Note: You Are Not Alone!
There is always too much pressure set in this scenario. If it is your first day you might feel anxious that you will have no idea what you’re doing and disappoint the researcher. If it is not anxiety you’re feeling, maybe it is stress that first impressions are essential to set a proper start to how the rest of your lab experience will go. It could be something completely different that you do not even know how you feel about it, but the feeling in your gut is definitely there or you have not even started the process and you are lost. Well it is all OKAY because your feelings are valid, everyone has felt them, and there is a way to work through it!
- How to Start
- Take advantage of University sponsored events to connect with people in research. Putting yourself out there in research fairs, career fairs, and upperclassmen is a great place to start! Whether you are experienced or are completely new to the process, go to all events you can. We tend to effectively learn through our mistakes and the more you practice, the more you will be able to understand appropriate answers. You can even test a couple different answers for similar questions to seek which ones get you the best responses back.
- Networking: Do NOT be afraid to follow up and email because sometimes you have to be assertive for them to follow through. Professors, researchers, lab directors do not have the time to keep track of students who are not committed in the lab. They do not want students who are trying to boost their resume or get their name published on work they did not put enough effort towards. If you put in enough efforts to consistently reach out, read some of the professors previous works and intentionally mention it in conversation, it shows them that you are serious about it (even if your intentions are for resume boosting or graduate school).
- Getting to know upperclassmen and your advisors could potentially get you connections you did not even imagine. When talking to others, you will realize the more you put yourself out there, that energy will follow you back. The more your name is out there, the more people will like to get to know you. Even if they do not give you opportunity to know others, or help your network, you can ask them for honest advice. These are peers that have already gone through the process of what you are going through, and 90% of the time they are more than happy to help you out.
2. Practice Talking
- The better you are able to tell a story or scenario for your answers to any question the better you will be able to connect to whomever you speak to.
- As ridiculous as this may sound: speak to your mirror. Seriously look at yourself in the mirror with potential questions you could be asked and practice your answers to them. Do not hold flash cards or memorize answers to certain questions. The questions you are going to be asked will always be asked differently by different professors so it is important you can naturally carry out a conversation. Try to talk to your mirror as often as you can (1-2 times a day) and set time away to do this.
- Ask for help from peers, siblings or parents! The further you are dedicated to this, the further your communication skills will be able to take you. Ask them to interview you, ask them what you can improve on, and ask them whether your intonation, tone, and speed of speaking was normal.
3. Cold Emails
Cold emailing professors is a technique to make your own opportunity to join a research lab. This process will require some effort and research. First you will need to look into what research lab you would like to join. Look into professors of labs that you are actually interested in! Do NOT do a lab you think will “look good” on your resume or for medical school. There is not such thing as labs looking good or bad and medical school interviews will ask questions about your labs in great detail. If you are disinterested in your lab, then you are setting yourself up for disaster. You can set meetings with your professors to discuss their labs, but this way you are allowing yourself to gain a good place in the research professionals head (that will set you apart) and it will be a great opportunity for you to ask about joining the team in the labs.
A good template of a cold email would look like:
Hello [PROFESSOR NAME],
I hope your [holiday/season] is off to a great start. My name is [NAME] and I am a current [YEAR, SCHOOL, MAJOR]. I wanted to reach out because I’m very interested in your research of [what their research is in].
I’ve had some previous experience with [PREVIOUS RESEARCH EXPERIENCE HERE, mention projects, passions, interests. should be longer than just this sentence]. While my background is primarily computational, I have had wet-lab experience and am eager to apply these skills to my passion for the [RESEARCH TOPIC].
I am primarily reaching out because I am interested in participating in the [PROGRAM, if applicable] and wanted to see if you’re willing to participate as my mentor through this program. I would love to learn more about your research and set up a 20-30 minute meeting to discuss your research further. I know this season has been especially busy, so I am also free sometime this upcoming semester to discuss if that works better. I’ve attached my resume to this email if you want to see more of my projects and background. I’m highly motivated and excited to learn. Looking forward to hearing back.
4. Follow Up
As mentioned previously, professors are extremely busy and do not look forward to students who are just looking for a resume booster. If you follow up every 2 weeks (if you do not get a response) for a total of 2 times (more than 2 follow-ups just means the professor is simply not interested) than you will be able to prove to the professor that you are willing to show your dedication. Contrary to belief, following-up does not make you a lesser student, does not mean you are losing your dignity, or anything to that extent. It will, in fact, have the opposite effect and make the professor like that you are confident you are the best person for this lab and you should be allowed to work with them.
5. Do NOT get overwhelmed
- Have trust and believe in yourself! As cliche as this may seem, the more courage and confidence you build on yourself, the more others will see that in you. Go day by day, and start by building up an impressive CV (a medically relevant resume). Use action words and if you are younger you can put things from high school, but as you are more involved college, be sure to replace those high school experiences with more recent ones.
- Others have been in the same place as you. Ask for help if you need it! People are more than willing to help, look out for mentors, and do not be ashamed to ask for anything. There is seriously no dumb question because what you may think is dumb, it is guaranteed there are 10 others who are thinking about the exact same question. There is no need to do everything alone and handle all the pressure by yourself. Finding yourself opportunities is no easy feat, so do not feel bad about asking others questions.
- Don’t worry about failure. Every downward curve is just an indication of an incoming upward curve. If there are several research professionals who are disinterested in you, or if you got into a lab and then you were released after a few days of work, it is all a learning curve. Even if you are scared of the answers or if seems embarrassing, ask what you did wrong that made them feel that you were not for that particular lab. It may sting at first, and the answer may not be anything you were expecting, but you can work on those things. You can allow yourself into a growth mindset, obtain insight and perspective, and attain respectability.
6. In the Lab
The lab is a professional setting. It is not a place of messing around and horseplay. You do not have to be completely stiff and emotionless in a lab, but connecting with your peers and lab professor is much different than getting a personal level with them that may cross the thin line between what is appropriate for within a lab vs. within a coffee shop. To connect to your research professional, in this setting is by asking questions. Not obvious questions that can be answered by textbooks or that may potentially annoy them, but questions from their previous works and how that can relate to what you are doing now. Questions about the big picture of the lab, and what the professor may think the results will mean for others.
Connecting to a research professional is just the one of the many steps you can take to land a position of your dreams or in a lab that interests you. Take the time to research people in your lab and message them, because all it takes is one “yes”.
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