Welcome to Undergrad in the Lab!

Undergraduate research can be incredibly rewarding, but where do you start and how do you succeed? Navigating this unfamiliar territory is not easy. Here you will find advice on how to find a research position, and how to get the most out of your experience.

Research is to see what everybody else has seen, and to think what nobody else has thought.

— Albert Szent-Györgi (1893-1986) U. S. biochemist.

Life and Research: A Survival Guide for Early-Career Biomedical Scientists

—from the Lab Manager's bench and the PI's desk

Life and Research is for grad students, postdocs, and staff scientists. However, advanced undergrad researchers, or students planning to do a postbac, planning to go to grad school, or planning to do research in med school will also benefit from applying the strategies in Life and Research. We also recommend Life and Research for principal investigators who mentor early-career researchers.

Why we wrote Life and Research as a researcher-centered book

It's generally presumed that most early-career researchers have the skill sets they need to succeed in their current position simply because they were successful enough to make it to that level. On the surface, this makes sense.

But in reality even two scientists working in the same lab at the same time won’t automatically receive equitable training, professional development opportunities, and mentorship or acquire the same transferable skill sets. As an early-career researcher, you can become a data-producing machine without developing essential communication or interpersonal skills, or you can spend days and nights overworking yourself in the lab making little progress because your approach to benchwork or time management is haphazard.

Regardless of the work culture you experience and the support you receive from labmates, we wrote Life and Research to empower grad students, postdocs, and staff scientists to identify and develop transferable skills and ward off common problems with labmates and the principal investigator by keeping the lines of communication open and building a network of mentors and advisors who are invested in your success. We also hope to persuade you to continually evaluate your nonwork goals holistically, so your life, wellbeing, and relationship goals don’t fall by the wayside.

Many strategies we suggest are inspired by failure or regret—some are ours and others are from colleagues who shared their experiences with us. Ultimately, we’ve created a guide on what we wish we had known when we were early-career researchers and strategies that we wish we had implemented far sooner in our careers.

How Life and Research is organized

Life and Research is divided into two parts. Part 1 contains strategies on achieving personal goals connected to an early-career researcher’s professional responsibilities, while Part 2 is focused on strategies directly related to accomplishing research objectives or conducting labwork.

Table of Contents (A partial list)


Careers Week in STEMM on Twitter. October 16- 22, 2022

text is Career Week in STEMM. Oct. 14-22, 2022. on Twitter @YouInTheLab. Also present are emojis that represent science and research a plant, computer, microscope, labcoat, graph, test tube, petri dish, telescope, and smiling face wearing glasses

What: A week-long Twitter event to promote summer undergraduate research programs (SURPS), job openings for STEM graduates, and help demystify the grad school application process.

We started this event in 2019 and focused on grad school topics using #GradRecruitWeek.

This year we've expanded the topics to include SURPS for students who will be applying soon (many applications are due in the next few weeks and early next year), to connect principal investigators (PIs) who have job openings in their research groups with researchers, and to share other job opportunities.

When: October 16- 22, 2022

a person wearing purple latex gloves holding a pipette and the words ready, set, pipette

—from the Lab Manager's bench

I originally wrote this post on Quora to answer the question, "How do I get involved in undergraduate research while still in community college and working on my general education?" This version is slightly different from the one I posted on Quora.

You might feel that your options are limited but you probably have more than you think.


10 Things to Expect Your First Semester of Research

A gloved finger holding a microfuge tube and a pipette tip being placed in the tube

—from the Lab Manager's bench

Even if you have previous lab experience from a high school or college lab class, the first few weeks of a new research experience in a professional research lab will have its challenges, surprises, and likely be quite different from what you're expecting.

A laptop computer with the screen open. A coffee cup to the left of the computer and a stack of scientific magazines to the right.

—from the PI's desk

No matter if your long-term career goals include research, medicine, or using your STEMM degree primarily for science communication, policy, or another direction, participating in an undergrad research experience is a unparalleled opportunity. This is in no small part due to the personal and professional development you gain from the exposure to in-depth, experiential learning--especially one that takes places over the course of a summer.

In addition to learning new research skills, communicating your results, and making a discovery to solve a problem or answer a question, you have the opportunity to earn a recommendation letter to support future applications for grad, medical, or professional school, and graduate fellowships.

However, if you are early in your undergrad career, you may not need that letter until a few years after your summer research experience. Sure, you could come back to your mentor after that time and request a recommendation, but that approach has some major disadvantages. Most importantly, the more time that passes between when you leave the lab and when you ask for a recommendation letter, the fewer the specific details about your strengths and successes your mentor is likely to remember—and it’s those specific details that can turn a strong letter into an epic one.

 A list of 10 things that are split between two columns. The first column lists 1. Fatigue. 2. Rewards. 3. Frustration. 4. Elation. 5. Hofstadter's Law. The 2nd column lists 6. New and deeper connections. 7. Incomprehension. 8. Personal growth. 9. Feeling like a real researcher. 10. Resenting the return of the semester.

— from the Lab Manager's bench

For some undergrads, this summer will be spent lounging on the beach reading and hanging out with friends. Days will be spent blissfully sleeping until a parent annoyingly insists that it’s time to get up and do something.

But alas that’s not for you.