Factors to consider when researching potential undergrad research opportunities?

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cytochromeshe

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I'm interested in starting research when I start my freshman year of college at my state school in the coming fall. I was wondering if anyone had any red/green flags to look for when I start researching labs to email soon? Other than my general interest in the research topic, and maybe how often the lab publishes(?), i'm not too sure what else I should be looking for. Any tips would be greatly appreciated!
 

blackroses

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I'm interested in starting research when I start my freshman year of college at my state school in the coming fall. I was wondering if anyone had any red/green flags to look for when I start researching labs to email soon? Other than my general interest in the research topic, and maybe how often the lab publishes(?), i'm not too sure what else I should be looking for. Any tips would be greatly appreciated!
Talk to students who are currently performing research in that particular lab. Make sure the conditions in which you'll be working are going to be pleasant (or, at the very least, not terrible).
 
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greenturtle22

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I would suggest considering how you like to work. Do you like a hands-on PI and lots of guidance? Are you more independent? PI's vary wildly; some are very hands-off and expect you to handle most things on your own, while others will more directly mentor you and be very involved in the work you conduct. The type of PI/mentorship atmosphere in the lab can significantly impact your experience there, so I would keep this in mind.

Also consider the pros and cons of bench vs. clinical/translational research (and what you might prefer to do). These aren't necessarily mutually exclusive, but a lot of times you end up doing one or the other. You're really going to hate your research experience if it's a type of research that you don't like to do. I couldn't stand the bench/wet lab research I did my freshman year, so I ended up switching to other research avenues that I liked better.

Ask about the potential to publish and/or do independent work in the future. That's always a bonus.

Talk to lab staff/grad students/other undergrad researchers. Do they seem happy and positive? That's pretty important. Negative/unfriendly lab culture makes research incredibly depressing (speaking from personal experience).
 
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aldol16

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Look for a younger professor who is not yet tenured. See if you're interested in their research at all. They are most likely to publish often, as their tenure is tied to whether they publish and how often. They will be very happy for you to join a project or even to do your own if you have the aptitude because they can tack their name at the end of it.
 

edawgmd

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In addition to everyone else's advice above, know your institution by talking to other students and advisors. At my undergrad, pre-meds were just everywhere and getting offered a position to work in the lab was extremely difficult. Basically, everyone sent emails to 20 professors and prayed for the best, but if research positions are easy to come by then you can start considering other things.

Does your school focus on basic sciences, translational, clinical, etc.? I was pretty uninformed and didn't realize that my school had a lot of great researchers/funding, but all the labs were basic science. If you have options available, start from there. Do you like bench work and purely working with chemicals or cells? Are you comfortable with animal research? How much guidance do you get? Are you assigned to a graduate student and never really get to interact with the PI? That's not very good because he can't write a solid LOR for you.

In terms of opportunities for getting pubs and independent research projects, I think that comes last unless you want MD/PhD. Even then, I know many people who did not have publications and was accepted. They had high GPA and MCAT along with years of research experience that was supported by the investigator's LOR. Choose carefully because you don't want to jump from lab to lab since professors do talk to one another. Attending conferences while presenting abstracts and posters are always great opportunities. However, as I stated before, independent projects can take up a significant amount of time that can be used to obtain a high GPA and MCAT. Make sure not to bite off more than you can chew.
 
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Oct 21, 2016
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Look for a younger professor who is not yet tenured. They are most likely to publish often, as their tenure is tied to whether they publish and how often. They will be very happy for you to join a project or even to do your own if you have the aptitude because they can tack their name at the end of it.
Alternatively, it can actually be better to pick an old, established researcher close to the end of the their career. While younger professors are still trying to "make a name for themselves" and thus are quick to take credit for things (ie they are often actively presenting a large part of the lab's research output at conferences themselves, etc), I've found that researchers close to retiring are very generous with giving YOU credit and helping YOU make a name for yourself. There's just more time to mentor when you don't have to constantly be worrying about your own success. And because older professors are usually well-respected and widely known, they will also be more useful in networking.

While you will probably have an overall higher likelihood of getting your name on a paper while working with a young professor as, say, 5th author, I think your chances to actually contribute significantly and publish 1st author / have multiple national conference presentations is much higher with an older professor.

Edit: This is of course context-dependent. Get a feel for the lab. There's also some older professors who are tenured and lazy and don't care to actually produce results anymore, so use common sense/good judgement when touring the lab and deciding. If they haven't published a paper in 10 years, you're probably not going to get the experience I described above...
 
