Choose Your Research Position Wisely


Choose Your Research Position Wisely

—from the PI's desk

Why passion for a research position will help you get an interview, and faking passion will hurt your chances

Each semester, I post an advertisement for the open undergrad research positions in my lab. The ad includes a description of the project, methods my lab uses, and overall objectives of my lab's research focus. Yet, each semester, several undergrads with interests completely unrelated to my research program apply for a position in my lab.

To be happy and successful during their research experience, I know that these students should choose a research project in a lab that aligns with their interests.

If you want to get an interview (and be offered a position), only apply to research positions that are genuinely interesting to you. If you dislike working with computers, then don’t apply to a bioinformatics lab, and likewise, if you want to do clinical research, don’t apply to a lab that focuses on freshwater ecology. When you’re genuinely interested in a research area, or the techniques a lab does, it’s much easier to demonstrate your enthusiasm at the application stage.

Professors who mentor undergrad researchers are adept at recognizing when a student is searching for any research position—regardless of the science the lab does. Even a well-written, professional email cannot overcome a lack of passion or genuine interest in the research position. In reality, most professors only look at an email inquiry for a few seconds, and then make a decision to ask the student for more information, schedule an interview, or eliminate the student from consideration. In only those few seconds, most select the students who are genuinely excited about the research because everyone wants to work with someone who is excited to learn.

That doesn’t mean that you need to fully understand the research focus or what the lab does to apply—and in fact most undergrads do not. But it does mean that you need to make a connection with the research, science, or techniques on a basic level that is meaningful to you.

Why the perfect research position is worth the effort it takes to do a search

Research is challenging. It has boring, frustrating, and annoying parts. It can be difficult to learn fundamental techniques, starts with information overload (both of which can be a blow to self-confidence in the beginning), and you must sacrifice time from your schedule to participate.

If you join a research project that is interesting to you—whether your inspiration comes from the topic, discipline, or the techniques—it makes the difficult parts easier to get through, and helps you stay self-disciplined if your motivation takes a temporary dip. But, if you choose to join a research project simply because you want to wrap up your search, you might soon find that trying to muster enough passion or enthusiasm for the project is more work than the research itself.

5 Reasons it's Important To Find the Perfect Research Position

  1. The perfect position is out there. It would be great if all labs with available positions advertised for undergrads but many do not. Even if you’re lucky enough to find an advertisement for a research position, you can rest assured numerous other students have found it as well. Therefore, you might need to approach professors directly, attend a seminar, or use other creative approaches to set yourself apart from the competition. But once you know what you want from a research position, and what goals you want to achieve, your search will get easier.
  2. If you aren’t interested in the topic, techniques or what you can learn from a particular research position, you won’t enjoy your time in the lab. Few things will make you more miserable in your life than when you dislike your job. And because a research experience happens in a professional work environment it is very much a job. Even positions where the only compensation is class credit.
  3. Your time in college is limited, and you should spend it on high value activities. You should participate in activities that you are passionate about, that you find worthwhile, and that won’t happen if you’re spending your time in a research position that you don’t like or don’t care about. You’ll always be better off pursuing something you find interesting, rather than accepting a research position you’d rather not be part of—even if it means extra shadowing for a semester while you continue your search for the perfect research position.
  4. You’re unlikely to be successful in research if you have to make yourself care about it, or give yourself a pep talk before heading to the lab every day. Even if you are polite to everyone in the lab, your lack of motivation will be obvious. As stated above, research is hard. There is information overload and many procedures need to be done in a precise manner. If you don’t care about the details, you won’t notice them. Which will lead to mistakes and the need to redo experiments more often than if you did care about the work. It’s bad enough to need to redo an experiment that you don’t like, it’s even worse to need to redo it because you spaced out and made an avoidable mistake.
  5. Letters of recommendation from your research professor are not a guarantee. Even if you take research for credit and receive the letter grade A each semester, that only indicates that you have met the grading requirements—not that you’re earning the letter you need to support your future applications. A professor is not obligated to write a strong, positive letter, and won’t be able to do so without personal observations of your strengths and your commitment to your research project. These are impossible to fake long enough to secure the kind of letter you need support your application for med, grad, or professional school. The strongest letters happen when an undergrad and lab have matching ideas of expectations of the experience!

Your genuine enthusiasm for the science a lab does is the key to your short term success (getting an interview and offer to join the lab), and your long term success (being both productive and happy in the lab). It is definitely not true that just any random research opportunity will foster your creativity and be a meaningful use of your time.

In essence, if you pursue a research position you have no interest in, you’ll waste your time and possibly make yourself miserable. In the end, it won’t be worth it. Give yourself permission to keep searching until you find a research position that inspires you--even if it means that your search takes an entire semester.

This was adapted from Getting In The Insider’s Guide to Finding the Perfect Undergraduate Research Experience, now available at amazon books.

A version of this article was published on Student