I am a big proponent of having undergrads working on research projects. I like working with undergrads in the lab. They tend to be enthusiastic and willing to learn. I have pretty much always had one or more in my lab right from the time I started at Big State U. A number of them have been extraordinarily productive. During the almost 12 years I've been here I've published seven papers with undergrads listed as authors. Six of those have an undergrad as first author. Another, with an undergrad first author, should be submitted in the next couple of weeks. Some readers of my blog may recall that I am also PI on an NSF REU Site grant that pays for a bunch of students to come do research in the department each Summer.
Based on my experiences with these students I offer up the following:
For undergraduate students-
- Choose the PI's you're thinking of approaching carefully. Just because they're working on something you think is cool doesn't mean they're a good choice. Do they seem approachable? Have they had/do they have undergrads in their lab? Do they have a large lab, which would increase the chance that you wouldn't have much interaction with the PI? Check out their website for a start.
- Don't spam a bunch of PI's via email. Write each person you're interested in an individualized message. Indicate why you're interested specifically in them. Read up on the work they're doing. Every single undergrad who has ever worked with me scored a position because they had done their homework. And asked to talk to me.
- Be honest about why you want to try your hand at research. We do know that many premeds want the experience to increase their odds of getting into med school. Personally I have no problem with that - I'm in a college of medicine after all. Some PI's don't want premeds in their labs for a variety of reasons, some quite good - if you're premed you probably don't want to be in those labs. Besides, if we know what you want out of the experience we are in a better position to help you get it.
- A tepid reference letter for grad or med school from a "rockstar" professor won't help as much as an enthusiastic letter from a lesser known, more junior person. Tepid reference letters will often hurt your chances, not help.
- Be enthusiastic and be prepared to work hard. And remember that the PI has many responsibilities and may not always be available when you want/need them.
- Finally, keep in mind that many PI's at MRU's are not required to have undergrads in their labs. Paying tuition does not entitle you to a place in someones lab.
- Undergrads are a lot of work. Even the really good ones. But they are, IMHO, worth the effort. Heck, I've got seven, almost eight, publications as a result of working with undergrads. And they're fun.
- Don't take on an undergrad unless you're prepared to put in the work. You could assign them to a grad student or postdoc, but if you do, make sure you make some effort to stay involved in what they do. They came to work with you.
- Having a trial period in which an undergrad does scut work (washing dishes etc.) is fine. Just don't make it too long. Using an undergrad as free scut labor makes you a jerk. If you're paying them to do scut work and have no intention of getting them involved in research, make sure they understand that before they start.
- If an undergrad has earned authorship, give it to them. And put them in the right place in the authorship list. Bumping them out of a first authorship they've earned in order to give it to a grad student, postdoc or yourself makes you a serious ass wipe.
Undergrads can rock in the lab. If given the chance.