Tips on Obtaining an Undergraduate Research Position

Many Department of Biological Sciences faculty have undergraduate students working at various levels (e.g., personal research project, work study) on projects in their laboratory. Normally there are 80-90 students doing undergraduate research in the Department during any given semester.

These are general instructions of how you can effectively obtain a research position in a lab in the Department of Biological Sciences at Notre Dame. Following these instructions does not guarantee you a position. Research labs in the department are usually crowded and not every student can obtain a position. Therefore, you need to be very committed and diligent. You will be asked to work hard and devote a lot of time and energy to your research project. Only do this if you are serious about gaining research experience.

Remember that the research lab you enter invests a great deal of time, energy, and money into training you. This training usually lasts one semester to a whole year. You will become productive only after that time period; therefore, it is best if you start research no later than Fall of your junior year. This way, you will have two years or more in the lab and should be able to make major contributions to ongoing research projects.  Many students start during sophomore year.

Steps to take:
  1. Determine what area of biology you are most interested in (Molecular and Cell, Physiology, Ecology, etc.). Sources you can use to help you are your courses, textbooks, journals such as Science and Nature, talking to TAs and professors, etc.
  2. Think about what system you want to work with (viruses, animal models, cell culture, vertebrates, etc.).
  3. Read the research descriptions of Biological Science faculty at the departmental web site.
  4. Pick 2-4 labs that you are interested in. Read the abstracts/papers from the labs (listed on the professor’s web site).
  5. If the work still interests you after reading the papers, contact the professor by email, introduce yourself and ask if there are openings in the lab. You can also ask for an appointment. This email needs to be professional and thorough. Professors may have a full lab and cannot take new students. However, if you start early (second semester freshman year or sophomore year), you may be able to secure a position in a lab for at least your junior and senior years.
  6. Treat your meeting with the professor like an interview. Remember that he or she has many students who want to work in the lab. Your knowledge, commitment, and interest in the work will be important factors in obtaining a position. Do not assume the professor will remember the information in your original e-mail. Introduce yourself again and be ready to tell them what strengths you can bring to their lab. Bring a resume with you; they may ask for your transcript also.
  7. During your meeting, you may want to find out the following information: a) number of hours expected per week and number of credits (usually 1-2 credits, usually at least 5 hours per credit); b) specific project that you will work on; c) level of independence you are expected to have, d) what are the qualities of a good undergraduate researcher in the lab, etc.
  8. Look for research opportunities during the summer (academic institutions, industry, government labs, medical institutions, etc.) to broaden your understanding of scientific research. Contact the Undergraduate Research Program Coordinator in Biology, Dr. Michelle Whaley, with questions or for individual consultation.

Note: It's recommended that you consider a 1-credit directed readings if there is no space available in the desired lab. This would require you to read relevant articles and meet with the professor throughout the semester. It may also require you to do other assignments. This option allows a sophomore or junior to get their “foot in the door” by showing commitment and interest in the lab. Keep in mind that not all professors have the time to conduct directed readings, but it is an option to consider. Simply ask the professor if you might start in their lab by doing directed readings.