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Tips for new researchers


At UCLA, I did research as an undergraduate student for ~3 years. Here are some things I learned. This post is aimed towards undergraduate students but is relevant for healthcare professional students interested in research too.

  1. Terminology
  2. General tips
  3. What to look for in a lab
  4. How to find a lab position
  5. How to be a good researcher

Terminology

  • Principal Investigator (usually just “PI”) - Professor who advises students, postdocs, staff, etc. They write grants and get the money required to fund such research. Also called “advisor”.
  • Postdoc - short for postdoctoral scholar or fellow, these are researchers who have an MD or PhD and are doing more research to prepare to become faculty.
  • Graduate student - a student doing their Masters degree or PhD. The latter entails classes, teaching, and most importantly performing research.
  • Fellow - in the context of a clinician, a Fellow has completed residency and is pursuing further subspecialty training. Many fellowships involve research.
  • Protected time / academic day - time when the clinician does not have teaching or clinical duties and can work on research.
  • R01 - grant provide by the NIH to support research; the financial lifeblood of much biomedical research. Increasingly competitive to win. Any lab with 1 or more R01s can be considered “well funded”.
  • Lab meeting - a meeting of the entire lab to update the PI on research progress, get input from everyone else, etc.
  • Journal club - a regular meeting where a researcher gives a presentation on a published paper (not their own), and critiques it.

General tips

  • You aren’t selling your soul. Try it out and see if you enjoy the endeavor upon which academia is built.
  • Do not expect to get paid in $ (unless you can commit an entire year, full time).
  • Here are some suggested outcomes to aim for:
    • strong letter of recommendation
    • abstracts & posters, publication(s)
    • firsthand understanding of the chronic failure that is research
    • career-advancing relationships with academics
  • 2+ years of continual experience in the same group may improve your chance of publication and acquisition of useful skills

What to look for in a lab

  • IMO mentoring environment of the lab is MUCH MORE important for your career success than how interesting you find the topic.
  • @heydavemathews has another view: the topic is important. Intrinsic meaning is rewarding, and therefore sustainable. Merely working to put in your dues is not. Dave says “does the work resonate with you? Is it intrinsically interesting to YOU? Being weirdly into it is healthy. and necessary.”
  • The typical process of judging a lab is not objective. You will Google the PI, judge the lab based on appearance of lab website (like wine), and correlate the merit of their research with how many times the word “Nature” appears in their PubMed. This feels right but it is incorrect.
  • To find a good work environment, talk to the PI and students instead of relying on Google
    • Ask the PI about their thoughts on mentoring, teaching, previous student outcomes, and lab organization.
    • These are more important for you than the nebulous, political vanity metrics that most labs are judged on.
    • Relevant metrics change once you are a grad student, fellow / postdoc, and eventual collaborator.
    • Everyone lies and embellishes, so talking to five people will let you establish an average assessment that should be closer to reality than what the PI alone claims.
  • Ask your “assigned faculty mentor”. At UCLA, faculty were forced to meet students 1:1 for 15 minutes. They can give you some suggestions of who to contact.
  • Lab size is not that important, because there are pros and cons to small and large labs.
  • Small lab / new PI:
    • more attention with PI, closer relationships between lab members
    • but drama is annoying, your PI may not be politically powerful, and lab may not be efficient because it is just establishing protocols
  • Large lab / established PI:
    • more independence, more research $ for nicer equipment and supplies
    • but lab may be disorganized, and you have to fight for attention to make your accomplishments known to the faculty
  • Start working with a good senior undergraduate, or graduate student. Ideally someone who has published anything before.
  • Transition to an independent project after a year or two.
  • Faculty mentor fit is not as important now, especially if you have a good grad student mentor. The PI is more important once you are in grad school.

How to find a lab position

  • If you email faculty, do not expect rapid replies, or replies at all.
  • Prepare for being rejected.
  • Emails should be concise, organized, and specific.
  • Your email subject should not say “Undergrad interested in research”. It should say “Sophomore BioE pre-PhD interested in 2-year lab research, starting immediately”.
  • Bad emails are long and redundantly polite:

“Dear Professor Firstname Lastname, I am an undergraduate student majoring in X at University of Somewhere. I am writing to you to express my interest in potentially pursuing a research opportunity in your lab, which I came across via the department website. My future interests include …”

  • Better emails direct and concise (yet still polite):

“Hi Dr. Lastname, I am a sophomore undergrad majoring in computational biology and would like to do research in your lab. Specifically, I am interested in X, Y, and Z. Attached is my CV. Please let me know if you are willing to meet in person. Thank you for your time!”

  • The objective of your email is enable you to meet the PI in person, not to be accepted right away.

How to be a good researcher

  • @heydavemathews: Work your ass off.
  • Document everything you do. This is a resource for your lab’s future students. The PI will appreciate it.
  • Every other week, re-organize your documents
  • Back everything up (Dropbox, Box, Time Machine)
  • Electronically map your physical lab notebooks
  • Schedule regular meetings with people you must meet with
  • Treat lab meetings with more importance than your peers and rivals. They are the only chance you have to get on stage in front of your advisor, collaborators, etc. Make your presentation flawless
  • Knowledge is power. If your PI gives you a paper, read it and three of the references / relevant papers.
  • Be a team player. Go out of your way to help lab mates with anything you can.
  • Clarify expectations with co-workers and mentors.
  • Pay it forward to mentor and help younger students. Every day you get one step closer to be being the boss. And you went through the same valley of ignorance they went through.
  • Be a great single-tasker. You will be inefficient if you multi-task. If you are distracted and make mistakes at the bench, it could cost you hours to repeat the experiment (or months if you ruin rare samples).
  • People will make suggestions, and do things that you may find sub-optimal. Test those theories instead of blindly following advice that may be bad.
  • PIs have earned the right to give advice because they have years of experience. It doesn’t make it correct though. I know thoughtless PIs who are inefficient and not very successful. I also know incredible faculty. Appreciate the range.