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How to get a research position and Take advantage of research opportunities

Updated: Jul 26, 2018

Henry He, Contributor

March 29, 2017

When I first heard about research, I didn't know where to start. I wasn't sure what my interests were nor was I sure how to go about finding a position. But luckily, after a lecture from my first-year biology professor, I found myself interested in viruses and vaccines.

So, like most millennials do, I Googled. I looked up a couple of scientific papers with “virus” in the title, and reached out to some of the professors in the Microbiology and Immunology Department at Schulich.

But then came the hard part. You have to persist in your search for a research position. I sent out four emails and received no responses after a week. I wanted to give up. But soon after, I got a response from Dr. Stephen Barr, asking me to come in for coffee. I was over the moon!

Then, after the initial bite, you have to prepare for your research interviews — making sure you've read some of your potential Principle Investigator's research and making sure you know how to sell yourself.

Luckily, my interview went well — as I got a position in Dr. Barr's lab! I spent over three months volunteering there, doing dishes and learning basic procedures.

But my research journey didn't end there.

I decided to take another leap of faith and apply for the Dean’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program for the summer of 2016, and I was lucky enough to receive it. I conducted research with Dr. Chris Ellis in Medical Biophysics in a smaller lab than Dr. Barr's.

Almost one year later, I’m still working with Dr. Ellis in the lab, and bringing my project toward a publication. I also just came back from two conferences this past week, where I talked to other researchers in my field and got new ideas for my own project.

Back at the Barr Lab, I'm still working on a bioinformatics project with a post-doc and have developed my skills in that field as well.

What did I learn from my research journey? Be curious. Be brave, and honest. And be ready to try new things. That first cold email kickstarted a whole realm of opportunities for me. Soon enough, you’ll find something you’ll like, and even if you don’t, at least you’ll know what you don’t like. Best of luck!

Matthew Arora, Contributor

Like many have said, before you start sending those cookie-cutter emails to profs, I recommend you take a moment to think about why you want to do scientific research, and what you expect to learn from the experience.

So you're looking for a research position, why?

Is it the thrill of expanding the expanse of knowledge in the universe? Are you interested in applying the knowledge you’ve spent so many hours in class acquiring? Or maybe you’re just doing it because everybody else is, and so involvement in a lab is starting to feel like a requirement for that science degree.

Once you’ve figured that out, you’ll need to do some research on your own – read up on faculty members at an institution of your choice (LHRI, BMI, Schulich School of Medicine and Dentistry, etc.) and find scientists whose work aligns with your goals.

I’d recommend compiling a list of 5 Principal Investigators to start. Learn about each of their labs, to the point where you could describe their work to a friend (i.e. what do they study, how do they study it, and why do they study it?).

Now you’re ready to send them a personalized email, describing who you are and why you want to work with them specifically.

When I was searching for research positions at the end of first year, I sent out 50-100 emails, only 1 of which had a personal touch to it.

The lab position I’ve held for the past two years has been a result of that one email, as most of the others went unanswered.

PIs get hundreds of emails a week and they won’t take the time to read yours if you didn’t put effort into writing it.

A good way to prepare for an interview is to learn a little bit more about the PI’s work, and review the goals that you expect to achieve through your involvement with their lab. These interviews can vary in intensity based on the interviewer, but treat it as seriously as you would any other job interview – it’s always better to be over-prepared than under-prepared.

You can reach Henry He at if you wish to speak to him or ask any questions.