Getting into academia as a young aspiring scientist is hard.
If you're anything like me, you won't know what you don't know. The competition is real. For every position that you apply for there are at least ten other equally qualified students applying for the same position. There is no transparency into why you don't hear back or why you are rejected. There is no feedback on how you can improve. It is easy to feel like you're on your own.
The bad news is the process is not going to get better. The good news is you can control your own destiny.
The story below covers my path of working under five different Professors during undergrad. I open up the actual email exchanges to show the raw side of the process of emailing Professors for the first time. Inside I include steps a young scientist can take to convincing a Professor to take them on as a student. This is an account of what worked for me and includes what I would do the same and differently.
If you want to make science your life's work whatever you do, don't give up. If you never give up, you will succeed. If you give up, well that's on you.
There are many ways an outsider can get into academia, this is just one story.
This is my story.
I spent my last year of high school doing what I think kids should do. In my opinion your youth should be spent getting in trouble without getting caught. It is hard to find time for trouble once you're an adult. It took me 28 years to finally come to terms that I am now an adult.
I got pretty good grades, but not the best. The best word to describe my 17 year old self is lazy. I did the minimum necessary to get the result that I wanted. This was frustrating for my teachers. I would fall asleep during my calculus tests and wake up to finish them in the last ten minutes of class. Still got an A. I got in a lot of trouble for filling out a pattern on my multiple choice test for AP Government test. I was often found in Saturday detention because of being tardy. During detention is where I finally solved a Rubik's cube under 50 seconds. I quickly found that rules were meant to be tested, but at the time it was in my best interest not to break them. If I did break them, I just made sure I didn't get caught.
I graduated from the best school district in Washington State. Many of my peers went to Harvard, Yale, Stanford. I applied to one college and one college only. I applied to the University of Washington not because I dreamed of going to this school. I applied because I was pretty sure I would get in. If I didn't get in, then maybe that's how the world wanted it. Senior year of high school was one of my best years. It involved a lot of Joose, Four Loko, and Smirinoff at the Factoria 7-Eleven. When I turned 18 I felt like if I died now that would be fine because I felt I had lived fully. I had fallen in love, watched my friends grow old, and made it to the ripe age of 18 which seemed like an accomplishment in itself.
You don't have to start out as a nerd on paper to become a nerd. If you're not at the top of your class in high school, that can change at anytime in your life. It turns out I got the level of laziness just right during high school and got accepted to the one college I applied to.
My first year of college was a continuation of my last year of high school, but more extreme. And then my friends and I, we mellowed out. Well, some of us still haven't mellowed out. I mellowed out.
I set myself up for failure in the first year taking all the pre-med requirements. I realized late that I would never be a doctor because I would make a terrible doctor. I was never going to be studious enough to compete against my peers that were. I have an immense amount of respect for my friends who have now graduated from medical school. I admire their discipline and dedication to such a lifelong journey.
If you're destined to be a scientist you don't have to know that before you turn 18. Part of trying to get into medical school involved getting "experience". I started volunteering at the University of Washington Medical Center for "experience". I played Disney duets with a friend who is now in his first year of residency. I played the flute and my friend played the violin. Before this I had spent over a decade studying music and playing the flute. On top of volunteering at the medical center I applied to student helper positions at labs. After many applications to many student helper and research assistant job postings, I got hired me to feed zebrafish every day. That meant I didn't have to work the 4am shift at Starbucks anymore.
If you decide you want to try out science know this:
Getting your first lab job takes a lot of persistence and luck
Consider why you are pursuing science and be honest about it
Don't put all your hopes and dreams on one lab or position
It turns out if they say yes, you can still say no
Be persistent, but not annoying
You decided that you want to science. Here are some reproducible steps you can take towards finding your ideal lab and landing your first research position.
Read research papers in your areas of interest. You don't have to understand everything in the paper and you likely won't. Even experienced scientists don't fully understand research papers. This is a topic I could talk about on and on, but that is topic for another time.
