At some stage during your education in STEM, many of you will seek to work or volunteer at a laboratory where you will gain hands-on experience and partake in research towards a dissertation or attainment for a higher degree. This can be a challenging decision as it may significantly impact your future career path. To make this task easier, here are a couple of pointers that may guide you through your research and lab selection process.
It is not essential to have a focused or specific area of research when you are selecting your very first lab. It is, however, a good idea to have a general area of something that interests you for researching . At the same time, you need to be honest with yourself, and decide what you are not comfortable working with such as animals, plants or even human samples. Once you have answered these two questions, then you can start looking for groups that are working in the areas of science you have identified that are also utilizing the types of samples you are comfortable with.
2. Google the Group
Throughout your research career, Google will become your best friend. You need to find out as much as you can about the group and how active they are in the field (regular paper publications and not just conference proceedings). Thus, search for the group on all social media platforms; from twitter, Facebook to even YouTube. Most active groups are quite good at promoting their work via several of these platforms.
3. Previous Lab Members
You can usually contact their alumni to find out more about their experience. Their names are usually mentioned on the group’s page i.e. if they are a well-organized and an up-to-date group. Joining a group that nurtures career growth is a very important quality. It would also be useful to inquire about the career progression of their previous lab members. A lab that has an excellent mentorship ethos will ensure invaluable guidance to a more successful path in whichever field you decide on during your research career.
4. Contact the Group Leaders
Never hesitate to contact the group leaders. They may not respond to you immediately but know that they are keen on helping students. However, when you write to them keep it concise without any elaborate or flowery comments. It is more important you mention why you are interested in their area of expertise, how it will benefit your next career steps and schedule a call or meeting with them or one of the researchers in their group to find out more about their research.
5. Visit the Research Group
Now that you have been offered the opportunity to visit the group, it is important to prepare a few questions before this meeting. Speak with not just the group leader and postdocs but also the PhD students in the group. You can ask project-related questions to find out how the research is funded, if there are opportunities post your project and supervisors’ accessibilities (you need guidance hence having a supervisor who is available would really help and can determine your project success). ! In addition, also ask how often they have meetings (impacts your project progression), whether they have journal clubs (enhances your thinking process) or even if they have any social group activities (improves team building skills).
6. Keep in Touch
Once you have met with the group leader and visited the lab make it your priority to keep in touch with them via e-mail. Add them on your Linked-In network but not your Facebook! Follow them on twitter and engage in scientific exchanges if possible. This will show them that you are enthusiastic and would like to know more about their area of work.
By now, you should have met with the group leader, visited the lab and kept in touch with them via e-mail. The next step is to request visiting their lab for a few days and shadowing one of the researchers. This experience will provide you with a clearer image of not only how they do research but also the dynamics of their group and how they interact and share information.
8. Conference or Seminar Attendance
It is always good to attend a conference or several of the research seminars hosted in your institutions. You will not only learn more about the array of research that is carried out but it would help you identify your area of interest and locate the groups that are working in that field. Always be confident enough to ask a question or even go up to the speaker at the end of the presentation and engage in a conversation to find out more about their work or group.
9. Your Project
When being offered a research project do not accept it immediately prior to consideration of the following points; (1) does the project permit exploration of new ideas as you do not want to be just a pair of hands pipetting in the lab, (2) does the project have steady funding- you don’t want to run out of funding mid-way during your project and (3) is there a project plan currently in place to guide you in your first couple of weeks.
As Richard Feynman said; “If we want to solve a problem that we have never solved before, we must leave the door to the unknown ajar.”
Consider getting involved in research a challenge like any other difficult projects in your career path. Put in the required thought and effort to ensure the best odds of success. Whether or not it turns out to be an amazing experience, you will learn to be flexible and think on your own. Most importantly, it will add to your repertoire of knowledge on how to tackle your next challenge.
Sadaf Atarod is a green scientist who wants everyone to discover the fascinating world of science! She is currently based at Newcastle University and is constantly tweeting @micrornaologist about the latest scientific discoveries.