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Goro

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Has the lab has UG students in it previously?
For how long?
Have they been able to publish?
How much is the PI there?
Will you be working under the PI, a post-doc, or a grad student?
Will you have an actual project? What will this entail?
Does the lab have a good reputation? Does PI play favorites? Is it a toxic environment?
Does the PI understand that you as a student have a primary responsibility to your classes?
Does the PI give LORs?
Is the PI new?
How large/small is the lab? (some places are machines where you can easily get lost or ignored)


I'm interested in starting research when I start my freshman year of college at my state school in the coming fall. I was wondering if anyone had any red/green flags to look for when I start researching labs to email soon? Other than my general interest in the research topic, and maybe how often the lab publishes(?), i'm not too sure what else I should be looking for. Any tips would be greatly appreciated!
 

aldol16

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Nov 1, 2015
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Alternatively, it can actually be better to pick an old, established researcher close to the end of the their career. While younger professors are still trying to "make a name for themselves" and thus are quick to take credit for things (ie they are often actively presenting a large part of the lab's research output at conferences themselves, etc), I've found that researchers close to retiring are very generous with giving YOU credit and helping YOU make a name for yourself. There's just more time to mentor when you don't have to constantly be worrying about your own success. And because older professors are usually well-respected and widely known, they will also be more useful in networking.
While you will probably have an overall higher likelihood of getting your name on a paper while working with a young professor as, say, 5th author, I think your chances to actually contribute significantly and publish 1st author / have multiple national conference presentations is much higher with an older professor.
You're talking about a very specific subset of older professors here. One benefit that older PIs have is a lot of grant money and so they can indeed not have to constantly worry about securing funding and providing you with a mentoring opportunity. But here's the problem with this theory. We view undergrads as mentees to be trained in the science and art of research, not scientists who need to publish. This is a common fallacy pre-meds fall into - you join a lab to learn about research and not to publish. Publishing takes a long time and many of us graduate students take two or more years of full-time graduate work to get one first-author paper. Undergrads who work in lab 10-15 hours a week couldn't get a first author paper in a basic science discipline without substantial help. Or if they do, it's low-impact work in a low-impact journal. So my point is, a PI wanting to mentor you is very different than a PI who wants to let you publish. With older PIs, the bar for publication is higher because if you're already well-respected and well-known, you better make sure your work is of the highest quality because there's nowhere left for you to go but down. So in those labs, it's harder for grad students to publish, much less undergrads.

Younger professors will be eager to publish and in their point of view, the more publications, the better. The bar is lower because they need those publications. Also, most of the undergrad mentoring is not done by professors anyway. It's done by us graduate students and post-docs. No matter which lab you're in, your mentoring is dependent on that group of people. The older PIs haven't touched a piece of lab equipment in decades and they're not going to mentor you except an occasional suggestion here and there. Your daily mentoring will be done by the poor grad student or post-doc who has been assigned to you.
 

Goro

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To follow up, most PIs view UG students as more trouble than they're worth.

One more thing to add to my list. the students who used to come into my lab when I was a post-doc had some SURF funding (Summer Undergrad Research Fellowships). Always see if your university has some pools of money like this.

You're talking about a very specific subset of older professors here. One benefit that older PIs have is a lot of grant money and so they can indeed not have to constantly worry about securing funding and providing you with a mentoring opportunity. But here's the problem with this theory. We view undergrads as mentees to be trained in the science and art of research, not scientists who need to publish. This is a common fallacy pre-meds fall into - you join a lab to learn about research and not to publish. Publishing takes a long time and many of us graduate students take two or more years of full-time graduate work to get one first-author paper. Undergrads who work in lab 10-15 hours a week couldn't get a first author paper in a basic science discipline without substantial help. Or if they do, it's low-impact work in a low-impact journal. So my point is, a PI wanting to mentor you is very different than a PI who wants to let you publish. With older PIs, the bar for publication is higher because if you're already well-respected and well-known, you better make sure your work is of the highest quality because there's nowhere left for you to go but down. So in those labs, it's harder for grad students to publish, much less undergrads.

Younger professors will be eager to publish and in their point of view, the more publications, the better. The bar is lower because they need those publications. Also, most of the undergrad mentoring is not done by professors anyway. It's done by us graduate students and post-docs. No matter which lab you're in, your mentoring is dependent on that group of people. The older PIs haven't touched a piece of lab equipment in decades and they're not going to mentor you except an occasional suggestion here and there. Your daily mentoring will be done by the poor grad student or post-doc who has been assigned to you.
 

aldol16

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To follow up, most PIs view UG students as more trouble than they're worth.
True dat! The time I have to spend teaching and mentoring undergrads in lab is more than I would spend if I just did their "projects" myself - and I'm only a post-doc!
 

efle

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+1 for new prof. Get involved in a lab where you won't end up keeping cells alive for a grad student's side project. Much easier to get a big project of your own and lots of autonomy if the lab is only a few people starting up.
 
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Catalystik

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Be sure you'll be able to ramp down your time commitment during midterms and finals. As @Goro suggests, academics (and good grades) are your first priority.
 

cytochromeshe

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Apologies for replying so late. I gained a lot of new perspectives and questions that I should think about (It didn't cross my mind to even think about the professor's age lol). So thank you for that.

Another question- I keep hearing that I should get a feel for the atmosphere of any potential lab by talking to undergrads, grad students, etc that work there. How would I go about this? Before or after meeting with the professor, it considered abnormal to walk up to random people working in the lab to ask them questions?
 

aldol16

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Another question- I keep hearing that I should get a feel for the atmosphere of any potential lab by talking to undergrads, grad students, etc that work there. How would I go about this? Before or after meeting with the professor, it considered abnormal to walk up to random people working in the lab to ask them questions?
If you don't know any current undergrads in the lab, it is perhaps better to wait until after you've talked to the professor. They'll probably invite you to a group meeting or two for you to get a feel for the lab and get an idea of whether you really want to be there.
 
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