How do I get started?
Many Harvard undergraduates participate in life sciences research at one of Harvard’s campuses. If you are interested in research, the Life Sciences Undergraduate Research Advisor, Dr. Margaret Lynch, can help you navigate the process of finding a research group. She can help you:
- define your research interests
- navigate research group websites
- create and edit a science resume and cover letter
- identify and contact research groups
- apply for fellowships and funding
- integrate effectively into your research group & make the most of your research experiences
Before your meeting, think about what kinds of research interest you. What science courses did you enjoy the most? Did you read an article or hear a speaker discuss a topic that made you want to learn more?
How do I know what interests me if I have never done research before?
Even if you have not yet done independent research, you have been introduced to various topics in the life sciences. One strategy for choosing a research area is to recall particular class topics that captivated your interest and made you want to read more. Perhaps you completed a special project in high school or read a compelling science article. Maybe you even did research during high school. Because of the multitude of research opportunities available at Harvard, college is a great time for you to explore new research options and directions.
Begin by browsing the various department and research center web pages. Invest time to read about faculty research; you may find a project that grabs your attention in a research area that you weren’t aware of previously. In this broad-based search process, you also learn about the wide range of research projects at Harvard and its affiliated hospitals. Once you identify a few labs whose research interests you (5 or 6 is usually sufficient), read 1-2 publications from each lab to learn about the group’s research focus, model systems, techniques, and overall goals. 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 sense to take the time to investigate a number of research options and identify the ones that will likely be a good fit for you and your interests and career goals.
How do I contact the labs that I am interested in?
Once you have narrowed down your list of labs, send an introductory email inquiry directly to the faculty member who heads the research group (the Principle Investigator or P.I.). Tailor each email specifically for each lab; do not write a generic letter.
Start by introducing yourself and the purpose of your inquiry (i.e. you’d like to speak about summer research opportunities in their lab). Next, because you will have already done background reading, mention specific aspects of their research (citing the lab’s papers you have read) and state why they interest you. Your application will be stronger if you convey not only some knowledge of the lab’s scientific goals, but also a genuine interest in their research area and technical approaches. In the next paragraph tell them about yourself, what your goals are and why you want to do research with their group. Describe any previous research experience. Previous experience is, of course, very helpful but not required for joining many research groups. Many undergraduates have not had much if any previous experience; professors are looking for students who are highly motivated to learn.
Finally, give a time line of your expected start date, how much time you can devote during the academic term, and what your summer plans.
Attach a copy of your science resume, which differs from a typical resume in its focus and concision. List the science courses you have taken and in which you are currently enrolled (if you are applying to labs outside of the Harvard FAS, list the course title in addition to the course number). Condense your high school information: list only the top 2-3 science experiences or accomplishments, and selected academic awards. A one-page science resume will convey key information and be easy to read.
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). 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. Students can also view numerous undergraduate programs and scholarships, including summer research, portable scholarships, and short-term opportunities on the Pathways to Science website.