Undergraduate Research: Unofficial Subjective Advice and Wisdom

Participating in scientific research early in your career is a way of getting it into your blood rather than just in your head. You can explore different interests and learn by osmosis. We who train younger scientists to be colleagues often wonder whether grad school or even senior year is too late to encourage a creative mindset toward research. Here is some unofficial advice from a cross-section of faculty and former students.


This is an opportunity to dive into the subject, immersing yourself in a topic that excites you. The students who do best take intellectual ownership of a project and think about it on an ongoing basis. Gertrude Stein once wrote an essay called “What are masterpieces and why are there so few of them?” The point of the essay is the importance of becoming absorbed in your work.

The life of a research lab is very different from a course lab, where the materials have been prepared in advance and the outcome is known. In a real lab, experiments have their own time course. You will want large contiguous blocks of time, which on some days will be busy and on other days will have open periods where you may be able to study or go windsurfing while a gel runs. You might need to come in on the weekend to feed cells or check for newborn mice. Biology won’t wait for you, though some experiments can be put into the freezer at certain points. In physics, data-runs on a large shared machine might go all night.

Because you don’t know what the result of a real experiment should be, it is important to know that the methods are working well in your hands. You will include controls – little experiments for which you know the answer – that tell you whether a surprising result is new or just the result of an antibody not working. You will want to always be asking yourself whether you believe what’s in your lab notebook. This means always thinking about the underlying biology or physics, rather than the dials on the machine.

Real experiments are also slow. Each sentence in a textbook probably took 5 person-years to work out. You may spend a lot of time making specialized materials needed to do an experiment. Yet what got us into science was typically learning facts rather than discovering them. So the lab experience is also a self-discovery exercise about whether you also enjoy discovering facts.

There are many such know-thyself aspects to research. You may be finding out whether you enjoy:

  • Discovering facts vs. learning them
  • Lab bench vs. theoretical studies such as theoretical physics or bioinformatics
  • Physics vs. biological sciences (or combining both)
  • Basic research vs. applied
  • Human or mouse experimental systems vs. model organisms like fruit flies, nematodes, or yeast
  • Large labs vs. small ones

Real experiments often don’t work. Or they work, but the answer to your cool hypothesis is “no”. This is another reason to find a lab whose research excites you, so the big picture keeps you excited even during the slow weeks.

Day-to-day, your work will most likely be under the wing of a postdoc or graduate student. This is fine; these are the people who have the time to show you techniques and how to design an experiment. You should also expect weekly meetings with the PI (Principal Investigator, the professor) so he can assist your progress from a more strategic point of view.

Finding a Lab

Many students imagine barriers to finding a lab that aren’t really there. They worry they don’t know enough yet to interest a professor, or that the lab that excites them “doesn’t take undergraduates.” Here’s the scoop.

Most research is funded by federal agencies, not Yale, and they award grants to explore a specific question using a specific approach that the PI proposed. These grants are not for teaching per se, and the PI is obligated to produce experimental results. Typically, the PI will be busy writing the next grants at the same time the lab is working on existing ones. Against this background, it takes about 3 months to train someone (even a grad student) in the goals and techniques of a project. This period is a bit of a drain on the lab and then, for summer research, just when the person begins to know what s/he is doing, poof! s/he is gone.

Part of the solution to this dilemma is for you to find a lab that you want to work in during the academic year as well as during one summer. Students who do this often take off like rockets at about the 6 month mark. Another part of the solution is for the PI to identify bits of a larger project – one or two Figures of a paper, for example – that can be finished in a short time by a talented, enthusiastic, committed student. Your job is to convey that you are that person.

Is this impossible? No! Nearly every professor is hoping that, someday, there will be a knock on his/her door from a talented, enthusiastic, committed student who is really excited by that lab’s work. (As opposed to, say, wanting to buff up their resume for med school.) And if you’ve looked around the web for a lab or two whose work really excites you, have read some of the lab’s papers, and have thought of some perceptive questions about what the lab is doing now, then you are that person. So the solution to finding a lab to work in is not to look for “a lab that is willing to take undergrads” but to be the person who a professor is hoping knocks on his/her door.

(By the way, not announcing “we are looking for undergrads” is one way of filtering for students who are genuinely interested.)

What to look for in a lab:

  1. Science that excites you. Excitement is a pretty good compass; it steers you toward areas that resonate with you and away from a lab that is pursuing factoids. Your first project won’t be aimed at a Nobel, but you should admire the lab’s long-term goals. Being interested is not really enough. Bright people can get interested in anything. “Shoulds” are also not great. They won’t drive you to dive into the subject. As a specific case, many pre-meds think they should work in a lab headed by an MD. But med school admissions officers tell me this is not important for admission, though it might be useful to you as a role model. Similarly, looking for ‘big shots’ solely to buff up your resume is usually the wrong path; this person needs to someday be able to write a letter saying that you were a bright and engaged researcher. Either way, if you see yourself as working in an obligatory salt mine, that letter won’t be strong. Anyway, there are labs here doing first-rate clinically related research if that is where your heart lies.

