The Ins and Outs of Finding Your First Research Position During Undergrad

Everyone has a different reason for getting involved in research: from being curious about a specific topic to wanting to try something new to adding experiences to their post-grad applications.

But a common question asked is “How do I get involved in research?”

When I first started searching for research positions during my undergrad, I had the hardest time finding a researcher to get involved with. It involved sending at least 100+ cold emails, attending networking events, sitting in on research seminars, and hearing many “Sorry, no.” But many rejections later, I finally heard “Yes” from a research group.

Here are a few tips to finding your first research position during undergrad.

So you want to get involved in research, but don’t have any experience?

When I began seeking research positions, I will see postings requiring specific research/ lab experience. If you are in a similar situation, make sure to maximize your academic experience in your application. In your resume, you can have a subheading for “Academic Experiences” where you can include any experience from your coursework/labs. For example, if you wrote a final academic paper, this may have involved searching scholarly databases and grey sources, synthesizing and summarizing key ideas from articles, and writing. These are common key skills that are required for research positions and can increase your chances of securing an opportunity.

Similarly, if you have lab work as part of your courses, make sure to include the lab techniques and tools you learned. For instance, include things like using aseptic technique or pipetting culture into microtubes, conducting PCR tests, or streaking culture onto petri dishes in your resume.

Where do I find these research opportunities?

Professors: If you are interested in a professor’s research project, go through their lab website and see their research focus, recent publications, and the type of projects their research group is working on. Following this, drop in during their office hours, ask them questions about their research and if you are interested, ask if there are any opportunities available to get involved. If you are unable to attend office hours, you can always send a cold email asking for an opportunity. As well, you do not need to stick to professors within your faculty or university only. Reach out to any researcher you are interested in and there may be opportunities for remote experiences or for opportunities in-person.

Teaching Assistants/Graduate Students: Many times, teaching assistants are Master/PhD students working in professor’s research labs and have their own research projects. Since you can showcase your interest and research skills during academic labs, TAs can provide you opportunities to get involved with their projects. As well, you can network with your TA and ask for research opportunities.

Not-for Profit Organizations: It was not until my senior years of undergrad when I came to know that not-for profit organizations have research opportunities. These positions can be academic in nature but also have a more applied focus. For example, this can involve data collection for a research study, conducting literature reviews, and/or conducting environmental scans. If there is a not-for profit organization that you are interested in, reach out to see if there are any research positions that you can get involved with.

Hospitals: Many hospitals have paid summer student research programs available for undergraduate or master students. These are great opportunities to get involved in a structured summer program and expanding your network. Start looking for these positions to be posted anytime from November onwards. In addition, students can reach out to scientists at these hospitals asking for opportunities to get involved in their lab. Similar to professors having their own lab website, clinical researchers have their own websites that may have a section of getting involved in their lab.

How to reach out to researchers you don’t know?

Cold Emailing: Firstly, make sure to do some research about the researcher you are interested in working with. This involves going through their lab website, publications, and looking at current projects they are working on. Check if the website has any information about getting involved and if so, follow the instructions listed. If there is no information on the website, send an email to the PI asking for any opportunities available within the lab.

My emails in the past consisted of 3 paragraphs: the first paragraph involves introducing myself, my interests, and experience; the second paragraph focuses on the identified lab’s projects/publications and how it relates to my interests; and the closing paragraph asking if there are any opportunities available. For each email, I only include my resume unless the lab website indicates other documents should be included.

Volunteer vs. Paid Positions

From my experience, it was difficult to secure paid research opportunities when I was getting started in securing my first research position. If you have the flexibility to perform unpaid work, there will be a higher chance in getting involved with a lab. In your cold emails, indicate you are open to any opportunities within the lab. This demonstrates that you are willing to do paid or unpaid work.

If volunteering is not an option for you, there may be research grants/stipends available within your university. Speak to your university career centre or awards office to see if there are any funding options available. As well, most summer student programs are paid or have grants that you can apply for funding.

COVID-19 and Finding Opportunities

Given the current climate, many institutions have halted their volunteer/student programs. However, there are still opportunities available both in-person and remotely.

Continue reaching out to professors, teaching assistants, and researchers from other organizations asking for any opportunities. As well, there has been a focus on COVID-19 research in every discipline and researchers can always use your help. The situation is very fluid and organizations have adapted to the “new normal.” Do not lose hope in finding opportunities during this time!

Overall, it is crucial to find a research area that you are genuinely interested in learning more about and are passionate in making a difference. Many scientists know each individual has to start somewhere and are willing to give students a chance to get involved.

Most importantly, don’t lose hope if you keep getting rejections because you may be just one email away from your first opportunity. Best of luck!

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not reflect the views of their previous and/or current employers.


November 8, 2020


Abinethaa Paramasivam