Volunteering in a Lab
If you are a UTSA undergraduate and desire to perform research, but are not in an organized research training program or the Honors College, it is still possible to do so here on the UTSA campus. In fact,you even earn credit through honors research courses (you no longer have to be in the Honors College to take them), Independent Study courses, or through other internships that may be available in your department.
What you need for any of these mechanisms is a faculty member (often referred to as a PI, or Principal Investigator) who will accept you into his or her laboratory or work group. Below is some advice on how to approach a faculty member to seek a position in his or her lab.
Seeking a Mentor
Using web information from departmental websites as a starting point, look at the types of research that’s being performed at UTSA and who is performing it. Select several faculty who are performing research that you think is interesting. Make sure to look at their laboratory website, if they have one. You can also look online for scientific papers that they have published; the ones on which they are the last author listed tend to be on projects that they completed in their labs (rather than collaborations lead by someone else). Pubmed or GoogleScholar can be used to pull up their publications. You don’t have to fully read a full paper, but it is good to skim through the abstracts on some of them. You can also put together a CV, which is a comprehensive "resume" of science. Most undergraduate CVs are minimal in length, but will give the professor a source of contact information for you. A CV template can be found here. You can either offer them your CV in paper format, or ask if you can email it to them if they ask for it.
Approaching a Prospective Research Mentor
You can approach prospective research mentors directly (in office hours or after class if you're in one of their classes) or through email. If you choose to send an email, send two or three of the researchers you selected above (but not to all at once) a short individual email giving a (very) brief run-down of your academic background and credentials. Mention your interest in their research and ask if you may set up an appointment with them to discuss a possible volunteer research position with them (or independent study, or honors research). Make sure the email is grammatically correct, short, and tailored to their research. If you get no response after a week, send it again. If still no response, you can either try to track them down in person or move on to another person. Professors actually like persistent people... if you give up after one try, you didn’t want to perform research with them very much. They also like talking about their research to an interested student, so don’t be afraid of speaking to them.
Contact Email Example
Dear Dr. XXXXX,
I am an undergraduate Sophomore/Junior/Senior [pick one] XXXXX major. I am looking for a lab in which to work and am very interested in your research on XXXXX. If you are accepting students at this time, I would like to schedule a meeting with you to discuss your research and possible opportunities in your lab. I plan to work in the laboratory for XX semesters, until I graduate.
Meeting with a Prospective Research Mentor
Regarding the actual meeting: ask if they are in a secure hallway or building. If they are, you'll have to bring their phone number so that someone can let you in. Also, don't get offended if they have to cancel (professors are very busy people); just set up another date.
For the meeting, dress normally but be sure to show up on time. The researcher will ask you questions and you should also be prepared to ask them a few questions about their research. They will probably ask you why you want to perform research, why you want to work with them, and what your long term career goals are. You can ask them about what projects might be available for you to assist on (you won’t get your own for a while - you will be working with another student or postdoc in the lab).
What are faculty members looking for in future lab members? The specifics vary with field and by faculty member, but a minimal time commitment is a must: 15 hours/week is good, 10 might work, less is not workable if you want a project of your own. Other factors are listed below. Please keep in mind, you may be invited to attend lab meetings or to participate in the lab for a trial period; you must prove your reliability. They spend time and resources in their student researchers and you should give them the idea that you would be a good investment.
You don't need all of the characteristics below to be an acceptable undergraduate volunteer, but these help:
- Are you excited about research and their field? (demonstrates engagement and commitment)
- Have you sought out research experiences in the past?
- Are you knowledgeable about your coursework in their field?
- Did you read and come up with questions about the field or project?
- How good is your GPA? (shows knowledge of field and responsibility)
- Do you have sufficient time to get a project done?
This includes available time during the week, time before graduation (several semesters), large enough blocks of time between classes, and even blocks of time that correspond to the availability of someone who will train or work with you, if pertinent.
- Did you show up on time for the meeting(s)?
- Did you persistently pursue the position and hop through any hoops that were created? (persistence is a sign of a good researcher)
- Did you attend meetings/activities that you were told to attend?
- Did you read assigned papers and fight to understand them?
After your meeting, they may also take you for a tour of the lab (if they have one) or tell you about a project. Sometimes, rather than offering you a position, you may be given something to do (eg. read a paper, etc.) and they will want to meet with you again; this could be a test so make sure that you do what is assigned. It will show that you're very serious about entering the lab.
If you are offered a position and you have a very good feeling about it, go for it. If they say that you can start on a certain day but then don't get back to you, then you need to get back to them and pursue your opportunity. If you are offered a position but are uncertain about a laboratory, thank them very much for the meeting and ask if you may get back to them within a few days. Get back to them. If you do not choose their lab, always remember to send an email thanking them for their time.
For those of you entering a lab, the PowerPoints below may assist you in a getting a strong start.