How to find a research position

By Yasaman Ataeijannati

Yasaman Ataeijannati completed the Bio 6 series at De Anza and went on to graduate with honors in Molecular & Cell Biology from the University of California at Berkeley. While at UCB, she worked in a lab studying Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases,  and she was a co-author on the article Efficient derivation of cortical glutamatergic neurons from human pluripotent stem cells: A model system to study neurotoxicity in Alzheimer's disease, along with other members of the lab in which she worked.

After graduating from UCB in 2014, she worked at Sangamo Biosciences, a biotechnology company working on zinc finger therapeutics for genetic diseases. Her work there was focused on Huntington's disease.

She is currently (as of Fall 2015) a post-baccalaureate fellow at the National Eye Institute of the National Institutes of Health. She is working in a lab that seeks possible genetic cures for degenerative eye diseases such as retinitis pigmentosa and Leber's congenital amaurosis, using CRISPR gene editing technology. She is in the process of applying to medical school, hoping to begin in Fall 2016.

Get involved in research

People who intend to pursue a career in science are advised and in fact required to have some experience in research. Therefore, it is important to get involved with some sort of research project as soon as possible after you transfer to your university. However, finding the right position might be quite challenging. Here are a few tips that will help you find a research position that you are interested in:

The first, and perhaps the most important, step in picking the right lab is to decide what areas of science interest you the most. It is absolutely essential to pick a project that you are genuinely passionate about as opposed to a project that you think might look good on your resume. Research is a very labor intensive and time consuming process which would be extremely unpleasant if you didn’t have any interest in it. After narrowing down your area of interest, try to look for the labs which are focused on those areas. Keep in mind that research labs very often switch gears and change their focuses. In another word, a lab which was working on a certain topic might currently be working on a vastly different project. Therefore, it is absolutely crucial to read the most recent publications of a lab and decide if their most recent projects also interest you. Once you found an appealing lab, try to contact the the Principal Investigator (usually called the "PI") and express your interest in his/her research.

While contacting PIs directly is one of the ways to find a research position, it is for sure not the only one. Every active research lab has one or more PIs and a number of other people: postdoctoral researchers, technicians, graduate students and undergraduates. It is sometimes advisable to contact the graduate students and postdocs directly if you find their projects appealing. Lab websites contain detailed description of these projects and the contact information of the graduate students.

Another great resource for finding a research position is your GSIs or Graduate Student Instructors. Most of these instructors are conducting their own research projects. You can always ask for an appointment and see if they look for an undergraduate assistant. You can also ask them to forward your resume to their friends, who are perhaps graduate students in other Labs.

One of the best ways to seek a research position is through talking to your professors. If you are doing well in a course and you find the topic interesting, talk to your professor, express your interest and ask if they have any positions available in their own lab. You can also ask them to help you identify the labs which are doing research related to your interest.

Finally, talk to all of your classmates and friends who are currently working in a lab and see if they know someone in their lab who is looking for an undergraduate research assistant.

Overall, just be aware that the process of finding a research position could be quite tedious. Therefore you need to be very consistent and patient.


1.When is the best time to start looking for a research position?

Generally it is the best if you don’t start research in the first quarter/semester. Make sure you give yourself enough time to adjust to the new environment. Having that said, I believe the best time to start looking for a research position is midway through your first quarter/semester. Give yourself at least one month to find your desired position.

2. Who in the lab should I contact when I’m looking for a position?

Go to the Lab website and read the project descriptions very carefully and email both the PI and the graduate student that you wish to work for.

3. What should I say in the email?

Before writing an email be sure to read the lab website very carefully and have a decent knowledge of the most recent projects in the lab. While writing the email, try to make small references to these publications and explain why you find these projects interesting. After expressing your interest, ask for an appointment to further discuss the research and possible opportunities. At the very end attach your CV to the email. Your CV should contain your related course work, past experiences, and related lab techniques and should be no longer than one page.

4. How fast do generally PIs or graduate students reply to their emails?

It is very important to keep in mind that PIs and graduate students have very busy schedules and they all receives numerous number of emails each day. So, give them at least one week to reply to your request. If you didn’t receive any email after 7-10 days, feel free to send them another email with all the information explained in Q3.  Having that said, avoid emailing the professors earlier than a week from your last email.

Keep in mind that you should have multiple labs in mind and you should contact more than one lab. Some of these Labs will never get back to you and some other might simply tell you they don’t have a position available. So, do not limit yourself to only one particular Lab. Identify all the Labs that seem to have interesting projects and contact all of them.

5. How should I prepare for the interview?

If the PI or the graduate student agrees to meet you, make sure you go to the appointment prepared. Read and review all of the recent publications of the lab, and particularly the most recent papers of the person who is going to interview you. Try to understand the papers and bring a few questions to ask about them. They usually do not expect you to fully understand their papers; however, they expect you to be able to tell them why you want to participate in their project and what you find intriguing about their research. This will show your future mentor that you are genuinely interested in his/her research and you have picked that lab wisely. In the interview, be sure to ask your future mentor about his/her expectations from you as an undergraduate assistant. This information should help you decide whether or not the lab you picked is actually right for you.


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