Finding a Lab

Finding a lab

There are many routes to finding research opportunities, some competitive, some not.


Step 1: Identifying possible labs

  • You might begin your search by going to the College of Science Undergraduate Research website. This site includes several search tools to help you find research programs and locate faculty with whom you might like to work. One is a program database, which lists programs designed to get students involved in research. You can follow up on any of those links.  There also is a database that you can search with key words to find faculty doing the kind of work in which you are interested.  The nice thing about the faculty database is that it includes a list of faculty who want to have students in their labs.
  • You may also identify faculty members with whom you might like to work by informal networking.  Talk to your instructors and professors.  You may be interested in their work or you can ask if they know anyone in their department who might be doing research on topic x or y.
  • Advisors in your School, Department, or the Honors College may have some ideas for you.
  • Look at the web sites of Departments in which the kind of research in which you are interested is likely to be done.  Go through their faculty lists.  This is an important additional route to try because not all the faculty members who would like to have undergraduates in their labs are listed on the Office of Undergraduate Research web page. Two good sites that are helpful for finding neuroscience and/or cognitive science research labs are the GIDP in Neuroscience site and the Cognitive Science Program site


Step 2: Contacting faculty member

  • Once you have identified a list of labs by research are in which you are interested, then you need to review their web sites first to make sure that the labs look like a good fit and second, if it does look good, to read or at least scan some of the papers they have published so that you can demonstrate that you have tried to understand what the lab is doing.  You would do the same in looking for a job at a company so that you could tell the interviewer why you are interested in that company and what you might bring to it.
  • Contact the faculty members.  For each of the labs at the top of your list, write an email to the lab director, being sure to address them by their proper title, like Professor or Dr.  You email should say, in your own words, that you are a (sophomore) in (NSCS) and you are looking for a lab position.  You are particularly interested in their lab because…(some of this can be from the web site review you did, but keep it short).  Then ask if they have any open positions and if so, you would like the opportunity to be considered for it.  You can attach a resume if you like.  Make sure that your email is grammatically correct, that all the words are spelled correctly, and that you don’t use text-messaging short cuts, like “i” instead of “I.”


Step 3. Responses from faculty

  • The reality is that some faculty members will not respond at all.  For that subset, you can wait a week or two and write back with a message that you are concerned that your previous email, which is copied below, might have been lost, and you are very much interested in working in their lab.  It really is OK to re-send your request once, as sometimes messages do get lost and other times they simply get overlooked among the many emails a faculty member receives.  Doing so will illustrate that you really do have a genuine interest in the lab.
  • Some faculty will respond thank you, but no open positions at this time. Even though they are in the database, they may currently have filled all their position or may be in a bad funding period or may be going on sabbatical (a period of months to a year that faculty members can take several times during their career during which they are learning a new research skill, working on a special project, etc.).  There are many reasons.  Do not take it personally.
  • Some faculty will invite you for an interview.

Step 4: If you get invited for an interview…

  • Dress professionally and show up on time, if not 5 minutes early.  If you smoke, don’t do so for at least half an hour before your interview, even if you are nervous.
  • Have reviewed the web site carefully and read some of the most recent papers, even if you don’t understand them very well.  Don’t be nervous or discouraged if you don’t understand them completely! Scientific papers can be very intimidating in the beginning!
  • Be prepared to be asked why you want to do research and why that particular lab.
  • Ask specifically for their expectations of undergraduate students.
  • Ask to speak to individual members of the lab, especially other students.  You want to know how it is to work in the lab and what the culture of the lab is so that you can have a sense of how you might fit in.
  • After the interview, whatever the response, write an email to thank the faculty member for their time.  If a position is offered, write an email of thanks and, if instructions have been given to you, indicate that you have or will be following up with those.

Step 5: If you get invited to join a lab ...

  •  If you are invited to join a lab and are given the option of enrolling for research credit in a lab, fill out the NSCS Independent Study form and submit it to the NSCS Program Coordinator, Becca Van Sickler, at the beginning of the semester. You must be enrolled by the 21st day of the semester in order to avoid the late add charge of $250.


Step 6: Once you join a lab ...

  • Ask for a regular time to meet with the faculty member, even if it’s only once every couple or 3 weeks (the interval depends on the faculty member and a variety of other factors, such as the nature of your project and whether you have been assigned to a senior lab member with whom you will be working directly).
  • The usual – show up when you say you will be there, etc.
  • Learn about the research of the other people in the lab. This is obviously important at the beginning but keeping up with it by talking with other lab members and gong to their lab presentations will be another huge source of learning for you. It might also give you ideas that will help in your own research.
  • Don’t be afraid to speak up with ideas you personally have that could improve your research or take it in a new direction that no one has thought about yet.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask questions.
  • Don’t be afraid to bring concerns to your faculty member.
  • Make sure you understand the rules about being in the lab after regular hours, about keeping notebooks and files, about general expectations about keeping the lab clean, helping others and so forth.  Ask specifically about what the faculty member or the senior person with whom you are working expects of you.