The reason to do research as an undergraduate is to cultivate skills. But not the skills you probably think. It’s important to learn the experimental techniques of molecular biology, like PCR, gel electrophoresis, molecular cloning, and the particular assays of a given subfield.
But the much more important skills you will learn in a research setting are those of collaboration, time management, facility with primary literature, hypothesis formation and refinement, experimental design, data analysis, troubleshooting, and especially written and spoken communication.
By far the most important skills you will take away from your research experience are habits of independence and persistence.
Research experience is not just for Honors Students. Every successful science student should do it. The biomedical sciences are a completely empirical endeavor: it’s all about experiments and it has rather little to do with textbook learning.
You simply cannot get a meaningful understanding of how science works solely through coursework, even if your performance after four years is outstanding.
Research experience is an unwritten requirement for graduate school, and it can help for medical school and veterinary school admission. It will also be decisive for your employment prospects after four years.
In short, you should get research experience.
Research experience in a working laboratory is nothing like your lab courses.
A good way to get started in a lab is by doing scutwork and learning some basic techniques. But as soon as you can, you want to acquire your own project, usually trained and supervised directly by a graduate student or a postdoctoral fellow.
It is imperative that you understand that your success and reputation rest on your own initiative. In the lab, if you approach your work passively you will fail. Your project is your chance to shine.
It is never too early to start. Do not wait until your last year if you can help it. Getting in touch with faculty well in advance of the term you want to work with them is a good idea.
Expectations for research can be drastically different depending on what part of the academic calendar you do it.
- During the summer, research is a full time job.
- During the semester, faculty understand that you’re taking a full load of courses, with periodic exams and big assignments, but you should still budget no less than ten hours per week doing experiments. Your time management skills will be key.
Where and How?
Decide with whom you want to do research.
- Which field is most interesting?
- Who is a good mentor?
- Who works on exciting science?
- Who will take you? (Who has room and resources?)
Prepare, prepare, prepare. If you are an Honors student, you have an advantage. Either way, preparation will be decisive for making a strong first impression. Remember, getting a research spot, especially in your first choice lab, is competitive.
Look up the faculty in whom you have an interest.
- Department of Veterinary and Biomedical Sciences Faculty
- Penn State Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences Researchers
Do your homework
Read the research summary on their web page—where you may also find key citations. Look up some of their papers, or even better, reviews. Don’t worry if it looks like gobbledygook: you have to start somewhere. The goal is to demonstrate that you made the effort. Ask your advisor to translate.
Make contact in person
Email is not an acceptable substitute. (Use the telephone only if you have no other choice, and be sure to prepare as you would for a meeting in person.)
Bring a letter (and a speech)
Prepare a packet with a résumé and a cover letter—like you might for a career fair. (If you already have some experience, your résumé should actually be a curriculum vitae.) Talk about:
- your GPA (and maybe SATs if you’re a first year)
- experience relevant to research—work, lab courses, lecture courses
- why you want to do research
- what your career goals are
- why their research interests you (in detail: look up their papers!)
- potential funding sources: work study, fellowships, Schreyer Honors, etc.
If you catch the faculty member in question, and they have time to talk, launch into your self-presentation (as outlined in the letter). Otherwise, leave your packet behind, and follow up by email, or better yet by telephone.
You should think of this encounter as an informal interview: your opportunity to exhibit initiative, preparation, focus, (and maybe even persistence) that are the strongest predictors of success at the bench!