Where can I find summer research opportunities?
March 27, 2012 3:33 PM   Subscribe

I'm a post-bacc pre-med student, and I'm trying to find a research position (paid, unpaid, whatever) for this summer so I can start to get some research experience. My school's listings for research positions in medicine-related fields (or even basic science) are really not useful, nor is the pre-med advising office. Where can I find listings for such positions? Who else should I talk to?
posted by ocherdraco to Education (15 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Just start emailing faculty members who are doing things you find interesting. Don't make it too long, tell them who you are, and that you're interested in working with them. If you mention you're willing to do it unpaid even better. Undergrad-type (I know you're not an undergrad, but you're undergrad-type) research positions generally aren't posted.
posted by brainmouse at 3:35 PM on March 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

I had some preliminary luck in psychology by going to the department sites and looking at the professor's bios. There they might have application processes for working in their labs or email contact information. You should also ask your current TAs and professors. Network as much as possible.

Good luck!
posted by the young rope-rider at 3:36 PM on March 27, 2012

Brainmouse is right. See which faculty seem interesting to you, send them a brief email explaining who you and asking if they might have space for you. Attach a PDF of your CV. Plan to email 10-20 of these people, because they are busy, don't have space, etc, so lots won't respond at all and others will say no. When one agrees to meet with you, asking good questions and demonstrating that you actually understand and are interested in what they do (NOT just interested in getting research experience to get into med school. that is not a selling point) will go a long way. Good luck!
posted by juliapangolin at 3:42 PM on March 27, 2012

When I was a post-bacc looking for research opportunities, I followed the money. Use NIH RePorter to search for active grants at your institution. Each grant lists a PI and Co-Is, and your school should keep a directory that will supply you with the relevant contact information. If you want to go a level deeper, look at these researchers' faculty pages and contact their project coordinators or grad students. The response rate is abysmal, as juliapangolin mentioned, but you'll hopefully get at least one response. I would try to focus on clinical research programs that would put you in contact with doctors and patients. Bench science is boring and awful unless you're really into cleaning glassware.
posted by The White Hat at 3:46 PM on March 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

That is such a good idea, White Hat. Of course that's where to look!
posted by ocherdraco at 3:52 PM on March 27, 2012

In the absence of an effective clearing house for you to find professors and them to find you, it looks like you'll have to do the hustle yourself. Make sure that when you follow brainmouse's and juliapangolin's excellent advice that you demonstrate that you have a basic understanding of the professor's research while telling them how interested you are in it.

Are there any professors, TAs, or especially TA coordinators that know you who would be able to speak to your good qualities? They might know a professor who would need someone or later hear about a professor who needs someone and be able to recommend you.
posted by Blasdelb at 3:54 PM on March 27, 2012

At the same time that I posted this question, I sent an email to my Chemistry professor and TA asking if they knew of any opportunities.
posted by ocherdraco at 3:57 PM on March 27, 2012

asking good questions and demonstrating that you actually understand and are interested in what they do (NOT just interested in getting research experience to get into med school. that is not a selling point) will go a long way

Specifically, lay your hands on a bunch of their (lab's) recent publications and spend some time developing a sense of what they're doing, and why.
posted by pullayup at 5:49 PM on March 27, 2012

Yeah, my experience in your position was that it took persistent emails to PIs of interest to make things happen. There's also the "work in a coffeeshop and volunteer on a cool research project" which is a much easier sell to research groups, since they don't have to pay you. You get a couple of nice letters of recc and maybe a paper out of the deal but don't have to be there 9 to 5. I know a couple of people who were successful with the volunteer approach when they couldn't find a paid gig.
posted by killdevil at 5:53 PM on March 27, 2012

I did EXACTLY what brainmouse said when I was a pre-med undergrad. Hell, I just did it 2 days ago as a med student to try to find a position for next year, and got a few good responses. These are the steps I used, do this and I promise you will find something.

1) Write out a formulized letter that you can replace certain parts of to email out to people. Here's basically what I wrote, with certain identifying things stripped out or changed to more properly suit you:
Dear Dr. professor's name:

My name is your name, and I am a post-bacc pre-med student here at your university. I was looking to do some research this summer, and I saw that you do research in whatever they do work in while perusing your department's website. So, I thought I might see if you have any current research projects that I'd be able to get involved in. Ideally, I'd like get involved in a project that I can continue with for the upcoming school year.

Optional section: If possible, it would be nice to receive a stipend for any work I do this summer, but I'm open to working for school credit or on an unpaid basis as well.

