the time commitment, the location, and other requirements for joining. And, if possible, try to get to know the professor personally--make sure you get along. It's important to have a friendly lab environment.


  • Email a professor first, and if he or she doesn't respond, email or call the professor.


  • Don't be embarrassed about not understanding something that goes on in the research field. You're there to learn!

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Categories: Education and Communications | College and University Study Techniques