Preparing For A Career In Biological Research

Tips on how to work in a research laboratory and find funding for undergraduate research for a career in biological research.

These tips are designed to help high school students and college students gain valuable research experience prior to graduating from college. This assumes the student is already interested in biological research and wishes to pursue a career in the field.

Stay calm.

First and foremost, don't be intimidated. If you've made up your mind that research interests you, then go for it. People who work in research are attracted to self-motivated and confident students who bring something to the research community. A lab is a close-knit family, of sorts. You will work a lot with these people. They will be your friends and mentors as you grow. Treat them with respect, learn to love them, and your research experience will be that much greater. Have fun, stay calm, and enjoy yourself.

Prepare academically and assess your natural talents.

If you want to work in a biology lab, you must know basic biology. High school biology courses give a broad overview that introduce you to a variety of topics, but research requires a much greater depth of knowledge. It's to your advantage to take a college-level introductory biology course and lab. You won't learn everything you need to know, but it will provide a foundation on which you can build your experience. You will find that you have a natural interest in some topics. Pursue those. Read supplementary material that is not assigned in class--the more you know, the better prepared you are. When you are an expert on the subject, you will be able to ask intelligent questions and think critically about experimental results.



Take advantage of outreach programs and research scholarships

Many universities and colleges have programs designed to help students gain real research experience. Some programs offer basic lab training, some will provide a research stipend, and others may set up extra courses and seminars to help students find a lab that interests them. Look for these programs at colleges and universities in your area. Sometimes, even hospitals and clinics will let a bright, interested student work in a lab. A number of research grants and private scholarship funds are available from companies like Beckman Instruments and Pfizer, Inc. to pay an undergraduate working in a research lab. If your grades are good and if your project is sexy, your entire undergraduate education may be funded by companies and individuals supporting your research.

Know that you'll fall, but don't give up.

Research is hard work. Expect to put a lot of time into research. Most principal investigators expect 10-20 hours a week from their undergraduate students, but you have the most to gain from 30-40 hours a week (especially when you're still learning where everything is). No matter how you prepare academically, it still takes time to learn how things work in the lab. It will be overwhelming at first, but you soon learn the vocabulary and gain the skills you need to become a productive member of the lab. When you first start, you will probably be working with a graduate student or post-doctoral fellow (post-doc) on a project they've already started. Learn everything you can from this person, and ask about anything you don't understand. Don't be afraid to ask questions. Don't pretend to understand something if you don't know what they're talking about. That only hurts yourself. You'll have to go over some things three or four times before you get it. That's normal. If you want to make progress and learn valuable skills, you must learn things one step at a time.

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