Getting research/lab experience

I sent an email to a biology professor at Caltech essentially asking him for advice how to get from where I’m at now to a good PhD program in biology. To my surprise, he actually replied. His words were the following:

“the thing that would make you more competitive is research experience. Working as a technician in a lab for a while or something similar, so that you can get experience with actual research and letters of rec that speak to your competancy, passion, ability to overcome problems, etc, is what usually make the difference.”

So the natural follow up question is how do I get myself into one of these positions. I’ll be graduating with my associates in computer screen science this fall and going to a 4-year school to finish my bachelor’s. I’m not sure if there is anything special I need in the way of degrees, certifications, etc. to get one of these positions??

Please help. Thanks!

Do you know which 4 year college you will be attending? Your professors there would be the best resource for learning about lab jobs.

I’m going to TSU (Tennessee State University).

No, you don’t need anything special.

Keep your eyes and ears open for opportunities. Work hard in class and ask any professor you are in contact with. If he/she does not have any opening for a research assistant, he/she may know someone else that does.

Listen to this (not mine): “It’s normally (at least in my experience) easier to get started on research by attending workshops, talks, and bootcamps (the Simons institute, for instance, hosts one or two at the beginning of each semester) than through classes, since a) you get a chance to hear about what research they’re doing before you ask them if you can do research with them, b) going to those makes you stand out more than going to a class, which a few hundred other students are also doing, and c) you get to interact with a lot more people who might have research opportunities, since there are probably going to be a fair number of people working on research who might have room for an undergrad in the audience as well, rather than just the one person lecturing in front of the room.”

The way that you get research is by volunteering in a lab. You can ask professors directly if they have RA positions in their labs; most will recruit several undergraduates to help support their lab’s work. There are four biology professors at TSU who do ecology research (Johnson, Ejiofor, Ganter, & Hui). There may also be professors in related departments - like chemistry - who do relevant research you could work with. Being in Nashville, you could also potentially do research at other universities - like Vanderbilt, Fisk, or Meharry Medical College. Vanderbilt has a whole department focused on ecology, evolution, and organismal biology.

It’s pretty common for students at colleges in big cities - especially students at HBCUs and teaching colleges - to do research at other nearby universities. When I was a student at Spelman a lot of my classmates were doing research at Morehouse, Clark Atlanta, Emory, Georgia Tech and Georgia State. And when I was a graduate student at Columbia, we had undergrads from NYU and the CUNY system in our lab. As long as you can get there consistently the professors usually don’t care.

However, I will say that often to get an RA position you need some background in the field you’ll be doing research in. You say your AS is in computer screen science; have you taken any classes in biology or chemistry yet?

Also, professors are often professors because they want to train up the next generation of scientists - you’d be surprised at how helpful and supportive a lot of professors will be along the way. Never be afraid to reach out!