Narrow down your interests
Narrow down your interests and go after what you're most curious about. Follow your curiosity. The good thing about asking questions, is they almost always lead to more questions. Once you've narrowed down your interests start researching faculty in your school that have aligned research interests. And then, read their papers.
Email your future boss
Once you've done your research email the faculty member. How is the faculty member going to know you exist if you don't contact them?
In your email do these four things:
Introduce yourself and tell them what you want
Explain why you are particularly interested in their work
Ask for a meeting
Include a one page CV or resume.
Don't do these things:
Don't make strange offers to help.
Don't use cookie cutter text. It is extremely easy to see through that BS and your email will likely end up in the trash.
Don't write a novel. Keep the email straight forward and concise.
For me I applied for a lot of positions. If you apply directly to the faculty member they will often respond. If they don't respond either your email sounded spammy, they're disorganized or they are pretentious. If it is 2 or 3 you probably don't want to work for them anyways.
If you apply to a job posting through the school jobs website there is a lower likelihood that you'll get the job. If you apply directly to the faculty member or lab manager there is a higher likelihood your email will get read.
If you get a call back and the faculty member wants to meet here's how you can prepare for the interview.
Don't wear a suit
You really don't need to wear anything special. Oftentimes when people wear "professional" clothes they feel uncomfortable and it is harder for you to be yourself. Look presentable, but there is no need to dress up.
Do your research
Look at what the professor's graduate students are working on. Come with insightful questions. Come with ideas. Be ready to toss your ideas out and jump on one of the professor's current ideas.
Scope out the location
In a large university it is easy to get lost. Either go a day early and try to find the professor's office or budget an extra 20 minutes to make sure you aren't late. When you do go in for the interview budget at least an extra hour. Professors are notorious for being late.
Make an ask
Based on the conversation you should be able to quickly find out if there is an open position for you in the lab. If there is an open position ask about specific next steps to starting. If there isn't ask the faculty member if there are faculty in their department that would be a good fit for your interests. If they like you, they will refer you to another faculty member. If they don't like you it should be fairly obvious.
To be very honest, I think I was in the right place at the right time. In other words, I got lucky. Though I will say, there is something to be said about increasing your chances of serendipity.
I don't remember exactly how I found the student helper position, but one thing I did early on was subscribe to multiple listservs from all different departments. By doing this opportunities showed up directly in my inbox.
I interviewed for the Student Helper position with the Lab Manager, James. Here is our email exchange. This example isn't particularly exciting. It is a pretty standard email exchange. It does show how things can move very quickly. If you really want the position, be ready to drop everything and jump at the opportunity.
I worked in the zebrafish lab for about a year. This counts as my first real research experience because I learned how to use a scalpel to take a tissue from a zebrafish tail and isolate DNA from the sample. To be honest, I didn't really understand what I was doing at the time, but I just went along with it.
Months later, at a college party a stranger challenged me to a game of Super Smash Bros. That stranger ended up becoming my best friend. I would later start a company with this stranger. That stranger's name is Denny.
That Fall, Denny ended up in my Biochemistry class. So, we became study buddies and fast friends. Through the Biology Department listserv, I learned about a funding opportunity. The Biology Department received a grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, or HHMI, with a goal of funding roughly twenty-five undergraduate students. To be qualified the candidates had to have little to no research experience. The deal was the grantees would receive a stipend for three quarters. During the three quarters the grantees chose any lab that they wanted and did research part time during Winter and Spring, and full time during Summer. I almost didn't apply for this because I thought there was no way I would get it. For every position available there are hundreds of applicants that were way more qualified than me. Denny encouraged me to apply. He kept me accountable and made sure I submitted the application on time.
If you're going to apply for something, it can be worthwhile to tell a friend. Friends can be great at keeping you accountable. Friends are also great for believing in you when you stop believing in yourself.
It turns out when you submit an application, sometimes you get what you want. I got the internship. Now that I got the internship, I needed to convince a Professor to take me on as a student.
