Start early! Begin your search for a lab the semester before you intend to register. It may take multiple contacts before you can find a lab home. This is especially important if you plan to work in a Texas Medical Center (TMC) lab outside of Rice. You will most likely need to complete various applications, immunization forms and other paperwork as well as undergo any required training before stepping foot in the lab. (In some TMC institutions, it can take 30 days to process completed paperwork.)
Where do I start?
There are many research opportunities for Rice undergrads on- and off-campus, and there are many different ways to find a research opportunity. How can you find someone working on something that genuinely interests you?
- Think about what you are interested in. You probably have many different things that interest you. Really examine why you are interested in these topics. Look for overlap and similarities. These will help you focus in on a specific field that you would really like to explore.
- Talk to people! Talk to your advisors and professors. Tell them what you're interested in. They can help point you towards faculty members who are working on similar problems, including faculty in other departments that you might not have considered. Talk to other students. Older students can offer suggestions about what classes to take, identify professors you might want to talk to, and share how they found their research position.
- Do some reading. Check departmental websites and faculty research pages for descriptions of their research. Find something interesting? Go one step further, and read some of their work. Scholarly articles are written for other experts in the field, so don't worry if you don't understand everything. Read through the abstract and introduction and other parts that look interesting to you. This should help you determine if you are curious about the problems they are studying.
- The BCB Opportunities Owl-Space site and mailing list is a great way to hear about biological and biomedical research opportunities on and off the Rice campus. To join, log on to OwlSpace using your netID and select My Workspace > Membership > Joinable Sites and select BioSciences Opportunities.
Contacting a potential advisor
You've found a few groups that you are interested in learning more about. You may have gotten to this point without talking to a faculty member yet, but that's about to change. This step is intimidating for most of us, so if you're feeling a little unsure at this point that's okay.
If you read through some of our undergraduate student profiles, you'll see that there are many different ways that students connect with their research mentor. Some were asked by a professor if they were interested in working in their group. Others approached a professor whose class they loved and found a spot that way. Many others followed the general process outlined here and emailed faculty to express their interest in joining their research group.
Emailing a professor about research opportunities
- Use an informative subject. A busy faculty member is much more likely to open an email titled "Undergraduate research opportunities in your lab" than "Hi" or "Research"
- Open your email formally. You may be reaching out to more than one professor as you search for a mentor, but you want your emails to be personal. Address the faculty member directly, "Dear Dr. ______,". Don't just say "Hi" or "Dear Professor,".
- Introduce yourself. Provide some of your background information: What year are you? What's your major or intended major? Describe any relevant course work or prior research experience, even if it was in high school. If you are considering graduate school after Rice, include this interest in your message.
- Explain why you're writing. Briefly tell them why you are interested in a research position and why you are interested in their lab in particular. Express your interest in a research topic or specific paper from their group.
- Ask to set up a meeting. Provide your availability to make it easy for the professor to check their own schedule. Thank them for their time and willingness to discuss things further.
- Close your email formally. A simple closing, such as "Sincerely" or "Best regards" followed by your name, works well.
How many labs should I contact?
Getting into a lab is partly timing and luck, so don't get discouraged if your first efforts aren't successful. It's usually necessary to contact several labs, one or two at a time, to find a position.
If you know someone in a lab where you want to work, ask that person to put in a good word for you.
If you are not successful after several attempts, talk to an advisor or research course instructor for feedback on your contact letter.
There are many reasons a professor may not be able to take you on right now. Keep looking! There's a research experience out there that is perfect for you.
Getting started in your research position
You've secured your research position. Now the hard work starts — making a meaningful contribution to science. (This is also the fun part!) This can seem like a daunting task, but here is some advice to help you get started on the path to success in your research.
- Make sure you understand what is expected of you. Your professor or mentor will probably tell you about specific expectations. If their guidelines aren't clear, be proactive and ask for clarification.
- Keep regular hours. Plan your schedule so you can work closely with your mentor, especially as you begin your training. Clearly communicate the days that you will be gone due to vacations or finals.
- Read the relevant primary scientific literature. These are the journal articles that report new and original research findings written by the original researcher. Scientific journal articles are dense, and it will take time and experience to be able to read and understand them. Go slowly and work your way through them carefully. Ask other group members for help understanding things when you get stuck.
- Follow all safety requirements for your specific project. Always wear proper lab attire. Be neat and clean up after yourself. Spend your time in the lab occupied with research: don't text, play on your phone, etc.
- Keep a detailed notebook. Write down everything in detail, even if instructions seem perfectly clear and logical at the time. Take the time to perform each experiment as carefully as you can. Avoid careless errors like mislabeling or forgetting instructions.