If you don't have any current openings, I'd appreciate it if you could point me towards someone else who you think might have something for me.

A little background about myself: I grew up in wherever, and I went to some school for undergrad, where I majored in whatever. I've done a fair amount of research in that field in the past, but nothing recent as I spent a few years in the public sector before coming to do my post-bacc here.

In any case, thanks for your time, and I look forward to hearing from you!

Your name
2) Start at the homepage for your university, and find the different department websites that have the lists of faculty members that do research, both for the undergrad and medical schools (if your school has a medical school). This is the hardest part, because sometimes they hide these things in weird places. Hopefully your school has these, I think most do.

But as an example, let's look at my undergrad, Hopkins. I'll walk you through how I found the undergrad biology department website with the list of all the biology faculty members on it.
  1. Start at the main Hopkins website, www.jhu.edu.
  2. Mouse over where it says "Schools & Academics" at the top, and click on "School of Arts & Sciences". (The undergrad at Hopkins is divided into two "schools", the school of arts and sciences, and the school of engineering. The biology department is part of the school of arts and sciences.
  3. See on the website where it says "Visit the website to learn more"? Click that.
  4. Mouse over where it says "Departments" on the left, and when the javascript pops up, click on "Biology".
  5. Click on "People" on the left.
  6. Boom. All the biology faculty members at the undergrad campus, names, emails, and if you click on their names, you even go to a page about each which describes their research interests.
  7. Each department website is going to be a bit different, just look for a link on the department page that says something like "People" or "Faculty", something where you can get a list of everyone, but especially something that will let you find out their research interests. (You want to make sure the people you're emailing actually do research!)
Oh, you want the school of medicine? Let's do that one as well.
  1. Step 1 is the same.
  2. Instead of "School of Arts & Sciences", click on "School of Medicine" this time.
  3. Step 3 is the same.
  4. Click on "Departments" near the top of the page.
  5. Yay, lots of lists of departments. Click one.
  6. Look for a link on the page that says something like "People" or "Faculty", or sometimes "Research". I don't know, each section here might be a bit different. For example, the Neuroscience section has a link at the top labeled "People", then under that heading, "Faculty", which leads you to a site much like the biology one above. But other ones, like Opthalmology, you have to click on "Faculty and Staff" on the left, then "Research Faculty" to find out who does research, or so it seems. Just use your brains to figure out where the list of people who do research is.
3) If you want to maximize your chances of getting a position, click on basically every person in every link, figure out what they do research in, and just change your form email to reflect the information that the above website gives you about the person.

4) Send out tons of emails, and don't expect a lot of responses. But don't take it personally. These people are busy, they're always doing grants and other stuff like that, so consider yourself lucky if you get a few responses. That's why I'm suggesting to you that the best thing you can do to find a project is literally mass spam everyone you can find who you're sure does research. Don't be hesitant about this. Just effing send out a ridiculous amount of emails.

5) If you get a response, set up a meeting with the person to get a feel for the type of person they are and if you think that you'd work well with them. I've been burned by not doing a proper job of screening people to work with, and it turned into a mess for both of us.

The only other thing I would suggest is maybe shortening the email that I typed out above; I tried shortening it pretty severely, but you may even try to shorten it even more. You're going to find that shorter is better when interacting with researchers. These people are busy, and if you send out a very long email, they very likely won't read it. Once you find a person to work with, you shouldn't be surprised if you find that they answer your emails with one sentence responses. So matching their style of interaction will probably help you a lot.

Ok, this was probably information overload. But yeah, this is a strategy that works.

Feel free to send me questions if you want.
posted by 254blocks at 6:23 PM on March 27, 2012 [4 favorites]

Thanks for that detailed plan of attack, 254blocks. I really appreciate it!

One important thing: I have never done any work in research before. I was not a science major the first time around in undergrad (I studied Linguistics), and am just now taking my first college level science course (General Chemistry). How should I address that in my emails to PIs?
posted by ocherdraco at 7:14 PM on March 27, 2012

am just now taking my first college level science course (General Chemistry). How should I address that in my emails to PIs?

I don't think you need to. The initial email is about expressing interest and demonstrating enthusiasm and getting an email back and/or an initial meeting. You need not be a biochemist to make useful contributions to basic science research as a student. Reading and writing are all you need to be able to do to get started. Pick up some general interest journals over the next couple of months and get a feel for the language of scientific discourse. I'm a big fan of Nature and Nature Reviews.
posted by killdevil at 8:27 PM on March 27, 2012

Sorry, this is going to be a really long response. But hopefully it will answer your questions.

