One of the most highly sought-after experiences for undergraduate science students is the elusive ‘lab job.’ There is no doubt within McGill’s Science student body that a lab research position is one of the most essential additions to your CV and med school application. Although working in a lab is just one of many factors that could help one receive admittance into graduate school, it is definitely a valuable experience.
The range of research at McGill today covers a broad range of exciting new domains, such as genomics and proteomics, and nanotechnologies, as indicated on McGill’s Research and International Relations webpage.
Despite the multitude of labs and the variety of research conducted at McGill, undergraduate students still find it increasingly difficult to obtain a research position. This experience is not surprising. Undergraduate students, particularly U0 and U1 students, are competing with upper level undergraduates, as well as graduate and PhD students—many of whom have previous lab experience, and are more specialized in the field. Not to mention, many find the process intimidating, as students must often contact professors who they have never met before, and ask them about job availabilities.
While there is no foolproof formula that will secure a research position—the process varies for every student—there are definitely some critical steps to becoming more involved in a lab.
While some professors prefer students to contact them in person about research opportunities, email is a useful tool in presenting yourself to researchers and inquiring about opportunities. The email is one of the trickiest parts in the process, because you have to juggle showing interest in someone’s research while presenting yourself and your qualities—all without writing a novel. While every professor has his or her own preference, those I spoke with indicated that showing a genuine interest in someone’s research, as opposed to simply asking about job availability, makes you stand out. This means do your homework, and spend some time looking into someone’s research before you inquire about becoming involved in their lab.
Victor Chisholm, undergraduate research officer, acknowledges there are benefits to applying in pereson as well.
“Talk with a professor in person, either after class or during office hours, try to do so; this will be a much richer exchange than by email.”
“Whether you make contact by email or in person, show the professor why he or she should be interested in you,” Chisholm continued. “Show interest in and familiarity with his or her research, and also your relevant skills and courses. Non-academic skills count too; for example, if you had a summer job fixing cars, your mechanical aptitude could be an asset in an experimental physics lab.
When to Apply
Although there is no designated time to apply for a lab position, certain points in the year have higher hiring rates. According to Chisholm, professors should be contacted about one semester in advance, and a little earlier than that for the Summer. In the Summer there are research awards, such as NSERC, USRA/FRSQ, and USRA/SURA, which have deadlines in February and March, so many students begin contacting professors in November and onwards.
Chisholm also mentions that an advantage of starting too early is that if professors say, “it’s too early,” or you speak with a professor that says no, you can follow up with questions like: ‘When is a good time to ask again? What do you look for in a student? Are there specific courses I should take or skills that I should develop?’
“That way, you can turn what seems like a failed inquiry into something useful,” said Chisholm.
When someone says “No”
There are very few undergraduate students that I have encountered who are working for the first professor that they contacted. Every professor has a different skill set that they are looking for, and there is no guarantee that their lab will even have an opening, or the funding to take on another student. Even if the professor is looking for an addition to his or her lab, it might just not be the right fit.
Researcher and associate professor Dr. Andrew Hendry suggested to contact as many professors as possible, and most importantly, to be persistent. What separates the students who are successful in acquiring lab jobs from those who are not is the fact that many of those students working in labs had to email ten, twenty, thirty different professors before they found their positions. While it will be hard to receive many “No’s,” continuing to pursue such a position will pay off in the long run.
Some Last Words of Advice
Chisholm acknowledges that finding a lab position is a different experience for every student, so keep in mind there is no universal way to proceed. He adds,
“Keep talking! Do not rely solely on lists of specific research opportunities you might find; they represent only the low-hanging fruit, and everyone else is also chasing after them. Many professors do not advertise; they do not have to, because enough talented students come spontaneously to them. Soup and Science, held at the start of the Fall and Winter terms, is a great way to learn more about science research at McGill, and to meet cool profs.”
Why do it?
Though lab research serves as an asset to your CV, research is not an easy job. It takes patience, diligence, and, perseverance. Professors at McGill are highly dedicated to their work, and want lab members who are also invested.
That being said, working in a lab provides an incredibly unique and worthwhile experience. Tribune contributor and U1 science student Kieran Steer noted that it gives him the opportunity to perform a lot of the procedures he is studying in school, which makes school a lot easier.
“It also gives me career insight about ups and downs for research as a career. The job in the lab really helped shape my career objectives,” added Steer.“Overall, it’s pretty cool to put into practice what we learn in school. It can get really boring writing about ‘DNA strands separating upon heating and then annealing to a complementary probe.’ With a lab job, mundane notes like that turn into insightful, active learning like, ‘that makes sense, that’s how the machine works when we run PCR!’ I can see the applications of what I’m learning, which makes university fascinating both in the lab and in the lecture hall.”