I didn't know it at the time, but picking a lab and picking your Professor is very important. It is inevitable that you will pick up the mannerisms and style of your mentors. In my opinion, it is important to pick a PI that you respect and admire. When interviewing for PhD programs I found myself in a situation where I found the lab's work extremely fascinating, but when I went to meet the Professor in person I knew I could never work with this person. From the student position it can be hard to imagine this, but you are interviewing the Professor just as much as the Professor is interviewing you. To be honest I didn't put too much thought into this at the time. I was more concerned about the science than the people. I was very lucky that I ended up working with two scientists that to this day I still very much admire and respect, Dr. James Bryers and Dr. Jaehyung Park.
Let's get back to the point of this post, to expose how I convinced Professors to take me on as a student. After doing my research by reading research papers, narrowing down my research interests, I emailed my future boss. I emailed a total of six Professors:
Gerald Pollack Five out of the six responded. To be honest at the time of writing these emails I was dead set on working for Yoky Matsuoka because I really wanted to be at the intersection of computer science and bioengineering. Unfortunately (or fortunately) she wasn't taking new undergraduates that quarter. Don't put all your hopes and dreams on one lab or one position.
If you read through my emails, the reader can tell I had a genuine interest in the research of each Professor. I've hesitated writing this post for almost a decade now because I think these emails are extremely embarrassing. People say hindsight is 20/20, so I've rewritten the first email using the tips I outlined above:
Dr. Matsuoka, My name is Cindy Wu and I'm a sophomore in the Biology Department. I am also applying to the Computer Science Department this Spring. I recently read your paper exploring the potential of polythiophenes as a conductive polymer in neuro-robotic interfaces. I'm interested in joining your lab as a undergraduate intern. Last month I was awarded a grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute that supports my stipend for three quarters. What this means is for the next three quarters I will be paid by HHMI to work under a PI at University of Washington. I would love for that PI to be you. I am interested in learning more about joining your lab and having you as my mentor for my HHMI internship. From reading your recent papers I am simply excited about your future research direction and would love discuss the possibly working with your team. I'd love to meet as early as Monday. I also emailed Dan Dembiczak about my interest in the Neurobotics Lab. I am free after 11AM on Monday. I've attached my transcript and resume to this email. Sincerely, Cindy Wu email@example.com
You're generally going to be safe going with Dr. Matsuoka or Professor Matsuoka. If you're going with Professor make sure to check online that they are actually a Professor. Same goes for Dr. There are some research faculty that are not Professors. Addressing someone by Dr. First Name Last Name is weird. In my opinion addressing someone as Dr. Yoky Matsuoka is too formal. That's just my 2 cents. When you contact a faculty member for the first time, I wouldn't start off with first name. After you meet the rest of the lab it should be fairly obvious how the team refers to the PI.
I eventually ended up working with Dr. James Bryers and his postdoc Dr. Jaehyung Park for over two years. I addressed them as Dr. Bryers and Jae respectively. We published together in Immunology in 2013. As I started in the Bryers lab, Denny and I had our eyes set on another prize.
Over the years I've gotten very good at saying no. Early on in my career I said yes to everything. There is a time for saying yes to everything. There is also a time for saying no to everything, so you can say yes to one thing. Right now I'm in the phase of saying no to everything, so I can give Experiment my full attention. But back in the day I said yes to everything. It is generally much easier to say yes to things, when you aren't the boss.
If you can diversify your research experience during undergrad, I would. It will be good for your resume, but more important than that by doing science you will quickly find out if you love it or you hate it. It doesn't make sense to invest time into something you hate. Though, that said I think it is pretty rare for someone to hate science. Hating the scientific process is like saying you hate curiosity. I have yet to meet someone who whole heartedly hates curiosity. Denny and I found a flier posted in the Health Sciences Building recruiting undergraduate students for a program called iGEM. iGEM stands for International Genetically Engineered Machine. iGEM is a global competition held at MIT annually where undergraduates from all over the world come together to showcase the biological parts they engineer over a summer.
One way to get research experience is to apply for a grant or an internship, but there are also alternative opportunities that just require you to show up ready to learn and do. iGEM is one of those experiences where it just requires that you show up. The summer of my HHMI internship I worked in the Bryers Lab during the day and in the evenings I worked in David Baker's lab on the iGEM team. If you are joining a lab where showing up is the most important factor, make yourself useful.
