How to Find a Research Opportunity as an Undergraduate Student | Advice from an HMB TA
with special thanks to Helen Liu for writing this article for HMB students
There are multiple ways about trying to get your first research opportunity or finding another research opportunity.
1) Enrolling in a research course.
There are a variety of research courses in third and fourth year where you will be working in the lab of a professor in a specific department on a specific project. This is a great way to get exposure to research as it is in a class setting, and you also get credit for the course.
Different departments may have different application programs. In some cases you have to contact a professor within the department ahead of time, and if they are willing to take you on in the program then they complete some paperwork with you to enrol you in the course.
Here is a list of all the research courses offered at U of T: http://www.artsci.utoronto.ca/current/life-sciences-undergraduate-research-opportunities-at-the-st.-george-campus
2) Applying for Summer research programs.
There are a variety of summer research programs, some are offered through the departments at U of T and others are offered at the hospitals around U of T.
Different programs will have different deadlines and application processes. Most commonly you will be required to submit your transcript, a cover letter, and a resume/CV, and potentially reference(s). Some may have additional application questions for you to fill in, and you may or may not have to find a supervisor before hand.
Here is a list of summer research programs offered at U of T: (for other departments, you can check the department website)
- of Medical Biophysics (MBP)
- Institute of Medical Science (IMS)
- Institute of Biomaterials and Biomedical Engineering (IBBME)
- of Laboratory Medicine and Pathobiology (LMP)
- Molecular Genetics and Microbiology (MGY)
Here is a list of summer research programs offered at the Hospitals:
- Sickkids Summer Program
- Mount Sinai Summer Undergraduate Research Program
- Michael’s Hospital
3) Applying for funding
After getting a research position, you can also apply for external funding sources. I have heard from PIs that sometimes they are hesitant to take on students who just volunteer in the lab, therefore it is good to try to find your own funding!
Examples of external funding:
- Heart and Stroke Foundation
- NSERC USRA: General information from NSERC can be found here. You will have to apply through a specific department, and the number of awards allocated to each department varies. Check departmental websites for updates starting in early January, but definitely scour for potential PIs ahead of time and make sure that they are eligible to sponsor you through NSERC.
4) Finding a supervisor
For many of the previous methods of finding research opportunities, you have to be able to find a supervisor who is willing to take you on first.
Options of finding a supervisor include:
– Finding a professor who taught you a course
– Looking at PIs (Principle Investigators) who have interesting research in a field that you want to pursue in the future. Some PIs will state directly on their lab website whether or not they are looking for researchers.
To contact these PIs:
Reach out early (well before the deadline of course/research program deadlines). Contact professors by the end of first semester or beginning of second semester for summer positions (some fill up fast!)
When contacting professors DO NOT spam multiple professors with the same general cover letter and resume. PIs are very busy and can tell that you did not put effort into contacting them. Instead tailor/personalize each cover letter to their specific research and your interests by reading some of the work (ie. papers, lab website) they do in their labs, and connecting it with what skills/background knowledge you have in that field. Also change your resume/CV accordingly to adapt to different positions. Always let your passion come through in the email. Most PIs are more concerned with your passion compared to your GPA (therefore, don’t worry if you have a low GPA, you can still get research experience!)
Include in the email: cover letter (which can be the body of your email), CV, transcript (so the PI can see which courses you have taken)
Treat these interviews like formal job interviews, and make sure you understand what the lab you applied to does, what the PI does research in, as well as how your prior experiences can help you with the research position. Typical questions may include “What are your research interests?” “What do you plan to do after undergrad?” “What are your weaknesses/strengths?” “Explain this technique/concept to me”
Overall, applying for research positions can be a very time-consuming and difficult process, and you may be faced with many failures along the way, but if you persevere it is possible to get a position! Luck is also a huge factor at play, therefore if you get a couple rejections don’t feel bad, just try again!