How do I get started?
Many Harvard undergraduates participate in life sciences research at one of Harvard’s campuses.
If you are a Harvard undergraduate interested in research, Undergraduate Science Research Advisor Kate Penner 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.
For more detailed advice, please contact the Undergraduate Research Advisor, Kate Penner.
How do I contact and interview in 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.
Opening few sentences:
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.
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 (as described below, attach your science resume). Previous experience may be helpful, but is 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 and dependable.
A brief closing: Give a timeline of your expected start date, how many hours per week you can devote during the academic term, and what your plans are for the summer.
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.
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. It's also helpful to be aware of busy times of year (such as weeks at the start of the academic term for faculty who also teach).
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. For more detailed advise on interview preparation and making decision on which lab to choose from all your offers please contact the Undergraduate Research Advisor.
Each fall Science Education Office brings together Harvard scientists from various departments, institutes and hospitals together for the Harvard Undergraduate Research Opportunities in Science (HUROS) fair. HUROS is a great way to meet dozens of scientists in one day and explore multiple research areas before narrowing down your interest. Please register for the event at HUROS page of this site.
Do I have to stay in the same lab all 4 years or can I try different labs?
The short answer is no, you are not required to remain in the same lab for your entire undergraduate career. There are many reasons for changing a lab:
- your academic interests or concentration may have changed and thus the lab project is no longer appropriate
- you would like to study abroad (note that there is no additional cost in tuition for the term-time study abroad and Harvard has many fellowships for summer study abroad programs)
- your mentor may have moved on and there is no one in the lab to direct your project (it is not unusual for a postdoctoral fellow who is co-mentoring student to move as they secure a faculty position elsewhere)
- the project may not be working and the lab hasn’t offered an alternative
- or there may be personal reasons for leaving. It is acceptable to move on
If you do encounter difficulties, but you strongly prefer to remain in the lab, get help. Talk to your PI or mentor, or reach out to Undergraduate Research Advisor for advice. The PI may not be aware of the problem and bringing it to their attention may be all that is necessary to resolve it.
For students who are satisfied with their research experience, remaining in one lab for the duration of their undergraduate careers can have significant benefits. Students who spend two or three years in the same lab often find that they have become fully integrated members of the research group. In addition, the continuity of spending several years in one lab group often allows students to develop a high level of technical expertise that permits them to work on more sophisticated projects and perhaps produce more significant results.
Students may volunteer, receive a course credit or apply for Harvard Research Fellowships. Students who are on Financial Aid Work-Study may apply it towards their research stipend. Please contact Undergraduate Research Advisor for advise on your specific situation.
Student Responsibilities in the Lab: Lab citizenship and effort
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.
One way for you to acknowledge the lab’s investment is to show that you appreciate the time that your mentors set aside from their own experiments to teach you. For example, try to be meticulous about letting your mentor know well in advance when you are unable to come to the lab as scheduled.
On the other hand, showing up in the lab at a time that is not on your regular schedule and expecting that your mentor will be available to work with you is unrealistic because they may be in the middle of an experiment that cannot be interrupted for several hours.
In addition to adhering to your lab schedule, show you respect the time that your mentor is devoting to you by putting 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 and not unusual for students, 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, especially for freshmen and sophomores, 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.
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.
For specific advise on fellowship selection and tips for writing research proposal please contact Undergraduate Research Advisor.