Are you interested in Biology? Botany? Physics? Neuroscience? Clinical research? Archaeology? Psychology? Nanotechnology? If the research that you want to pursue occurs in a lab, a research team, or as part of a field project, then finding people to work with is your biggest priority.
With hundreds of labs on the Evanston and Chicago campuses, and all of them doing exciting work, there’s no magic matching system between undergraduates and Northwestern University labs. You have to be proactive in finding somewhere that will be the perfect match for you.
The trick to finding the right place for your interests and personality is to be focused. Don't just fire off 100 identical emails with your resume attached to every lab in your field. Approach it like your college search, and find somewhere doing work that you are genuinely interested in. You are much more likely to get a postive response to your initial emails if you have some idea what the lab you are writing to does!
So take your time. The work you do as part of the process of identifying a lab is valuable in its own right: it's an opportunity for you to learn more about research in your field of interest.
First is not always best. All labs are not the same. Don’t jump at the first place you find. Instead, relax and take the time to explore what may be the best option for you.
BROWSE AND NETWORK TO FIND LABS
Search by concept to find faculty who share your interests.
This database contains many labs on campus. It should explain what they do in the lab, what role undergrads can play, and how to contact them.
Read Their Work
Scholarly work is written for other expert researchers in the field, so don’t be intimidated if you don't understand everything! Read through the abstracts, look through sections in the paper that are interesting to you, and get an indication of whether you are curious about what this lab is doing.
Make a List
Break it down into groups: people you would absolutely love to work with, those who may be good, and those who you aren’t really interested in (or understand what they do).
Talk to Students
Ask other undergraduates about their experiences in a particular lab. Talk to other student researchers at events like the Undergraduate Research and Arts Exposition.
Use Your Experience
You have already applied to college, so you understand the process of evaluating different opportunities and seeing which matches you best. This process is similar.
WAYS TO GET INVOLVED
Opportunities for undergraduates are unique to each lab. Each lab can have its own system for getting involved or hired.
Get a sense of the lab and what they do. See if it’s a good fit for you.
Work study experiences can be different than actual research experiences because work study students may do only the most basic tasks in a lab. Learn more about work study.
Sometimes labs can hire undergraduates independently or sometimes they can hire you through their external grants. If a lab does not have resources to hire you, they may be eligible for a URAP grant.
HOW TO MAKE CONTACT
Show What You Know
You have taken the time to read some of their research, beyond just the basics. Let them know that you are really interested and want to get involved to learn more.
Try Lab Managers and Grad Students
Many principle investigators are incredibly busy and delegate parts of running the lab to others. When you email a lab, copy the lab manager, post docs, and/or grad students. Say you are open to speaking with whoever is available.
COOL YOUR JETS
Don’t Send Mass Emails
Do you respond to bulk emails that are obviously not written you to, but to some unseen group? Take the time to write an individual email. It will make all the difference in the world.
Don’t Ask for a Wedding Ring on the First Date
In your initial email, don’t send your resume and ask them straight up for a job. If they know nothing about you, why would they offer you a job sight unseen? And before you've met them, how do you know you really do want to work for them?
Instead, communicate your genuine interest in the work the lab is conducting, and ask to meet in office hours to learn more about that research. Make the most of this meeting, to ask any questions you have about their research process or future projects, or things you were curious about but didn't fully understand from their publications (see above). If this meeting goes well and you are excited by the work they are doing, this is the time to ask if they take on undergraduate researchers or volunteers.
MAKE SURE THE SITUATION WORKS FOR YOU
Like your college search, you found that not every place is as good in real life as it appeared on paper. Make sure you are comfortable, so that you can have a good experience. Lab work can be challenging. Use your meeting time to assess whether you can be happy there.
How to Get Started on Research by the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science