A HowTo On Applying for Research Positions


A few people have asked me recently where to look for and how to apply to research positions for the following summer. I thought that I would write a blog post about how to go about looking for an undergrad research position and how to figure out the application process. Most professors will start to look for undergrads to fill open positions in their labs for the next year, so you should start looking too!

For someone who’s never applied for a research position before, the procedure for applying for lab jobs can be quite confusing. I’ll go on to talk about how one generally goes about finding and applying for lab openings and funding, but the bottom line is that the process can be different depending on which lab you are applying to and what field you are in. It’s a shame but unfortunately, it’s just someone you need to deal with as an undergrad determined to get that summer research position. I’ll start with some information on how to find open positions and funding opportunities for undergraduates and end off with a few tips on the application process.

Finding a Lab

Depending on your area of interest and which institution you are apply to (it doesn’t have to be McMaster!), finding professors that are willing to take you on can be a tricky process. This is especially true if the departmental website gives no indication on which faculty members are currently accepting undergrads.

The first thing to do when looking for a summer research position is to visit the departmental website of the department you are interested in doing research in. A few departments at McMaster (e.g. Biology) have a listing of professors who are currently looking for undergraduate students. Typically this information can be found under the “Undergraduate” or “Research” sections of the website. If the department does not list faculty who accept undergrads, then the next best thing to do is to look at a listing of the department’s faculty. Every departmental website has this and this section will provide you with a list of the department’s researchers, some information about them and maybe a link to their lab website.

The lab website of a professor can be a great place for information, or it can be a disaster – depending on how up-to-date it is. If you’re looking at the website where the last news item was posted in 1998, then it’s probably out of date! Some professors are great at maintaining their lab websites and will indicate on their website if they are looking for undergraduates or even what they are expecting from a prospective undergraduate – both information on how to contact them and what skills you should possess. If no information is available on the lab website on whether the professor is looking for undergraduates, one last thing to do is to look at a listing of their current lab members. If the professor in question has had undergraduates in their lab, they are typically much more receptive to prospective undergrads.

If all else fails – there’s no listing of faculty members looking for undergrads, a lab website is non-existent and no information about whether they have had previous undergrads can be found – you can always send that professor an e-mail and hope for the best. People generally will at least reply to a politely-written inquiry.

Finding Funding

Finding a suitable supervisor to work with is only the first step in securing a lab position. Unless you are content with volunteering, you will need a source of funding for the time you spend in the lab. There are 3 broad categories of funding available for undergraduates: 1) supervisor funding, 2) internal funding and 3) external funding.

Sometimes, the professor you have chosen to work with will have his or her own funding available for undergraduates and can afford to pay you a salary for the summer. This is really the simplest scenario: find a supervisor with proper funding, and you’re all set. There are only two major disadvantages to this approach. The first is that getting funded by a source other than a salary is a huge boon to your CV and may help you in obtaining future positions or in your application to graduate school. The second is that it is, in my experience at least, very rare that a professor will be able to afford to pay an undergraduate a salary! After all, funding for science these days is scarce, and paying an undergraduate’s salary is really not the best use of a professor’s money. As you can see, this option is something of a mixed bag but is the most straightforward.

Your second option is to see if the institution your professor’s lab is a part of offers some kind of funding for summer undergraduate research positions. I call this type of funding “internal” because it is offered by an institution for students working at that institution and that institution alone. The good thing about this type of funding is that you sometimes can apply to be funded without first having to identify a supervisor. If you are successful, then are you guaranteed a spot in the funding institution, though your choice of supervisor will likely be limited in this case. Internal funding is also generally less competitive than some of the external funding options, with only a limited number of students applying for the same money. An example of an internally funded research opportunity is the SickKids Summer Research Program, which is offered by SickKids Hospital for students to work at SickKids.

The final option for funding is through external bodies that fund undergraduate summer research. These bodies are typically non-profit organizations that fund the study of a particular disease or conditions (e.g. Cystic Fibrosis Canada). Some of these funding options are well-known and competitive (like the NSERC USRA – a separate blog about the USRA is forthcoming). The good thing about these funding options is that they are generally very prestigious and are great for your CV if you get them. They are often worth more than an internal funding option and can include ancillary benefits like the chance to travel to the offices of the sponsoring institution or to network with other undergrads being funded. However, because external funding options are typically offered by non-profit organizations and field-specific societies, only people studying certain fields may be eligible. If you’re not sure if a particular external funding option is suitable for your research, or you’re not sure what external funding options are available to you, your supervisor is the best person to talk to. They know much better which agencies will support their research and will likely know about some external funding opportunities for undergraduates already (a good sign that a potential supervisor is serious about accepting you into their lab is if they are asking for you to seriously search for external funding options!).

The Application Process: Dos and Don’ts

I’ve been a part of 8 research groups in the past and have seen my fair share of applications and interviews. Below is a set of dos and don’ts that I’ve compiled to help you on your application process:

DO      Apply early!

