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How do You Get Research Experience as an Undergraduate or Recently Graduated Student?, By: Fahmida Shaily Islam

Getting research experience is quite helpful for students. It helps determine your interests, enables you to get involved on campus, make connections, and gain valuable experience – particularly important if you plan to attend graduate school or thesis-based programs. However, departments in universities, labs, and healthcare have limited spaces. So, how do you get a research position while in university or if you have already graduated? Well, you need to do your research…before doing your research.

Step 1 – Preliminary Search for Information

For undergraduate students, the first step is to grasp what kind of research takes place at your university. One way to uncover this is by finding your university’s faculty lists online, along with links to their personal pages that often will list their current and past papers. Alternatively, you can also ask professors during office hours or by e-mail if they have any available positions at their labs. If you’re asking professors about research opportunities in-person and over e-mail, start by making a list of professors whose research and/or courses interest you, and check out their lab page. Having a better understanding of their work helps you understand how you can contribute to and gain skills from their future work.

 Important information to gather:

  • The general sense of the professor’s research interest: the big questions that their lab asks, why they ask those questions, and what kind of methods they use
  • What kind of technology (if any) does the lab use?
  • What their graduate students’ study
  • Their most recent or ongoing studies
  • What specific courses and skills they are looking for

Step 2 – Informed Outreach

Next, before e-mailing, check the website for each lab - if any exists. Most labs will have an opportunities page that will directly state whether they are looking for volunteers, independent study students, or any other positions available at their lab. Unless the lab states explicitly that they do not currently have any opportunities for students, it never hurts to send an e-mail. The e-mail can be brief. Start off with a brief introduction of the year of study, major, and how the research ties into your interest and future career plans. 

One of the most important tips that I have learned from a graduate student is to read the research produced by the lab of interest (as recommended in step 1) and go through their articles to get a sense of their work. This process can help you generate questions about the paper to include either in the e-mail or in the cover letter. The question could be about the paper itself, curiosity about the overall topic, or the outcome of using a different approach to the question. This helps show that you’ve thought more deeply about the article, and it also launches a discussion, especially for upper-year independent research project courses. 

For your very first research positions, without any prior experience, the trick is to look into multiple different places and speak about your interests and future career plans with professors and teaching assistants.

To do this, you can:

  • Take part in summer research opportunities (see below).
  • Look for volunteer opportunities
  • Ask and e-mail professors
  • Submit your relevant courses and grades

Places to look for research opportunities include:

  • Platforms such as the OCC,
  • Research programs and courses on-campus,
  • University job and volunteering opportunity boards,
  • E-mailing or talking to professors and teaching assistants, and,
  • Hospital and healthcare centres.

Step 3 - Keep Going

Last but not least, being informed in your approach means actively seeking out opportunities. Below is a compiled list of Ontario-based summer research opportunities to keep an eye out for that is mainly geared towards students:

  • SickKids Summer Research (SSuRe) Program
  • SRI Summer Student Research Program
  • For BIPOC in psychology, management or neuroscience: Canada Summer Research Opportunities Programme (Canada SROP)
  • Women’s College Hospital Summer Student Research program
  • Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital
  • Bloorview Research Institute Ward Family Summer Student Research Program