If you are new to an iGEM team here are some tips to follow:
make yourself useful
be honest and clear about your time commitment
make research a priority
come ready to learn
The first year I was on the iGEM team we took home the award for the Best Health and Medicine Project. The second year I was on the iGEM team we took home the World Championship. We had one of the largest teams made up entirely with student volunteers.
Our work was ultimately published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry. Sometimes my friends introduce me as an "actual" scientist. You don't have to have a PhD to be an "actual" scientist. The second year, the team published at least one peer-reviewed paper and filed a patent. If you want to science, there are many ways to make this happen. You don't need a PhD or a government grant to get started. You do however have to start. iGEM is not the only research project where I succeeded by just showing up.
This is a story that I don't get to tell often. I don't get to tell it often because my other research experiences seem to take priority.
During my last year of undergrad, I took a synthetic biology class with Professor Georg Seelig. I think this may have been the first time he was teaching this course. The class size was small. Fewer that 15 people small. The way Georg structured it was we had to reproduce a recently published paper. This was valuable for us students because we got to do some real science. This was valuable for Georg and his PhD students because if we could reproduce the paper, he could use the biological circuit we built in future research.
Each quarter in college was 10 weeks. As a class we tried the protocol once. We couldn't reproduce the results. We tried a second time. No results. We tried a third time. Nothing. Pretty soon week ten had passed. Everyone moved collected their grades and moved on to their next classes. Everyone except me and Denny.
We showed up every day for another 10 weeks. We failed another 10 times before successfully reproducing the results from the paper. Sometimes you can gain research experience by doing what no one else is willing to do. If you're willing to do whatever it takes, sometimes you can gain valuable experience this way.
If you want to be a scientist you're going to need to know how to ask a good research question, develop a hypothesis, design an experiment, and publish a paper. It is rare to gain this kind of experience in your core classes.
One way I learned this was by taking a course that required all of the above. I was required to ask a good research question, develop a hypothesis, design an experiment, and publish a paper. It is worth looking through all the courses to find a course that requires you to do this.
I took a field ecology course. This course required me to get out into the field every Friday. And, we also took two weekend camping trips. I was drawn to this because I love being outside. When I found I could get college credit for going on field trips, I knew I had to take this class. I didn't have the pre-requirements, but that has never stopped me before. A secret. If you ask there is a chance you will get a yes. If you don't ask there is no chance you will get a yes.
In the class I developed a research question:
Does the density of green spaces affect the bumblebee diversity and abundance in Seattle?
As I started working on this project, the forecast predicted showers for the next ten days. Hello Seattle. This project was not going to work. The bumblebees don't come out when it rains.
I quickly developed a second research question.
Does salt stress affect the diversity and abundance of insect galls on sagebrush?
Two weeks prior during our second field trip out the Eastern Washington I learned about insect galls. In a nutshell there are these bugs that bury themselves into plants, reprogram the plant to grow a cocoon like structure around the insect, and then the insect emerges as a flying insect. Pretty smart if you ask me.
I developed a hypothesis and designed an experiment. To collect the data, I had to go back out to Eastern Washington. So I went out there with another student.
By doing independent research, you don't have anyone to blame but yourself. I learned that in science things rarely go as planned. When things derail, sometimes there is nothing in your power you can do to fix it. You have to be flexible if you want to get things done.
I don't know how you will end up sciencing. All I can tell you how I ended up sciencing.
The good news is you can decide at any point in time that you want to science. If you're determined enough, you too can be a scientist.
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I know that getting into academia is a seemingly opaque process, but it doesn't have to be. Today we're starting an aspiring scientist hotline. If you have a specific question about how to get into science you can send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. If I don't personally know the answer, we'll ask one of the thousands of scientists on Jelly to answer your question directly.
We are in the business of creating new scientists. Our promise to you is we will continue to build products that make it easy for scientists to show how they
science. We will make it easy for you to share your sliver of science.
If sharing your science is hard because you don't know where to start, now you have someone to ask.