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CAREER ADVICE

Advice for those looking to join an academic lab

Good students are hard to find.

By DAVID SMITH | SEP 10 2014

Since taking up an assistant professor position in the biology department at Western University, I’ve received many emails from prospective students and postdocs wanting to volunteer, study or work in my lab. At least once or twice a day the ping of my phone reveals an email with the subject line: “Application for graduate program,” “Seeking postdoctoral position,” or “Volunteer Research Inquiry.”

These emails come from as far away as India and Iran or as close as the next building over, and they vary in length, style, content and quality. Unfortunately, because of limited resources, I have to decline most of the requests I receive, but I always try to reply with words of motivation and, when possible, with tips for improving the application.

When discussing the topic with my colleagues, most agree that the number of work and volunteer requests they receive is increasing, and the ones that they are least likely to consider are those that read like form letters. It is obvious when an email is written from a template with a few tweaks to make it appear personalized.

When directed at me, these tweaks typically involve inserting the words “algae” and “genome evolution,” the focus points of my research program. If a student or postdoc emails me saying, “I am very interested in studying green algal genomes,” I take it as a sign that they scanned my web page or publications for keywords and may not be aware or interested in the broader scientific questions that my collaborators and I are addressing. The boilerplate approach may be efficient and effective at targeting a large number of potential supervisors, but the success rate is low. As a mentor once told me, it is always best to go for sincerity over plurality.

Some students, when applying to work in an academic lab, provide a long, meticulous history of their research and scholarly achievements. These details are important, but they should be kept to a minimum in the cover letter. Let your CV, which will be attached to the application, speak for itself. Focus the letter on why you are interested in working in the lab.

What aspects of the given research excite you, what types of questions would you like to explore, and are your skill sets and passions geared towards any specific areas, such as computers, writing, design, statistics or bench work? Even better, describe any ideas you have for potential projects that fit within the lab’s current research mandate. This will demonstrate that you are actively thinking about the research and engaged in the literature.

One of the most important but challenging parts of undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral research is writing. Professors and lab managers will be seeking out students with excellent communication skills. Make sure your application is articulate and error-free. If English is not your first language, attach a writing sample to the application and offer to discuss the application further in person or on the telephone or Skype, which will show that you are confident in your English-speaking abilities.

Most academic research labs are hard-pressed for funding. Obtaining a scholarship or fellowship is your best bargaining chip, and for many labs it is the only way through the front door. Investigate all available funding opportunities before you contact potential supervisors. Make it obvious in your application that you are willing and keen to go after scholarships and enquire about internal awards that you may not be aware of.

One of the ways I began a dialogue with my eventual postdoctoral supervisor was by asking whether he would sponsor my Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada fellowship application. It was only after reading my NSERC proposal that he suggested we talk about other funding avenues in case the NSERC grant didn’t come through.

Ever since I began working in research laboratories, I have had principal investigators and colleagues say to me: “Good students are hard to find.” This may be true, but good supervisors and mentors are equally hard to find. Based on my experiences with supervisors, I would recommend choosing kindness over genius, patience as a teacher over fame as a researcher, and balanced optimism over relentless drive.

Think hard before accepting a position to study or volunteer in an academic lab. Search around and don’t necessarily accept your first offer. Be as critical about the PIs as they will be about you.

David Smith is an assistant professor of biology at Western University.

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  1. Heather Mitchell / September 22, 2014 at 9:59 am

    I think every would-be grad student should read this article. I work in a university and get these emails regularly and I am in no way connected to research, so the writers clearly haven’t done theirs. Great advice. I’m going to post this article in my office.

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