Women in Undergraduate Degrees: This is How to Get Research Experience

It’s not a secret that women are underrepresented in academia, and especially in STEM. For these reasons, it can be especially hard for a woman to find a role model: a mentor, who comes from a similar background and can describe to you the rules and incentives of the game in a language you understand. When I first got to university, I got into research because at the time, I wanted to become a physician, and research was a prerequisite for medical school. I also did research just because I knew enough to understand that it was a respectable summer job. In retrospect, these were the wrong reasons to get into research, but since I didn’t have a mentor, it took me especially long to understand the beauty of the pursuit of knowledge, as well as how to do research right.

This guide is made for anyone who has had little resources going into academia, and for women in particular. It takes you through the first steps of searching for a – good – research position and for the incentives to look out for.


The Point of Research (And Science in General)


The one quality you will find in any good researcher is that they are dedicated to answering a specific question. It sounds so straightforward, but it took me years to realize how important it is to train yourself to see everything from this lens. Much of research is boring and repetitive, and the only way to stay motivated is to have the end goal, that is: answering your question. Every good Principal Investigator does it.


Before you begin looking for a research placement, you have to choose one to three questions that the answer to interests you most. Here are a few examples:


  • “What changes occur in the brain when we learn? And, once something is learned, how is the information retained in the brain as a memory?” (Eric Kandel, Nobel Prize Laureate)
  • “Do worms get Attention Deficit Disorder?” (from here: http://biology.mcgill.ca/faculty/dent/)
  • “Can the future of antibiotic resistance be predicted?” (from here: https://kishony.net.technion.ac.il/)


For instance, my personal question is:

  • How can I use a systems approach to understand and prevent the spread of infectious diseases?


To formulate a question, think about what is the most interesting you’ve recently learned in class, what books you’ve read in the past, what you’re good at, and how you usually think. You’re studying a certain discipline. What attracted you to it on the first place?

How to Look for a Lab


On your university’s website, look for the department where research regarding your question might fall. There is always a list of faculty members. Go methodically, looking at one researcher at a time. Try to get 2-3 names. These are the people you want to email.


Make sure the researchers are Principal Investigators, meaning, that they have their own group and that they take students. Usually professors (full professors, assistant professors, associate professors) will have a group. You can also usually see a team roster on their website.


Here are secondary things you should take note of:

  • Look at the lab roster. How many people are there? If there are over 20, you might get very little contact with your professor and you might get less mentorship. If there are less than 5 and the lab didn’t open this past year, it might be a red flag.
  • In the lab roster, look at the Master’s and PhD students to post-doctoral students ratio. Master’s and PhD students usually need more mentoring, so labs headed by good mentors will usually have more PhD and Master’s students than post-docs. Labs with hands-off mentors will usually have more post-docs, since post-docs usually want to be left alone to pursue their own research.


However, don’t join a lab because…

  • you think the professor is really cool (but you’re lukeworm about the research)
  • Your friend is working there
  • The professor is very well known


Issue: What does Assistant/Associate/Full Professor Mean?


It took me years to understand the difference between full, associate, and assistant professors. The meaning varies, but practically, it means how senior the professor is: assistant professors usually don’t have tenure, and full professors always do. In the past, I’ve been told that it’s better to get mentored by a young professor who hasn’t gotten tenure and is hungry for publications, and I’ve also been advised that it’s better to get mentored by an older, seasoned professor who has more experience in mentoring and will be less pressuring. Clearly, there are pros and cons for each.


Writing the Email

Here are the rules:


Paragraph 1: where you study, what your study, what year you’re in, what your GPA is, any research experience or scholarships you might have.


Paragraph 2: why you’re interested in THEIR work. Here you want to feature your question and explain in one sentence why you’re interested in this question. Then, mention how their research comes into place, and try to refer to at least one research paper they wrote. Highlight one question you have about the paper or a main theme you see in the work (Ex: “I like how you apply a novel approach by x, y, and z”)


Paragraph 3: what you want to do in their lab. Is it research for credits, volunteering or a summer placement? Ask the professor to meet with them to discuss it in detail soon.


Don’t forget to attach a transcript and a resume!


There is a good example for graduate school letter here, but I think it can be easily adapted to an undergraduate letter: http://theprofessorisin.com/2011/07/25/how-to-write-an-email-to-a-potential-ph-d-advisor/

Issue: I have no experience


Everyone had no experience at one point or another. Don’t feel unworthy: I know people who got into world-class, amazing labs with no research experience. Just ensure that you show your enthusiasm and illustrate to the best of your ability that you understand what is done in the lab.


If you have no experience, you might want to ask to work as a volunteer at the lab, or pursue a research project for course credits (almost every university has this option). The advantage of that is that the professor will be more willing to take you if they’re not taking a monetary risk. Money if often stingy in academia, and at the end of the day, what you do in the lab matters more than if you got paid or not. It’s a good stepping stone for paid work.  Also, I will recommend pursuing a research project over volunteering just because it will give you more responsibilities and will keep you motivated.


