How do I get started?
Many undergraduates at Harvard actively engage in research in labs and research groups across the campus. If you are interested in starting research, a good first step is to meet with your concentration advisor or the Life Sciences Undergraduate Research Advisor, Dr. Margaret Lynch. These advisors can help you navigate the department websites and formulate an introductory letter to the faculty whose work interests you.
Before meeting with the advisor, it is helpful (but not essential) to think about what kinds of research interest you. If you have chosen a concentration and are planning to write a thesis, then you should find a laboratory whose work is related to your concentration. If you are a freshman or sophomore who has not yet selected a concentration, then you can explore research in areas that seem exciting or interesting to you. In some cases, your early research experience may help to inform your concentration decision.
How do I know what interests me if I have never done research before?
One good way to get started is to think about what lectures you have found to be particularly interesting or what readings for class made you want to read more about a topic. Perhaps you did a special project in high school or read an article in the news. Maybe you have even done some research during high school and have some idea of what direction you would like to go; although it is sometimes a good idea to broaden your experience and try something new. This is a time to explore new options and directions, don’t get stuck doing something simply because it is comfortable for you.
You can begin by browsing the various department web pages and spending time just reading about faculty research; you may find something tantalizing that you didn’t even know about. It is fascinating just to see the range of research projects being done in the labs at Harvard and the affiliated hospitals. Once you have identified a few labs whose research interests you (5 or 6 is usually sufficient) , read 1-2 publications from each lab to learn about the lab's research focus, model systems, and techniques. If you consider the amount of time that you will spend working in the lab or the field, whether it is full time during the summer or part time during the academic year, it makes a lot of sense to take the time to investigate a number of research options and identify the ones that are of real interest to you.
How do I contact the labs that I am interested in?
Once you have narrowed down your list of labs, you can begin contacting the labs by writing directly to the faculty member who heads the lab, usually by email. Your email should be specifically targeted to each lab; it should not be generic. Since you will have already done the background reading from the lab, you can mention specific aspects of their research that are of particular interest to you and even cite the papers that you have read. It is important to convey not only some knowledge of the scientific goals of the lab, but also a genuine interest in their work.
In the email (or letter) you should also tell them about yourself, what your goals are and why you want to do research. Describe any previous lab experience. Previous experience is, of course, very helpful but it is not absolutely necessary. Most undergraduates have not had much if any previous experience and the faculty understand that. It may be useful to the labs to know what experience you have had and what techniques you already know to help them formulate an appropriate research question for you to undertake.
Finally, give a time line of your expected start date, how much time you can devote during the academic term, and what your plans are for the summer.
Attach a copy of your resume, which is written with a definite science orientation. List the science courses you have taken to date (if you are applying to labs outside of FAS, be sure to list the course title in addition to the course number which faculty outside of FAS might not recognize). For your high school information, list only the top 2 or 3 most important academic awards and accomplishments outside of science and list the most significant science awards separately. It is important to keep your resume brief; one page is best.
What happens next?
Most faculty will respond to your email if it is clear that you are genuinely interested in their research and have not simply sent out a generic email. If you don’t receive a response with a week or ten days, you can follow up with an email asking if they have had a chance to consider your request. (Include you original correspondence at the end of your follow-up email.) Often faculty are traveling and don't have regular access to email, so you may have to be patient.
If you get a response inviting you to an interview, make sure that you have a broad understanding of the major areas of the faculty's research program. Also be sure to read 1-2 published papers from the lab so you can ask specific questions about their research. If there are other undergraduates working in the lab already, you can contact them and ask about their experiences.
Students conducting research during the fall or spring terms typically either volunteer or earn course credit. For term time financial support, students may also apply for funding through the Harvard College Research Program (HCRP), which is now administered by the Office of Undergraduate Research and Fellowships (URAF). Students may not simultaneously receive funding and also earn academic credit for a research project.
There are a number of fellowships available for Harvard undergraduates to support summer research projects.