I have been "doing research" for about 11 months now. I worked for two months in the Summer at the EMB Core which is a Life Sciences Division lab in Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratories and I am now currently working in a molecular ecology lab as well as a social psychology lab on the UC Berkeley campus.
- I got the LBNL lab position by applying through a student-led research opportunity seminar. I was there from 10am-5pm about everyday for the first two weeks and then just MWF for the remainder of the summer. The researchers their trained me very well in sterile technique as well as a host of other molecular biology techniques such as western blotting, immunoassays, and bacterial preparation. I had to quit because my Fall schedule wasn't accommodating. I would have to say that my tenure at the lab was an incredibly enriching experience as far as developing a professional demeanor and acquiring industry standard technique.
- I applied under UC Berkeley's very own Undergraduate Research Apprentice Program (URAP) for the Evolab which I currently work in. I found the laboratory work to be sort of enjoyable because of my previous training at the EMB Core. Even more outstanding were the attitudes of the people in the Evolab. All of them are incredibly generous, patient, and quite personable. I truly believe that I am enjoying my time at the Evolab mostly because of the down-to-earth people I work with.
- I took a social psychology class with a professor Robb Willer and fell in love with the subject. I liked it so much I applied for his lab and now work under him as an undergraduate research assistant. The discussion during the weekly lab meetings is really quite interesting as it is generally about some cutting edge research that a grad student or another professor is doing.
There are a variety of ways to get into research. The following is a short list of the avenues that lead to research.
- If it exists, apply through your institution's research office or through a campus wide research program for undergrads like URAP at Berkeley. Be warned that selection seems to be somewhat correlated with one's GPA.
- Ask a Principal Investigator (P.I.) or professor if they have an opening for a research assistant position in their lab and if they would be interested in working with you. This takes more initiative but may be more rewarding because you can seek out specific labs that are doing the research you are interested in rather than choosing from a list and applying to labs that you think you can grow to like.
- If you are even more amazing you can come up with your own research proposal and apply for some of the many grants that are available to undergraduate students. Depending on the grant, you may have to get in touch with a PI or professor on campus who is willing to sponsor you.
- Apply for summer research internships. These may either last only the summer or allow for the possibility of continuation during the school year. Either way the experience over the summer would serve as a great stepping stone into more research because you will hopefully have accumulated plenty of training and experiences.
I strongly feel that it is absolutely critical to find a good fit with the research you are going to be doing. There are three points that I believe should be satisfied in order to make the experience enriching.
- Be genuinely interested in the research subject. This is essential psychologically. Real interest makes it easier to learn the skills and theory behind the research as well as provide an underlying sense of purpose that contributes to one's success in a lab. Furthermore, liking the research you do makes a world of difference come time for a medical school interview. The difference manifests in your tone of voice and the content you discuss as you will sound legitimately interested in the research you did.
- Don't plan to be a worker bee. What I mean is to avoid research where there really is no upward mobility as far as becoming more technically self-sufficient and possibly undertaking your own individualized research project. You want the experience to be enriching and intrinsically motivating. Stagnancy is not the way to go. Unfortunately and at no fault of their own, some labs just need labor more than anything else.
- Go above and beyond the call of duty. If you can manage, try to put in more than is expected of you. This is a stronger testament to your enthusiasm and dedication to your research than saying you care. You are likely to receive an even more stellar letter of recommendation.
If at first you don't succeed, try, try again. It is a competitive career path you have chosen to embark upon. Don't be dissuaded if you don't get a position immediately. Perhaps you need to progress more in order to demonstrate the intellectual and professional maturity necessary to work in a lab. Winning and losing are not negatively correlated. In fact the people who win the most also lose the most so with that in mind swing for the fences!