Shifting into research - how?
August 3, 2011 4:43 PM   Subscribe

Are there any options for getting research lab experience long after completing my undergrad degree?

I finished my B.S. in horticulture about 3 years ago, and have been working exclusively in grower/production positions ever since beginning my degree. I'm beginning to think that I might be more interested in a research position where I could divide my time between managing greenhouse material and working in a lab. The problem I'm running into is most of these entry-level research tech positions require some lab experience (as little as 3mos in some cases), and I have nothing beyond coursework.

I'm wondering, is there any way I can work or volunteer in a lab on a part-time basis while job-hunting? Do grad students or faculty accept volunteers for this sort of work? How would i go about approaching these folks for the experience?

I live near a couple of smaller colleges, both of which offer the usual plant biology courses and have at least a few faculty members who concentrate in this sort of work.

Thanks for the advice!
posted by pilibeen to Education (9 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Most would definitely accept you as a volunteer, especially if you go back to your University and offer your services. I don't know how difficult it would be for applying for a volunteer position at a different college. It still couldn't hurt to try.

I know that I stayed on as a volunteer for a few extra months at the lab I had interned for during my undergraduate degree after I had graduated and even moved. I don't see why they wouldn't let an alum volunteer for free. Just email your old professors and get them to connect you with a good lab, and maybe recommend you. Or get them to write you a letter of recommendation if you plan to volunteer at a different college. Good luck!
posted by Peregrin5 at 4:53 PM on August 3, 2011

I'm wondering, is there any way I can work or volunteer in a lab on a part-time basis while job-hunting? Do grad students or faculty accept volunteers for this sort of work? How would i go about approaching these folks for the experience?

Absolutely! Cold-calling (not by phone, but by giving printed resumes and cover letters to faculty and/or their admins) can actually serve you pretty well here. The suggestion to use your former profs is a great one also.
posted by en forme de poire at 4:59 PM on August 3, 2011

Yep, ask around, and definitely have your old profs ask around. This is how I ended up with a master's degree in biology.
posted by unknowncommand at 5:07 PM on August 3, 2011

Response by poster: Quick sub-question:

What if you're 3 years out of a degree, and never really had any relationship w/ your old profs to begin with? There is absolutely no way these professors would recognize my name or face at this point.
posted by pilibeen at 5:12 PM on August 3, 2011

It doesn't matter if you don't have relationships or experience, or whatever. At this point, you're free labor and they're going to give you boring grunt work that doesn't affect anyone if you screw up, drop out, or can't keep up. You're free labor, and even though you might be capable of doing more (and they'll want you to do more before they write a recommendation letter), you have to prove it.

Here's the website of a guy who got a PhD in psych using the cold calling method, basically. As you can see, it is a lot like applying for a job in that you have to determine your interests, research schools and professors, and then let them know what you can contribute. But if they have physical space in their lab that no other student is using and you've shown you can speak intelligently about the research they're doing, you have a good chance of success in getting the job.
posted by lesli212 at 5:36 PM on August 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

It doesn't have to be a prof you had any sort of relationship with already. At least 2-3 people who have worked in my lab full time have gotten the job by just talking to my prof and being persistent, even though he wasn't hiring. In those cases, they made the progression from volunteer to temporary (ie hourly) worker to salaried position. And my PI is a busy guy. Sometimes skipping the volunteer part.

Just go for it. Be persistent. Show that you care about what the lab works on.
posted by supercres at 5:38 PM on August 3, 2011

I was only 1-2 years out, but had never taken a class with either of the profs who would then become my PI's (principal investigators). I think they maybe knew my face, since it was a small-ish campus, or knew other students who were friends of mine. Really, though, what's the worst that can happen if you contact them? They'll either ignore your email, or they'll say they don't have anything for you right now. It's absolutely worth a shot. I'm happy to read over brief cover letters and resumes that you're thinking of sending. Feel free to memail me.
posted by unknowncommand at 6:58 PM on August 3, 2011

I am in research. I am not in your research.

Here are my suggestions:

*Check your local university's job listings for openings.

*Investigate the websites of PI's you would be interested in working for. Check to see if they have a research group. If so - read their current papers (you may need to get on campus to gain access to the journal's website) and send an e-mail expressing interest in their field and how you found their latest paper on X interesting.

*Attend professional society meetings in your field. While networking determine if there are any attendees from the university you are interested in working for.

For what it is worth - I do not work for free and would suggest the same for you. I have walked out of interviews when I found their "internship" was really unpaid work. I have never regretted not taking a position because they did not have respect to pay me for my time.

You can read more about unpaid internships here (pdf).
posted by BuffaloChickenWing at 9:18 PM on August 3, 2011

BCW, the unpaid internship thread doesn't really apply to the OP, who would be working part-time in a field where s/he has zero experience. This is no different from taking a class to improve employability -- in fact, it's better, because normally classes actually cost money. It is a far cry from the exploitative situations that you are talking about.

Also, practically speaking, the OP will find it much more difficult to find a paid part-time position than a volunteer part-time position, especially given the investment of time that people in the lab would be making to train the OP. Remember, the OP has no background at all in lab work and may actually be leaving in the short-term. Demanding a paid position would be unrealistic and could easily come across as entitled.
posted by en forme de poire at 9:08 AM on August 4, 2011

« Older Taco Road Trip 2011, Question from the...   |   Where can I buy affordable, fashionable USA or EU... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.