To answer your question to me, basically I agree with killdevil. The whole background section that I put in there was to give the people I emailed a little background info about myself and to make myself seem more interesting and hopefully get them more interested in me. Here's what I actually wrote in my emails (note that I'm looking for radiology research because I'm looking to apply to radiology for residency):
A little background about myself: I grew up in Virginia, and I went to Johns Hopkins University for undergrad. I've done a fair amount of research in the past, although nothing that was published, and nothing recent as I took a year off between my M1 and M2 year for health reasons. Other than that, my aunt is a radiologist as well, and has been very helpful in helping me come to the decision of applying into radiology.
So you see, it was just a section to make myself seem more interesting. I definitely wasn't suggesting that you include anything about any research you'd done in the past, I just wrote stuff about research in that section as kind of a suggestion that if you *had* done any research in the past, that might be a good place to talk about it a little bit. I just didn't know how to tailor that section to you specifically. In your case, I'd probably just mention what you did before you decided to go down the post-bacc route, and write something like:
A little background about myself: I grew up in wherever, and I went to some school for undergrad, where I majored in linguistics. Before coming here for my post-bacc, I spent X years working in a non-profit pr whatever to help needy children in Africa.
An astute reader should be able to read between the lines and glean from that that you don't really have a very strong science background - not that that's a problem - we all have to start somewhere. I wouldn't volunteer that information in your initial email to them, to be honest - at this stage, it's more important just to get a foot in the door and get face-to-face meetings with researchers and see what they have to offer you. If they ask you about that specifically, just be honest about how much you know or don't know.

To alleviate your fears, I do want to tell you a few things about my experiences with research.

If you go down the biology/mediciney/non-psychology route to find research as I've outlined above, there are two basic types of research you'll be offered: bench work, or chart review.

Bench work is more of the "hard science" - working with bacteria, or rat brains, and chemicals, and looking at things under microscopes, and transfusing plasmids into bacteria, or creating recombinant plasmids, etc. You get the point. You're working in a lab, you're running experiments, and you're working with life forms of some kind. The idea of doing a project along these lines probably makes you nervous because you feel like you don't have a solid science background here. That's understandable. But think about this: I started doing bench work the summer after my 10th grade. How much of a science background do you think I had? Not very much. I had taken AP Biology, that's about it. If I could do that, you can do that too. (I'll say more about this in a second.) I've found that the researchers who do this kind of work are more often PhDs, or MD/PhDs who don't see patients too much.

On the other hand, chart reviews involve more looking through patient charts for something, and recording that data, then analyzing that data. For example, a researcher might be trying to look at something like the rate of complications that occur after patients get a given procedure or something. There's like no working with bacteria or all that involved with this. I've found that this kind of research is done more by MDs who still spend a good portion of their time seeing patients.

I know that bench work must sound scary to you, since you don't have a science background. But my suggestion would be to be open to it. Bench work is a good experience to have, even if you find that you hate it (like I do). It's interesting and fulfilling in a way that chart reviews aren't, because you're actually running experiments and trying to discover something that no one has ever known before. Plus, you learn about techniques that are talked about in medicine all the time, which is a nice background to have.

If you do decide to do bench work, I would suggest picking up a college biology text and focusing on the sections dealing with bacterial growth / eukaryotic cells / DNA replication / protein synthesis, etc. It's important to know, and forms the basis of a *lot* of medicine. Remember that that's basically the background I had when I started doing research. Anything more specific to that, your mentor should teach you as you work in his lab. That's how it always works. He/she will probably give you papers to read as a background to what the work is, and don't hesitate to ask him to help you understand it so you can do your work effectively. Additionally, there are always other people working in these labs (i.e., other grad students, lab assistants, etc.), who'll hopefully be willing to help you run experiments and understand concepts necessary to running your experiments.
posted by 254blocks at 11:11 PM on March 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

Thanks for yet another fantastic detailed answer. I really appreciate it.
posted by ocherdraco at 5:18 AM on March 28, 2012

Update: using the advice I received here, I've secured a volunteer position with a translational research group at Weill-Cornell for the summer! It's not bench science, but given my level of science training, I think this might be more appropriate, anyway. I'm excited!
posted by ocherdraco at 9:50 AM on May 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

« Older I can't sleep. Also, I can't wake up!   |   ISO Web Gurus for Charity Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.