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How to use your academic experience to get a research position

April 2021 | 5 mins read

Amelia Tjoa
By Amelia Tjoa
Sixth Year | Faculty of Science, Microbiology & Immunology
Looking for my first research position felt like a lost cause. I was fresh out of first year and I only had the most basic science courses under my belt. What did I have to offer to any research group? What skills did I have? Why would they want me?

Now, after four years of active research experience and having hired many new undergraduate students, I’ve learned that it doesn’t really matter which technical skills you have, but rather how you approach the position. Frankly, a lot of technical skills can be taught, and in fact, have to be taught every time you start a new position.

Show that you care

So, if you’re applying for a volunteer position (or any starting position really), keep in mind that the principal investigator (PI) cares less about whether you can use a pipette or set a participant up in a study, and more about whether you care about their research and want to learn from them. It’s time to put those term paper skills to good use – read their research, ask questions, and prove to them that you’re passionate and curious about their work. Don’t be afraid to ask questions – it’s a great way to demonstrate your curiosity and interest.

Emphasize your soft skills

Beyond reading their research, you also want to prove that you would make a good addition to their team. Again, this is usually where your soft skills come into play more than your technical skills. For example, this is your opportunity to highlight important skills like teamwork and multitasking, which you have undoubtedly developed from group projects and taking multiple courses at a time. You can also showcase your communication skills – it’s incredibly important that you’re able to communicate your work both in writing (e.g. a lab notebook) and verbally (e.g. presenting your findings to the rest of your group). Basically, flex those in-class presentation skills.

Students working together

Demonstrate your critical thinking

Arguably, the most important skill is critical thinking. Think about the times that you’ve had to think critically for a class.When have you had to choose a stance on a controversial topic based on a pool of evidence? When have you questioned something that was taught to you previously? A very simple way to show off your critical thinking skills is again, just by asking questions about their research. It can often feel difficult to ask questions about research that is incredibly niche and complex, so here’s a tip: discussion sections of papers often have questions or follow-up ideas that you can build off of. At the very least, just asking those questions can open a meaningful discussion and even just show that you made it to the end of the paper.

Understand the basics

I also want to stress the importance of understanding the basics – this is applicable both conceptually and technically. For me, this meant that in BIOL 200 I had to really understand the process of Western Blotting, the purpose of each step, and how similar procedures can be applied to different types of experiments. Similarly in MICB 202, I had to really understand how different immune cells interact and how they could potentially interact under different conditions. Notice that these are both very basic, core second-year courses. To be successful in these courses alone, I didn’t really need to go out of my way to learn about the specific details of these techniques. However, putting in a little extra time to really understand these concepts gave me the background knowledge and confidence I needed to successfully acquire my first research position.

TL;DR

I hope this post was useful to you, and I’ll just stick a little tl;dr in here for those of you short on time:

Of course, this isn’t an exhaustive list of how you can use a very basic first/second-year background to get a research position, but I hope you can apply it to get the research position you want!