    What’s important research and what’s a factoid? One thing to check is whether the lab is focused on a Central Question, rather than on specific facts. Each experiment is a brick, and hopefully you get a sense that the PI is building a house out of them. Where is the lab going? Finding a central question helps you distinguish motion from progress. You can now ask yourself whether you find this question exciting. By asking the PI what Central Question his/her lab is pursuing, you will tend to get a clearer answer than if you ask about hypotheses (= proposed answers to a question). Hypotheses are great but are easily trivialized. My favorite, from a major lab and appearing in a major journal, is “We hypothesized that performing multiple repeats of microarray experiments will reduce the variability of the data.” This is a brick, not a house.

  2. A supportive lab environment. A theme that emerges again and again in our conversations with students whose research career really took off is that the lab culture was more important than the particular experiment. You’re looking for good communication with the grad student/postdoc and the PI, as well as an environment in which the students all help each other and enjoy talking about recent papers in their research area. You can see this as you walk through the lab and by attending a lab meeting. It’s supposed to be fun, after all. As the celebrated playwright Noel Coward once said, “There is no fun like work.”

Finding a Mentor

“Mentor” is probably the most overused term in higher education. It is true that successful people are usually those who have found, or attracted, mentors. But not every advisor or professor is a mentor just because s/he’s overseeing you. A true mentor is someone who really cares about your professional development, teaches you, and will later steer opportunities your way. Basically, s/he adopts you. This depends a lot on chemistry, mutual interests, and mutual respect.

Seeking chemistry and mutual interest means that once you’ve identified a lab whose work you like, your initial conversation with the PI is a two-way street: you are also interviewing the PI. You should also sense a certain amount of respect from the PI just for the fact that you want to do research – especially once you’ve shown that it’s research and not a spiffy resume that you are seeking. Demonstrating this comes from having done the spadework beforehand – reading a few papers and thinking about the lab’s work. This is true even if you’re still exploring which of several fields you might be interested in. Ideally, you see yourself as pulling in information as part of your growth, rather than seeing yourself as waiting to have your head filled up by the professor or his/her students. You view the expertise of each of your teachers as part of your eventual understanding, rather than hoping to perhaps understand a part of what your teacher knows. If your potential mentor doesn’t react to your aspirations in this way, perhaps s/he’s more concerned with him/herself than with you and it’s time to keep looking.

Large and Small Labs

Some people like large labs and some rave about small ones. There are no rigid generalizations about size, though there are some tendencies. Here are some considerations, things to look for when you visit a lab:

  • Small (6 or fewer)
    Pro: Often provides opportunities for personal attention, with back and forth conversations with the PI. You might even work with the PI. Good for theoretical studies. Can be good for experimental studies if you’re paired with someone who has the time to teach you.
    Con: Fewer different kinds of experiments or techniques going on around you, fewer people to call on for help, can be difficult if the PI is often busy.
  • Medium (7-12)
    Pro: You’ll probably work with a grad student or postdoc who has more time for you. More people to call on for help, more stuff to watch in your spare time, more equipment and resources, more lab social events.
    Con: You can get lost in the shuffle if it’s an intense lab. May find cookie-cutter projects; though, truth be told, these can be useful training experiences so long as you delve into the intellectual basis of the experiment as well.
  • Large (12-20)
    Pro: Same as for Medium.
    Con: As the lab size grows, the amount of individual attention from the PI tends to decrease. You may get lost in the shuffle unless you’re aggressive or have a dedicated postdoc or grad student who serves as a day-to-day supervisor. Assess whether the lab is large because it has many different projects going on or has a couple of large projects with each person working on one fragment or one technique. Which do you prefer? Has the PI brought together a group of people who keep the atmosphere bubbling independent of whether the PI is there?

Model Organisms

In the biological sciences, you have a choice of systems to work with: humans, mice, or cultured cells from these mammals; zebrafish, a vertebrate used in developmental biology; invertebrates like nematodes (C. elegans) or fruit flies (Drosophila); yeast, a eukaryote; or prokaryotes like the bacterium E. coli. There are two motivations for studying lower organisms: they have fewer genes and proteins, making them easier to understand, and there are more genetic tools and tricks available for manipulating them experimentally, such as mutation screens and banks of organisms that carry known mutations. If your primary interest is disease, you might want to stay closer to humans or mice. Yet model organisms are legitimate for basic studies because the basic pathways and mechanisms are conserved across phyla.

The Workstyle of a Lab

The PI will probably tell you in the first week how s/he would like experiments done and records kept. In fact, be sure s/he does, so there are no misunderstandings. Keep a tidy lab notebook (Purpose, Procedure, Results, Conclusions), attend lab meetings, and go to departmental research seminars if possible. You’ll probably find you need to scale back on the typical Yale whirlwind of outside activities, but don’t let the lab be your entire life.