One of the best things to do to increase your chances of finding a research position is to apply early. Remember, just as you are looking to find something for the summer, the professor is also looking for someone to fill open positions. Applying early means that there is a better chance that the position hasn’t already been filled and it shows a certain degree of interest on your part to be applying early.

DO      Put an effort into your first e-mail!

The biggest mistake you can make in trying to contact a professor is to send a generic-sounding e-mail that looks like it was mass e-mailed to several hundred people. Professors get a ton of e-mail every day and I have consistently heard that these kinds of e-mails are deleted straight away.

If you make a small effort in preparing that first e-mail: do a bit of reading on the professor and their research, you can make a much better first impression and increase your chances of at least getting an interview.

DO      Have a CV/Resumé and an official grade transcript in hand!

Did you know that it takes about a week for McMaster to issue an official transcript? Before applying to a position, you should make sure that you have a few copies of your transcript and an updated CV or resumé on hand as to avoiding looking foolish when your potential supervisor asks for a transcript.

DO      Be friendly and inquisitive with the lab’s current members

As part of the interview, many professors will offer the student a chance to meet with their current students and learn more about the lab. Do not be fooled – this is a test! What the professor is trying to establish is whether you will be a good fit in the lab and whether you will be able to work effectively with his or her current students. The opinion of the lab members counts a lot towards whether a professor will accept or reject your application.

DO      Have an idea of what you want to do and accomplish in the lab

Different professors approach the interview differently. I cannot tell you precisely which questions will be asked or what the “correct” answers are. What I can tell you is that almost always you will be asked some variant of the question: “So, what do you want to do/learn/accomplish in the lab?” This question is how the professor establishes your motivation for applying to work in their lab. Are you genuinely interested in their research or want to master a certain technique? Or are you just applying for “research experience” – whatever that means. Be prepared to answer this question well!

DON’T           Be late for an interview!

Let me first admit that I’ve actually done this before (in my defense the interviewer was vague about where to meet and it was a HUGE hospital). Punctuality is critical when interviewing for a lab position. Being late makes a very poor first impression and for these things, first impressions are everything. Being late for an interview shows that you are not interested in the position or that you are not organized/committed. Both are huge things to avoid.

DON’T           Lie about your past experiences!

For students with no lab experience, it can be tempting to “exaggerate” your previous experience and knowledge. Let me be honest with you, even if you do have previous lab experience, you will have to relearn how to do most things as each lab does things a little differently (believe, I know this from firsthand experience). The great thing about working in a lab as an undergrad is that you are not expected to know much. Your interest and willingness to learn is much more important at this stage than your knowledge and experience.

DON’T           Apply to too many people at once!

It might seem like applying to a lot of people can increase your chances of being accepted into at least one lab, but in my experience this is not a good idea because you will be less able to look into each lab in detail. Your time is finite, especially during exam time, so make a strong effort in one or two applications, rather than wasting your time sending out dozens of e-mails that will never be read anyways.

DON’T           Be limited by your major!

There may be decent reasons for seeking research positions within your field of study. For one, you will have a better background knowledge and, if you’re interested in pursuing your field in graduate school, this is a great thing for your CV. Nevertheless, one of the best pieces of advice I’ve heard on applying to research positions as an undergrad was from Harvard’s Dr. Ian Burgess, who said:

“Working in a lab is really an exchange in knowledge. You bring your skills and expertise to the lab, and you learn skills and expertise from the lab. The time you will be benefitting the most from this arrangement is when you are an undergrad. As an undergrad, you’re not expected to bring anything to the lab and have everything to gain.`

– Ian Burgess, 2011 (Badly paraphrased, sorry!)

Basically, you don’t have to be an expert to work in a lab as an undergrad. And the more diverse the range of expertise you can gather, the better off you will be in the future.

DON’T           Be discouraged!

It can seem daunting to apply for a research position the first time around. But you should never not try simply because you don’t have any experience. Honestly, even those undergrads who do have “previous experience” will often find most of that experience unnecessary or inapplicable in a new lab (can you guess that I’m speaking from personal experience here?). So even if the position you are apply for asks for previous experience, don’t become discouraged right away. The worst thing that can happen is that the prof will say no.

Parting Remarks

I hope that you’ve enjoyed reading through this blog post and have found at least part of what I’ve written to be helpful. Go and read about some of the research being done at McMaster and elsewhere. Get excited. Get inspired. And good luck on your search!

If you have specific questions you would like myself or another MURSA Executive to address, please leave a comment below or contact us directly at: mursa@mcmaster.ca. Be sure to also visit our website: http://www.mursa.ca for more information about us and a listing of popular opportunities.

One response to “A HowTo On Applying for Research Positions”

  1. Dawn Bowdish says :

    Hi there, I’m an Assistant Professor in the Pathology dept and I think this is great advice! I wish that every undergraduate would read it before applying for a research position. Hope you don’t mind but I posted a link to it on my website.

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