Issue: Multiple Professor replied to me. How do I say no?


For a long time I felt uncomfortable saying no, until I had to scramble for a lab to do my honours project in within the bounds of one week. What I learned is that professors are used to it. One of my bosses even previously told me, “students are flaky.” Believe me, there will be no hard feelings, and they won’t feel betrayed.


Simply send an email thanking them for the opportunity and for their time, and say that you’ve received an offer at a different lab and that after long deliberation you decided to pursue it instead. If you stated your goals in your original email, you can refer back to them and explain you found a place that better suits your interests.


You should, however, visit all the labs and see what they have to offer before saying no, because you really never know. I was interested in bioengineering and went to interview at a worm lab. The professor was extremely kind, and when I told him what I’m interested at, he offered me to build microfluidics devices together with him. This type of experience would have been more useful than the experience I would have gotten in most bioengineering labs.


Visiting The Lab

You have sent an email and received a reply from the professor. Yay! Now is the next step: visiting the lab. The way it usually goes, is that the PI will discuss potential projects with you, and after deciding on one, will invite the graduate student responsible for this project to meet with you and discuss the details. There are a few things to watch in this interaction.


First of all, most times you will have no idea what the professor is talking about when they describe the project to you. That is completely normal. If you feel comfortable, you can ask them for clarification. It might make you look more engaged and interested than smiling and nodding, but don’t feel ashamed to smile and nod either. You do want to watch out to see if the professor is really trying to explain the project to you, even if they don’t succeed. That is a good litmus test for whether they are a caring mentor or not.


You should also watch out for the number of projects the professor offers to you. If they offer you only one project in mind that has nothing to do with the interests you expressed in your cover letter, it should be a red flag. It might mean that they’re simply looking for someone to do incredibly repetitive grunt work.


In reality, you will spend most of your time with the graduate student, not the professor. You want to make sure that the graduate student will be a good mentor and someone you will chime well with, so pay attention to their level of enthusiasm about taking you in.


You want to see as much of the lab as possible. Some labs have score boards, or funny quotes and comic strips glued to the walls and the doors. You want to be in that type of lab. Look to see whether they talk to each other often. Ask whether they ever have lab outings, and whether they celebrate birthdays. Overall, you want to make sure that the lab is an environment where you will feel comfortable, because you will spend a lot of hours here, and might have to ask every member of the lab for help in one point or another.


Issue: Gender in the Lab


Engineering labs will be dominated by men and biology labs will be dominated by women. That is a whole can of worms we can get to later. From personal experience, I advise that you don’t start at an all-male lab unless you feel very comfortable among men and know the professor and some of the students very well. That is especially true if this is your first lab. Being female and the least experienced person in the room can lead to uncomfortable situations.


In terms of your mentor, the graduate student whose project you’re working on, at least from my experience, gender does not matter. Patience does. If they treat you as an equal and let you ask stupid questions, you will be alright. However, I do think it’s true that if you’re more similar to your mentor (and that does include whether you’re of the same gender) you will probably chime well together better.


Issue: Don’t over-promise


When I first began working at the lab, I agreed to take on projects I couldn’t do, committed to staying in the lab for longer terms than I ended up staying for, and generally didn’t know how to say no. Though I don’t have the data to prove it, I feel like this might be a more common experience when you’re a woman and your boss is a man.


Over time, I learned that doing it is extremely destructive. Even if you feel uncomfortable saying no, you should do it, or at least point out hurdles you might face and asking what resources you will have to work through them. From experience, if you don’t say no in the beginning, the problem will balloon and balloon until it leads to an even more uncomfortable situation.


Finally: Get a Role Model!

It’s really difficult to figure things out without a role model, and it can be very difficult to search for one. Some people also might feel too shy to ask for help. Don’t.


Here are a few ways to find role models:

  • There is someone doing what you want to do that you found through an online search? Don’t be afraid to email them. Worst case, scenario, they don’t reply.
  • Join the local group of women in science (ex: Lean In, Scientista), there are often female professors who get heavily involved in the group and love dispensing advice.
  • Ask around in your community. I personally am a member of a group called Effective Altruism. When I decided to pursue the career I chose, I posted on their Facebook group asking for advice. I got a ton.


Conclusion: Women in Research


To do research well you have to be passionate about one cause. Little girls aren’t necessarily encouraged to be focused at one passion, but it’s never too late to search for it and pursue it. Research can be extremely rewarding, and there are definite advantages to having more diversity of viewpoints in research. It affects what questions are being asked and answered, even in STEM.


By Noga


Photo by Drew Hays on Unsplash

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

Photo by Zhen Hu on Unsplash

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