First and foremost, congrats on making it through your first semester, and to those of you who are in Baltimore, welcome to campus! School-imposed quarantine, illegal parties and an otherwise confusing beginning to this semester aside, I know many of you guys are hoping to create a normal-ish experience for yourselves this semester.
If you are like any other class at Hopkins, I am guessing that a lot of you have your eyes set on beginning research positions soon. While in-person research opportunities are limited right now, there are still virtual and computational opportunities! I know that searching for a lab can be daunting, so here are some things that I learned through my quest for research experiences. Even if we are mainly remote, the process of finding an opportunity really hasn’t changed all that much!
1. You don’t have to do this.
Before we get into the nitty-gritty details, I wanted to put this out there because I think the Hopkins culture often tells you otherwise: You don’t have to do research if you don’t want to. You don’t have to do research right now if you don’t feel ready.
Yes, you have already survived one semester, but it was probably more unsettling than settling. So please, get yourself actually adjusted to the college lifestyle before adding another thing to your plate. Especially now, it may be a good idea to wait. It will likely be a lot easier to find a research position next year since more in-person positions will hopefully be open to undergraduates. Don’t force yourself to take a virtual opportunity if you are not feeling it. Research is not for everyone. Invest time and energy in things you enjoy.
2. Writing emails.
When and if you do feel ready to jump into the world of academia, the best place to start would be drafting emails. Search up Hopkins principal investigators (PIs) online, and when you find some you are interested in working with, email them!
Professors are extremely busy people — get your point across in the least amount of words possible. Your name, year, major. You are interested in ____, therefore, you are interested in the professor’s research in _____. Maybe mention a paper or two from their lab. Attach your resume if you have a good one. Done. Send. That is typically the way it is done, especially if there is a particular professor you want to work with. You can also check the ForagerOne portal through the Hopkins Office for Undergraduate Research for open paid positions.
3. Waiting for responses.
Odds are, you will have to email many different professors. Some simply will not respond, not because they hate you or anything, but because they get so many emails a day. Some will say no because they may not have an available mentor, space in the lab or time to train anyone. But never fear, because some will respond! They will appreciate your enthusiasm for their work and likely set up an interview with you to talk about potential work you could do in the lab. You just may have to send out quite a few emails and be flexible in positions you do get.
4. What to expect.
When you do find a lab that has the time, space and mentorship ability to take you on, be sure you understand the expectations. Some may want you to commit to working a certain amount of time, which can range anywhere between three and 20 hours a week. Others will want you to commit to full-time research over the summer and/or Intersession. With the current remote situation, you probably won’t be held to a certain number of hours as you would in a wet lab, but your PIs and mentors will likely check in from time to time to see that you are making sufficient progress. In addition, after landing the initial job, don’t expect to see your PI all that much — you will likely be working with grad students or postdoctoral fellows during your time in the lab.
5. Don’t keep yourself in a bad situation.
While research can be a great experience for many, that is not always the case. Sometimes you may not be happy with the work you’re doing, or you become interested in trying something else. Other times you may have too much work, or you realize the lab environment is not one that you vibe with; I know several people who have had such experiences. They can be tricky to maneuver through, especially as a lowly undergraduate. If that is the case, you don’t have to stay in the lab for the rest of your time at Hopkins.
Granted, you should make the best effort to honor your commitments, like finishing up the rest of the semester or the specific project you are working on. Be sure to give your mentors plenty of notice that you will be leaving so they can find someone to fill your position, but don’t stay in a lab that makes you miserable. Sure, you are there to help out the lab, but you are also there for you, and if the work is causing you misery, it is not worth it, no matter how good it looks on your resume. Find something else you do enjoy, whether it’s another research lab or not, and stick to that!
With all that being said, happy lab hunting (or not, if you want to wait until a later time or decide that research is not for you)! Remember that you are doing this for you and for you only — don’t get caught up in the Hopkins madness of it all.