Accepting an undergraduate into a research group and providing training for them is a very resource-intensive proposition for a lab, both in terms of the time commitment required from the lab mentors as well as the cost of laboratory supplies and reagents. It is incumbent upon students to recognize and respect this investment:
- Adhere to the scheduled time. Show that you appreciate the time that your mentors set aside from their own experiments to teach you by being meticulous about letting your mentor know well in advance when you are unable to come to the lab as scheduled
- Do not expect the mentor to be available to work with you if you show up in the lab at a time that is not on your regular schedule, because they may be in the middle of an experiment that cannot be interrupted for several hours.
- Put forth a sincere effort when you are in the lab. This includes turning off your phone, ignoring text messages, avoiding surfing the web and chatting with your friends in the lab etc. You will derive more benefit from a good relationship with your lab both in terms of your achievements in research and future interactions with the PI if you demonstrate a sincere commitment to them. We have heard reports from some PIs who were unhappy with their undergraduates, because they did not appear to appreciate the time that their mentors spent working with them.
- There will be “crunch” times, maybe even whole weeks, when you will be unable to work in the lab as many hours as you normally would because of midterms, finals, paper deadlines, illness or school vacations. This is fine, but remember to let your mentor know in advance when you anticipate absences. Disappearing from the lab for days without communicating with your mentor is not acceptable. Your lab mentor and PI are much more likely to be understanding about schedule changes if you keep the lines of communication open but they may be less charitable if you simply disappear for days or weeks at a time. From our conversations with students, we have learned that maintaining good communication and a strong relationship with the lab mentor and/or PI correlates well with an undergraduate’s satisfaction and success in the laboratory.
- Perhaps the best way for you to demonstrate your appreciation of the lab’s commitment is to approach your project with genuine interest and intellectual curiosity. Regardless of how limited your time in the lab may be, it is crucial to convey a sincere sense of engagement with your project and the lab’s research goals. You want to avoid giving the impression that you are there merely to fulfill a degree requirement or as prerequisite for a post-graduate program.
- Freshman and Sophomore science courses include time consuming lab and section components. For this reason, it can be stressful for students to manage the time needed to fulfill these course requirements while simultaneously working in an outside lab. The general rule of thumb for students who are taking lab intensive courses is to plan on spending six to ten hours per week in their research labs. It is fairly common for students to commit to more hours per week than they can reasonably manage because they think that it will increase their chances of securing a lab position. However, it is probably better to slightly underestimate the time that you are able to spend in the lab and work longer hours when possible rather than overcommit and not be able to fulfill your obligation. Falling behind in your courses because you are spending too many hours in the lab is not a good trade-off. If you receive an offer from one of your top choice labs but the PI expresses unwillingness to compromise on a reasonable time commitment, it may be best to seek another position or to talk to one of the Life Sciences Advisors about how to respond to the situation. Most labs will be sensitive to the time issue especially if you explain the situation with your course schedule and have a clear plan for being in the lab during the January break, over the summer or a plan to take an independent research course for credit in junior year and/or write a senior thesis.
- Juniors and seniors, who are doing research for credit through either an independent research or thesis course, normally spend a minimum of 15-20 hours per week in the lab (required hours may vary based on concentration, contact your Life Science Concentration Advisor).
- Your course workload likely will vary during the semester and most labs will be sensitive to the “crunch” times for undergraduates. If you are overwhelmed with papers and midterms one week, talk to your mentor about making up the time later in the month. This is much better than ruining an experiment for which you have spent weeks preparing because you are unable to focus on work in the lab. Students should avoid making up lost time in the lab by working late at night or on weekends when other lab members are not present. Accidents can and do happen; therefore it is NEVER a good idea to work in the lab alone and this is especially true for students who have little or no lab experience. It is best to create a schedule that maximizes overlap time with your mentor; but if you need to work after normal lab hours, it is your responsibility to ensure that someone from the lab will be there with you. We strongly advise students to consider seriously the time commitment that they can make to a lab and not agree to undertake more hours per week than they can reasonably manage during the term.
- Working in lab full time over the summer provides students with a great opportunity to consistently devote time to and become fully immersed in their research projects. For this reason, the Harvard summer undergraduate research programs require that students work in the lab a minimum of 40 hours a week for 10 weeks. Students who have outside jobs or other obligations during the summer and who are therefore unable to commit to working full time in the lab are not eligible for these fellowships. The exception to this standard is the Harvard College Research Program (HCRP), which may fund students for part-time lab work over the summer. Students must indicate on their HCRP applications the number of hours per week and the number of weeks they plan to work in the lab.